Interview with Jack Anderton, European Bar Guide Founder

Meet European Bar Guide Founder Jack Anderton. In 2017 Jack set up the website and blog theeuropeanbarguide.com with its stated aim of ‘guiding you to the greatest pubs and bars in Europe’. But how did this come about, and where is it going? We seek to find out more:

Casting our minds back, it’s February 2017, The European Bar Guide goes live. As of today there are over 800 guide entries, back then, it launched with 134. What led to that point?

By 2017 I had extensively travelled around Europe, mainly in the 4 or 5 years previous, and after hundreds of nights out in my 20s I started to realise I had a pretty good memory for names and places from those experiences! They spanned a wide enough range that it struck me I could gather these together and write about them. I was already dipping my toe into travel writing and have always been keen to help people and share my knowledge if it helps improve people’s experiences. A bar guide gave an opportunity to speak from a true position and base of knowledge while doing something other people really hadn’t done before.

You say there hadn’t been a bar guide up until that point, however there were websites around that time that were similar, no?

Yes and no. Ron Pattinson’s ‘European Beer Guide’ is exclusively beer focused. It was a Web 1.0 effort at its inception and about helping the public find a good beer hall or pub. It remains genuinely useful but it doesn’t touch the huge range of other venues. Not through neglect, just because it wasn’t an interest of his. Also, not through any fault of his own, some of the content was already becoming out of date. Our name makes specific that we are a guide about venues first and foremost.

In the UK a lot of pub media is focused on beer and food, with the social aspects of pubs often left as an afterthought.

True, so you can find where the nearest cask ale is, and you can buy huge books telling you where to find good beer, which is great, but no-one warns you: ‘Hang on a second, some of those venues are mediocre at best’. They say ‘Go to the mediocre venue just because it has some pale ales’. Many people don’t work like that, I certainly don’t.

Similar with food, you can find out what ‘pub’ does Michelin star food or has Rosettes to its name but they won’t tell you they ceased being a pub in the 1990s and have sold out totally to being a dining room.

I don’t like that either.

We should try to popularise ‘dining room’ or at least call them restaurants and restrict the use of pub to any venue that has some space simply for socialising and drinking.

I have found ‘World’s Best 50 Bars’ and ‘Best Bars Europe’ come up when searching along similar lines to The European Bar Guide, are they not covering the same turf?

Other sites that attempt to do similar to us such as the corporate ‘World’s Best 50 Bars’, or ‘Best Bars Europe’ do a good job but in a narrow range, as well as only serving middle and upper classes. Where are the rock clubs, the great down and dirty dive bars, the oddities, the venues that just fall into the gaps? Aren’t we all part of society and shouldn’t we all be part of this conversation? So I thought: how about a resource for bars that gives them equal weight, that says “you may not like a smoky bar that’s falling to bits with two shit drinks available – but others absolutely love the authenticity and character of such places”, and the flipside too – “you may think hi-spec décor and world class cocktails are pretentious, but they can be part of an amazing venue others find special.”

For a long time people relied on guide book recommendations and more recently lifestyle blog posts for where to go.

That’s right, yet both options are fairly flawed and leave big gaps. Guide book recommendations play it safe and will offer up the least offensive centrally-located venues that are bland and often quite touristy too. Another main motivation for my guide is to help visitors to new places move on from Irish Pubs and ‘bar and grill’ type places guide books recommend.

In respect of blogs, they can be very useful but you must remember you are viewing somewhere unknown through a prism of someone else’s likes and dislikes. A blog like The Culture Trip is purposefully aspirational: light, clean, immaculate and studiously well presented – also likely to completely ignore a huge part of the market because it doesn’t fit the audience they are aiming at.

What about your own preferences?

I have preferred styles, no doubt about that, but I don’t ignore the others, that would defeat the object! The question is: “Is this venue a good example of the style?”

You have a cut off point for which venues make or don’t make the guide don’t you? Tell us a bit about how that works.

To be included a bar has to be rated 7.5/10 or higher. That isn’t to say every visit is a guaranteed 7.5/10, but by giving a bar that score it is saying ‘if you like bars like this, you’re in for at least a good quality experience if you go at the right time of day/week’. If a bar is rated in the 9s, it’s much more likely to be good to some extent almost whenever you go.

Why is that?

Because those are the sorts of bars that have other aspects that make them interesting and enjoyable busy or quiet, summer or winter, daytime or night time.

What is that 7.5/10 score based on? You have a criteria for that, right?

Yes, so we consider: A) Quality and/or range of drinks B) Style and décor C) Character and atmosphere D) Amenities & Events/Community Value and E) Value for Money

So a bar can make your guide even if it is highlight deficient in one or two areas?

(Laughs) Yes. It’s possible for a bar to have 1 drink and still be guide-worthy. It’s possible, although I don’t think it’s happened yet, for a bar to simply be a plain room and still be included. It’s possible for there to be nothing to do except sit, drink and chat and still be a great pub, and yes, there are some venues which are inescapably very expensive. However, on the flip side, a good venue can become a standout if it offers rare value for money.

What makes you the sole arbiter of a good bar then?

I’m certainly not the only voice that goes into European Bar Guide! We receive recommendations from all over, and if we like the look of them, they are starred as a recommendation on our site map for everyone’s benefit. You will see Recommended Venues in blue and Verified Venues in yellow, these are when we have personally visited and seen they are up to scratch. The more help we have, the more reliable the content, it’s that simple.

You obviously need some skill or eye for this though, right?

Or you just need to be one of the few people actually doing it to get away with being mediocre at it…

What does it involve for you? Presumably you aren’t stood there with a clipboard checking things off?

I can just imagine what the tapsters in a few Czech pubs would say to that…

My view is that you turn up to have a good time first and foremost. If you’re having a good time you can reflect on what the venue is adding to your experience without stepping out of being in that moment. The important thing is recognising that can be had in a pub in a wide range of circumstances, anything from solo sinking into the furniture in candlelit in some Amsterdam brown cafe just as it can be dancing in a great live music venue. Our guide – unlike every other one going in my opinion – recognises that all these different kinds of venues and experience are valid. We don’t ignore them because they don’t tick marketing boxes, far from it, we try to amplify and exhibit the venues that miss out for those reasons.

Visiting some of these venues for the first time must involve a deep intake of breath. What makes you want to enter some locals’ den when you can’t speak the language and you don’t know anyone?

The thought of finding something truly authentic, whether that’s a style of service or a rhythm to the venue that stands out or a traditional particular to the place. This can be a Spanish tapas bar or it can be a knife-thrower in Hungary.

What the hell is that?

You mean you haven’t checked our Glossary?

Kesdobalo, or ‘Knife-thrower’ refers to the type of venue where once of a day Hungarian men had to poke their heads through the curtain at the entrance to see if a fight was about to kick off. If so, they would take their wives or girlfriend elsewhere.

Do you get nervous at all?

Less and less. It’s about anticipation. When you have a venue you know you want to visit, it seems more stupid to have gone all that way only to back out through nerves. I have had experiences in the past where I’ve totally frozen, either because the waiting staff at firing phrases at me in a different language, or there’s no space to sit and so no refuge. In Cheb in 2016 I walked past a fantastic pub filled with young people, the sort of place I would rave about, but backed out of going in as the idea of standing out in there made me too anxious. That wouldn’t happen today. I can use the nervous energy to help break the ice. An exception is perhaps tapas bars which are so naturally social you look like a pariah or even worse milling about on your own, especially eating dishing designed for sharing with several others.

Tell us about the best and worst experiences on your travels….

One of the best was, by total chance, meeting writer Ian Mcdonald in Lublin. He was over for a comic convention and had some local chaperones showing him the sights. We met in a craft beer bar called U Fotografa which sadly closed a couple of years afterwards, but had rotating cameras inset into the walls and every craft style under the sun available. We got chatting and the next thing you know we’re going on a day trip to a historic town (Kazimierz Dolny) the following day, and giving each other drunken bear hugs at 3 in the morning. Those are experiences you never forget and would never happen unless you put yourself in those situations.

Worst, BO Baras in Kaunas sticks out. The pub was great, at that time a down to earth, funky, but not aspirational or social climbing student hangout. Problem was, I was struggling with an upset stomach and there only to slowly nurse a drink. I meet a local, which should have been a positive, but we proceed to have a torturous, flat conversation. He isn’t interested in me, I am tired and probably boring him to death, but even after that point he still tries to get me to a strip club. It just seems like the most listless interaction I have ever had.

The strip club didn’t happen I take it.

God no.

Tell us about some of the weirdest places you’ve visited?

Weird is lots of things. There’s a pub in Bristol with 15+ cats, another one with a train set running around the perimeter of the pub. There is, or should I say was – it’s recently closed – a tiny bar called Paka Pub in Wroclaw where you were surrounded by a giant lizard sculpture stalking across 4 walls. Calgary Antik Bar in Budapest is an elderly woman with a brain damaged dog and a fluffy cat. You drink in amongst her collection of possessions, it’s rather like slipping into a dream state. Retsins Lucifernum in Bruges is much more affected, staged and camp gothic yet still totally and utterly bizarre, hilarious and brilliant. Dracula’s Butler dropping his trousers at middle-aged women, dozens of portraits with pinholes for eyes, and amazing Pisco Sours by the Peruvian lady who works the bar. Kulminator in Antwerp is a husband and wife team who will turn you away if you say ‘drink’ instead of ‘taste’ at their front door, their living room is becoming impossibly filled with clutter, and Dirk is mostly found chuntering or laid out flat on the bench but it is the most charming place and a labour of love. That type of venue can only become what it is through generations of dedication.

Having seen all of these things, what still gets you excited about this project? Is it a grass is always greener thing?

I’m really interested in survivors, people running the kind of place where 95% shut down years ago, and the remaining few are due to go extinct. Without fail I find there has been an outstanding reason why that is, either incredible people, incredible venues or both. Capturing that magic while the venue is still open is a special experience, albeit bittersweet knowing that I may never get to return.

There are such places still in Belgium, England, Spain etc, they are part of our folk culture. No Greene King renovation could ever make anything like the backroom in Fagans, Sheffield, for example. When things like that go, they will never come back, that makes something as mundane as a room with some chairs in as valuable as gold dust. Because they have that special something, the genius loci you sometimes see patronisingly mentioned, and that is priceless.

I’m also interested in new movements – for instance: will craft beer bars find a way of moving on from the template they’ve been using for 20 years and innovate, or will they also become a sort of historical document? If they manage to innovate, will that actually come from somewhere unexpected like central and Eastern Europe rather than the UK where our brewers are still perched at Lands End with a pair of binoculars trying to work out what Americans are doing.

Lastly, there are always bars I’ve missed for whatever reason, and new bars to find which are just as wonderful as those I’ve already visited. And there are bars to return to and rejoice in their continuing presence. In the last 12-13 months I’ve visited 14 of the top 25 or so in our list, most not as part of any pilgrimage but just as a happy consequence of being somewhere.

We also have to visit places familiar to others but new to us – Scandinavia, a few capital cities it may shock you we haven’t been to yet.

Go on?

Paris, Rome, Copenhagen.

Surely not…

Oh yes. We can’t be everywhere at once, which is why it is so important that people see themselves as part of the European Bar Guide as well and tell us, tell others about great bars near them so that we can build this great resource.

On that note, what are your future plans and where do you see this going?

We are slowly but surely creating a page for every single bar we have personally added to the guide (over 800) and by 2023 that should be live. This will transform the site because instead of sending you off to Google you will have a lot of relevant information at your fingertips.

Our Top 100 feature was very popular and still drives a lot of traffic even though it’s from 2019. After the Covid-hiatus we are going to bring that back.

We are also adding more to our Days Out feature which is very popular. People taking weekend breaks really get a lot from those.

In terms of growth, I would obviously like to transition from hobbyist to full-time writer. What that looks like and whether it directly involves this site, I am not sure. However, I have a plan involving Prague Pubs….

You always seem to have a plan involving Prague Pubs….

(Laughs) They are the alpha and omega aren’t they? But yes, the plan is an e-book showing Prague as a city in 100 pubs. Hopefully that will create interest and begin the process of making a small return from my input. There is a ‘Pissheads Guide’ created by Max Bahnson, but my book isn’t intending to move onto that territory, but to be a little more formal and cross-cultural, while also giving a healthy bit of space for the putykas, pajzls and 4th Grade hospodas around the city too. In short, to create the book I would dearly have liked to find when I started going to Prague.

Which was when?

2007!

Last question: How’s your liver?

Better than my back.