El Bosc De Les Fades, Barcelona

Passatge de la Banca, 7, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10 
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Translating to The Forest of the Fairies, this high concept bar is set down an alley entrance to a Wax Museum, and although it is listed as secret (how secret can a bar with over 1000 Google reviews really be?) you’ll find it signposted clearly enough on an arch set off La Rambla.

El Bosc definitely ranks highly for oddness – it is one of those special bars decorated with such care and attention that you can turn your head in any direction and see something new. The main area is quite a sight to behold when you enter in, with tree trunks shooting up and branches crawling along the ceiling to create an enclosed forested feel. Fairy lights make a prominent, predictable appearance, but it’s tastefully done. The central room is largely cleared of furniture to allow more people to congregate. As you’d expect with this décor and this location – it’s a popular spot, both with tourists and locals. No surprise – there’s nowhere else like it after all.

Luckily, there are plenty of other places in the bar to wander to, should you find the going a little bit congested. You will find a small area similar to a snug in a traditional pub (rather unexpected in such a place), a completely different back room with origami beetles in the window, a medieval style rocking bed to sit on, a table held forward by a toy soldier. Then another room, where suddenly the bar turns into a lush upholstered Victorian bedroom with pretty white furniture and billowing curtains – presumably the fairy’s bedroom? Who even knows anymore?! Then, follow through a corridor with huge machine like cogs on the wall and lampshades that look like bats, and a wall covered in backlit butterflies. I wasn’t high or anything, I can assure you. Wherever you turn, something new.

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The beers are the usual limited Spanish arrangement, and aren’t especially cheap (it’s La Rambla, so no surprise). Probably your best option is Voll-Damm, a double pilsner with just enough flavour and just clean-tasting enough to be inoffensive. But hey, at least it’s not Fosters. Voll-Damm services the visit well enough. Grab a bottle and get wandering down.

I visited El Bosc with my partner and we both felt the bar strikes a good tone, not too masculine or too twee, but occasionally fanciful and macabre, likely to appeal to both sexes and anything in between. It’s also pretty cosy if you get the right seat.

If you ever fancied combining a night out with the aesthetics of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this is your chance. No, this place doesn’t quite have have the raw power of an alternative bar, indeed it’s been lavished with money and attention to the extent it moves past a ruin-bar feel and there are some areas that verge on anodyne, but it’s so unusual, outstanding in its distinctiveness, so well-done in its execution, you can hardly walk past it without popping in for a drink and a nosey around. With any luck you’ll get a spot on the swing!

Although we always love obtuse and obscure selections on European Bar Guide, when the mainstream knuckles down and devotes some effort into making something fabulous, it can be well worth your time and attention. El Bosc goes way past the call of duty, pushing beyond the normal boundaries and expectations. When you leave, or perhaps even during your stay you may find yourself reassessing the question – what actually is a bar?

 

 

 

Leopold’s Delicatessen, Split

Ujevićeva poljana 3, 21000, Split, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Although I am about to praise this bar and urge you to visit, I should firstly state that I really hate its name. Yes, Leopold is a nice guy who knows his stuff, and that’s a cool name but ‘Delicatessen’ seems sickly sweet for a beer bar. The quicker it is reduced to Leopold‘s or even Leo’s the better! Get in touch with Leo and tell him yourself!

There have been some comments made online that alternative beer is now mainstream in Split, which may be well-intentioned to promote the place, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that isn’t the case at all. Most of the time you’ll be stuck drinking Croatia’s terrible trio of crap lagers or Staropramen if you’re lucky. Yes, Split remains by far the best city for drinking good beer in Croatia, but even then, you could count the number of good bars also selling good beer in the old town itself on one hand, and some of those are not especially good value, leading to a loss of local custom – the net result is they become touristy and lose their charm. Those that manage to retain local custom and offer something worth visiting rather than a generic Caffe Bar experience are thin on the ground in Split, and pretty much non-existent across most of Croatia.

Leopold’s is certainly one of the standout bars in the city centre, not just for beer but for atmosphere and somewhere you must bookmark to visit while in Split. This place is a beer bar, first and foremost – you’ll see some ad hoc meat and cheese slicing going on at the bar, sure, but the reason everyone is here is to try Croatian craft beer, perhaps taking a dip into the fridge for a reasonable interesting array of bottle offerings.

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On tap are some really beautiful tasting Croatian beer which will seem like you stepped into a parallel universe after spending your days in Croatia drinking their depressingly bad mainstream brands Karlovacko, Pan and Ozujsko.

There are 4 taps on rotation, all with Croatian beer from small breweries across the country, (though they also sold the way over-exposed mainstream beer Punk IPA too, which may pass for interesting in Croatia but not for a British traveller).

Thankfully the Croatian beer I tried was pretty good, one by Nova Runda and a single hop version of L.A.B’s Barba the standouts. They have brewed these beers carefully so as to not scare the locals, not over-hopped, but with enough punch and unfiltered flavour to be comfortably superior to all the mainstream Croatian beers. Good for a session, you might say, that milder drinkability that suits Mediterranean summer drinking. Thanks for not going the Polish/US craft route of slamming as many bitter hops in there as possible. The place is also interested in scotch whisky and bourbon if you are too.

The bar itself is pretty interesting to look at, with some nice mosaic-tiled patio furniture and vinyl records stuck to the ceiling. There’s also a swing seat in the middle of the bar which is a bit of a novelty, and a classic ‘dive’ bar layout that will instantly appeal. Leopold’s also seems to have a slightly annexed looking terrace which was well-appointed but the surroundings feel featureless (like a parking lot) – not the best from the options available.

However, the splicani prefer to congregate outside (this is common practise in the country and probably why there are so few Croatian bars with interest interior décor), and at some point as the evening progresses you will probably find yourself sharing space with some annoying American backpackers. Leopold seems to arrange tastings in advance with large groups – unfortunately halfway through my visit 20 Americans darkened their doors and the staff immediately began catering for them, seemingly exclusively. Perhaps that was bad timing but being moved from my seat and then having to listen to them droning on left a sour note, and not the good kind you get from a quality lambic.

They organise events such as live music on the terrace, barbecues (don’t miss out on these if you get the chance!) and seasonal beer like Oktoberfest, another excuse to skip past the bad macro lager in Croatia.

I have every confidence if you can dodge the worst excesses of the passing tourist trade Leopold’s is one of the best, certainly in the top 3 bars in the old town of Split. Agree? Disagree? Join the chat on facebook

De Pilsener Club (De Engelse Reet), Amsterdam

Begijnensteeg 4, 1012 PN Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –9/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Brown cafés warrant the name because of their shared characteristics, but the term is best served as a general guide to indicate a few of their recurring themes rather prescribing a precise template. Exploration of these pubs across Belgium and Netherlands will reveal a surprising diversity in décor and atmosphere.

Some emerged from a jazz/blues tradition and are decorated accordingly, even hosting live acts as a revival or preservation of that. There are some upscale brown cafes which take their cues from the roaring twenties: high society, art nouveau and all that. There are English/French style taverns which blend vaulted beams and thick wood with the bric-a-brac décor and beer ephemera you’d expect in a brown café. There there are working class venues with a simple format: rickety furniture, dusty floors, yellowed walls and good booze.

It seems though, whichever angle the owner deigns to take, the fundamental basics of what constitute a great pub are inherent in the DNA of a brown café which put them at a distinct advantage. Whether it’s the fantastic Belgian beer, their aforementioned styling choices, their character and atmosphere that evolves over the course of a day and remains as appealing whether you’re sat there on your own or among a tangle of people, you have to go pretty far to mess this concept up.

The rather crappily-named De Pilsener Club goes by another far better name ‘De Engelse Reet’, or ‘English Arse’. This place is one of Amsterdam’s core historic brown cafes dating back to 1893, and this place is content to be down-to-earth and working class.

There is a no-bullshit attitude to the entire arrangement: it’s brown alright, from the walls to the tables and chairs, and the floor has that aged spit-and-sawdust type look to it that probably has been cleaned daily but has been around so long it has received stains and wear that won’t rub out. Characterful, basically. A notable quirk is that there is no bar at all, all drinks are prepared in a backroom and then brought out.

Drinking is done across a set of communal tables along a small rectangular room with a fairly high ceiling, so you get a cosy surrounding but a woozy sense of space if you look up. The lighting and ambience gives that sense that it could be virtually any time of day and feel the same.

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Drinking pilsener isn’t even half of the point of being here. The purpose of your visit is to drink some high quality, and invariably strong Belgian and specialist Dutch ale in these surroundings. Trappiste, abbey, lambics, micro-brewery stuff. These are proudly displayed above the head of the bar. Alternatively (or potentially in addition to) you can try their decent enough range of jenevers or order a cocktail (I’m not sure why you would feel the need to do the latter in a place such as this, but alcohol is a strange master at times).

There is a nice range of clientele in the place that give it a nice community feel. Old men sipping their beer over a newspaper, groups of youngster sharing conversation, couples diving in from the bad weather (in our case), business folk holding-forth over the worn-through tables. It is the kind of place which manages to be inclusive without turning itself into a safety first bland chain pub, and maintains what it wants to be without discriminating in the ageist and stylist fashion many craft beer pubs do. Of course, being in central Amsterdam will help, but natural advantages still count.

Beer isn’t cheap in Western Europe these days, and it’s no exception in here. Expect to pay 5 euros and upwards for a 0.25l pouring or a 0.33l bottle, although keep content in the knowledge the quality is among the best you’re likely to get. Given the savings to be made elsewhere in the city centre are 20 cents here and there at most, and that a pint of Heineken regularly clocks in at 5.50+ these days, it seems churlish to complain about paying 5 euros for a Rochefort 8. You certainly pay more in England.

As the evening progresses and the alcohol takes effect, the browns and off-whites of the room form a rather comforting hue, and the hubbub of conversation adds to that great calming melange where you really wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. And that’s great because it stays open until 2am.

In most towns and cities this place would be the best pub by a country mile. Up against seriously stiff competition in Amsterdam, De Pilsener Club eschews all gimmickery, sell-out concessions, and, if you excuse the waiter’s rather formal attire, modernisation of any kind, and does a good trade being what it is, a thoroughly likable, characterful place for a drink and a good time. Google reviews are almost uniformly positive about the place and after a visit it’s easy to see why. Mark my words, their words and place it firmly on your hitlist.

 

Café Jubilee, Valletta

Konvoj Ta’ Sta Marija, Malta
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Sometimes quiet towns and cities can churn up such desperation for a drink that you’re prepared to lower your standards with alarming ease, as you wander past boarded up shops and sleeping houses in search of nightlife, or in lieu of that human adults that aren’t already in bed at 10pm.

Malta’s capital Valletta certainly knows how to make a beer drinking pub-goer concerned, as although it may be pretty and characterful, on an average evening out of season you may find its large old town to be packed away and fast-asleep in the manner of an English market town on a Sunday circa 1950. As with many countries with a warm climate, a bulk of the usual pub characters you’d see propping up the bar in an English pub or holding forth at the stamgast table in Germany or Czechia (craggy old men, let’s be honest) instead start the day with a pint and a cig at a drop-in bar, and are safely home for tea, bed and chronic farting by the time most of Northern Europe are venturing out.

It’s vital to do some digging if you want to hang around all evening in Valletta, as turning up on spec could lead to a good hour of traipsing around fruitlessly for drinking options, something which can become more confusing on account of the inconsistent labeling of streets on printed maps flitting from Maltese to English whenever it feels like it.

Café Jubilee is a shining star in this void, a bar I’d be eager to frequent were it in my town. Tasteful, sometimes striking art nouveau frames fill each inch of wall space making it a very stylish and atmospheric place for a drink, regardless of how many people are there, yet it is a popular place, predominantly with young people, and tables fill up during the evening. Grab any table you get the chance to. I’d say it goes past simply being tasteful and really crams in the art pieces to build a memorably busy-looking atmosphere.

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There is an unavoidable café element to the place, with that being the daytime purpose, and the furniture style being more in that direction, but I felt it transformed sufficiently on an evening to be a typical evening bar, a meeting place with a communal vibe developing that makes it feel more homely as the evening progresses, bubbling up to that pleasant background hubbub that combined with the elegant surroundings could be transporting you to Paris or Brussels.

It’s also a place to find Farson’s Blue Label on tap, reasonably rare as most other places tapping from Malta’s big brewery, one of many true oddities on the island serve only Cisk, a decent if not outstanding lager. The combination of cask bitter and the cosy, ornate surroundings are just the tonic to a city pub scene lacking on a number of levels. Service and price are not notable for the area, but neither are they offensive, and the service is likewise understated rather than fantastic, but those are minor issues. The bar is open until 1-am (wahey!).

The good news is Café Jubilee are stationed in Gzira and Gozo too, providing further pleasant places of refuge as you navigate options that fall between tacky ex-pat pubs and generic Mediterranean café bars. Along with the strip of stylish night bars that open on weekend evenings down the centre artery of town Café Jubilee is an essential port of call during your stay in Valletta, as the exemplary reviews elsewhere attest to.

 

Józef K, Gdańsk

Piwna 1/2, 22-100 Gdańsk, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Any trip I make to a new city invariably involves researching local breweries and popular pubs in advance (this blog wouldn’t be up to much if I didn’t), which I find to be an enjoyable way to drum up excitement for an impending holiday, and useful so as to ensure you aren’t wasting your precious time abroad chancing it in drab dumps. There is always space for the odd unforeseen opportunity, however, and the ‘rabbit hole’ experience where you find to your surprise and delight you have found somewhere by accident is one to cherish. When you plan, be careful not to micro-manage those opportunities away.

While breweries are easy enough to seek out, for various reasons it can be difficult to filter out drab mainstream bars and Irish Pubs while google searching for bars abroad (thanks Lonely Planet for the gazillionth Irish Pub recommendation, you lazy middle aged wankers). In order to drill down to find alternative pubs and bars where locals go, or where there is anything different going on it can take a bit of persevering. Depending on the country, if you can’t find anything, that may mean it just doesn’t exist (eg. Croatia), but Poland is one of those countries where even if good bars aren’t obvious at first, it doesn’t mean they aren’t around.

Jozef K was one such place I probably would have walked straight past if it wasn’t for word of mouth recommendation from a guy I know who had recently visited. Granted, it is located on Piwna (‘Beer Street’) in Gdansk, one of the main nightlife spots in an old town not short of good options, but has no courtyard and the entrance is so plain you would never get an idea what was inside unless someone told you, or unless you were morbidly fascinated by the plain exterior of that particular building.

The bar is situated in a modernist building with impressive and elegant narrow windows stretching from the ceiling downwards. Strangely enough I can’t remember too many bars with such windows, of a kind which reminded me, weirdly, of the science block at my secondary school. These soaring windows allow quite a deal of light into the bar, and you’ll find the place operates with the lights off until fairly well into the evening.

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The style of the place is salvaged defunct scientific equipment + antique furniture which is a combination which could look odd, but when placed together and mounted so they all align with each other creates an impressive feel like a museum of professor’s study that has gone rogue and become a bar. Certainly techy and geekier than your usual retro chic bar, but pointedly elegant with it. It borders on the ‘ruin bar’ aesthetic but manages to be its own thing really well. There’s lots of stuff to look at, so when you’re tucking into a lovely strong Polish beer you can let your eyes wander around the room appreciating the effort, which stands apart appreciably even among those bars it is inspired by. That good.

Jozef K also appears to be the place to see and be seen if you’re a millennial in Gdansk, and in the evenings there are groups of townie types who will appear after 10pm, who don’t quite appear to understand or appreciate the aesthetic but have an intrinsic understanding of their obligation to be there. The seating is a little sparse which reflects how quickly the transition from sleepy afternoon place to buzzing night venue takes place. It gets very lively indeed.

Jozef K’s beer choice is admirable, as nearby brewery Browar Amber is represented well  – one smaller brewery that pre-dates the Polish craft ale explosion and serves beer in styles tradition to the region. Being a Pomeranian brewery, their offerings are largely Germanic, with interesting bocks, double pilsners and pszeniczne, a useful word to learn (psheh-neetch-nay) as it means wheat beer! It’s great to see the brewery concentrate on heritage styles rather than copying the popular US styles as so many other Polish breweries have opted for. The price at the bar is typically competitive for Western wallets – not necessarily the best value for the city but for an English tourist paying between £1.50-£2 for a beer will not break the bank.

Jozef K deservedly earns a reputation as a good all-rounder. The atmosphere and style is good, the vast majority of the other visitors are Danzig born and bred, good cheap and slightly different beer and it seems to occupy an important role in the local pub scene. The music works well for the environment and it moves seamlessly from stylish and studious cafe bar to lively night bar. There are no real lows to think of and a visit comes highly recommended.