Aside of possessing a license to serve alcohol, many of our featured bars have little in common with each other. What they all share however, is at least one element that set them apart from the bars which have not made it onto The European Bar Guide: they are distinctive from the norm. Whether that be in comparison to local or Europe-wide offerings, this is the key to a venue’s appeal.
You don’t like a friend because they fill your life with platitudes and sedate you with banalities, you like them because they make you laugh, they provoke you, they inspire you. You don’t like them because they are just like everybody else. So it should be for pubs and bars.
There are so many ways for a bar to be distinct that probability would suggest this could be achieved without even consciously seeking to, yet, counter-intuitively, the opposite is now the case. Much like other venues which invite the general public in – hotels, restaurants – pub and bar concepts tend to coalesce around existing successful templates, going further still by smoothing off any round edges some of us would label characterful, to put off as few people as possible. This is no way to run to a pub.
The assault on The Distinctive is a fight with casualties and collateral damage. It is held on all-fronts, yielding capitulations, self-inflicted wounds, delusions and, eventually, a profound sense of betrayal.
Such is its supremacy that the victors – the chain pub, the bland dining room, the exposed industrial chic craft beer venue, the poor facsimile of a Manhattan cocktail bar, etc have now become the new median; the yardstick on which other places are measured and compared against. The consequences of this peculiar state of affairs are wide-ranging, but the chief one pulls all others into its gravitational orbit: Rather than each venue being naturally expected to be distinct and individual, they are now expected to be reliably familiar.
‘It is often safer to be in chains than to be free’
There is no getting away from it – this attack on individuality and distinction, even if it sometimes is perpetrated by misguided landlords, begins at corporate level. With a few exceptions, the larger the business, the more corporate behaviour dictates what follows. Inoffensiveness and reliability widens the target audience, bland duplication, winnowing of choice and economies of scale maximise profit. Corporate trend-setting at the macro-scale then provokes trend-following at the micro-scale– the bland dictact of corporate ventures is optimistically copied in ever shoddier facsimiles the lower down the rungs you descend. This dynamic is where individuality, distinction and quite often good taste goes to die.
But, we all have to make money, right?
Well, indeed, but what if this is dynamic is not a recipe for financial success at the micro-scale? If you take a look around, you’ll start to note that the first pubs and bars to go out of business tend not to be those that have struck harmony of character and atmosphere, nor have they bravely gone against the grain with a striking concept nor through having fostered a community spirit – nope: failing pubs and bars are almost overwhelmingly the low-budget attempts to ape successful corporate templates, usually after having gone through the self-harm process outlined in the 4th paragraph above: capitulation to external pressure, self-inflicted wounds as a result of delusions and trend-following misjudgements, then death-spiral of the venue and sense of betrayal when these go wrong.
This is not all the fault of those running the day-to-day operations. Restrictions imposed from on high (think pubcos, breweries, freeholders) can drastically impede the ability of any intrepid visionaries who have the bare faced cheek to desire a notch or two higher existence than mechanically running a cookie-cutter chain pub.
And, if none of these get in the way, don’t be surprised if a local council or freeholder decides the building itself requires demolition or transformation into flats for our buy-to-let overlords to expand their portfolio – usually with the effect that the ground-floor pub no longer complies with licensing laws and has to be shut so as to not offend the vacant flats above it with its ability to bring the local community together.
There is something uniquely sad about the sight of a closed pub.
This all adds up to an environment where it is more difficult, or off-putting to run a distinctive bar than it is a recognisable, safety-first one. The polar opposite of what would happen if individuals had more freedom to control the pubs they run. Visit places with lower rent and less corporate culture – Poland, Czechia, Lithuania, and you’ll see what I mean.
‘We imagine that we want to escape our commonplace existence, but we cling desperately to our chains.’
That there are in fact thousands of distinctive places with cult followings, making money hand over fist and not playing by their rules is irrelevant to larger corporations and umbrella firms because they cannot produce boilerplate versions of these at will to satisfy the short term profit demands of their shareholders. This would require them to empower their subordinates to make decisions they don’t understand – which could never be allowed to happen. Proving further: this dynamic is where distinction and individuality goes to die.
How do the distinctive bars survive?
The answer in some cases is not far removed from the reason chains survive. In a Pub City like Sheffield, United Kingdom for example, so many characterful old pubs thrive – and so the economic lesson is that this is just”what people like”. It’s a somewhat Pavlovian conclusion. Yet only 60 miles up the road in Leeds, many of its similar pubs have gone (in fact there may be only 1/10th of a similar offering). Modern bars and gentrified chain pubs have replaced them. Ask around about the sparsity of the kind of pubs you’d find in Sheffield and you will be told “that’s just what people like”. There is a wider ignorance, shared by both cities, that all the above styles are entirely viable in each other’s cities. There is, for whatever reason, near total disinterest in finding out whether that’s true.
There are of course, absolute one-offs as well – for example, Le Pot Au Lait in Liege, or Papa Joe’s in Cologne that, due to vision, passion and hard work have created something so distinct that they are reasons to visit the cities in and of themselves. Arguably works of art, as well as bars, they have fostered loyalty and tradition by daring to be different and aiming higher. It’s unrealistic to expect these to come along every day – or is it? Perhaps not, if licensing laws were liberalised, rental costs democratised and modern technology harnessed to network the disparate groups of artists, enthusiasts and financiers needed to bring these places together.
The backlash against chains and the ooze of the bland in England, and to an extent, Czechia, comes in the form of the micro-pub, or pivoteka, an operation so small as to fit into a normal retail unit, reviving the concept of the 19th century knajpe. A saloon or taproom designed to fit 20 or so customers, focusing on quality products and community activity. These venues are often full of ad hoc features and from-me-shed-son level joinery that at least remind you that you aren’t in a Green King chain pub or Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant. It has got to the point where even a badly finished tenon joint looks somewhat like a labour of love.
Community ties, or people-power, is often our last line of defence. At any one time there are hundreds of petitions and campaigns to save one pub or other from closure, which underline that the needs of pub users often feature a distant last place in order of priority, while having scant means to even assert that meagre authority. Where you see landlords and their clientele fighting tooth-and-nail for the love of a pub, you know that these people appreciate that something bigger is at stake.
Once you realise that pub customer features in dead last place – once that’s at the centre of your thinking – you can no longer trot out the same tired slosh defence of bland pubs, bland drinks and bland food that “it’s just what people like”. If you can only open the curtains so wide that you can see part of a garden, then you have no knowledge of the trees, shrubs, flowerbeds and so forth hidden from view. They can’t be appreciated, but that does not mean they don’t (or can’t) exist.
The risk extends further than this analogy, because that in the world of pubs and bars the garden is being metaphorically (and in some cases actually) paved over so that the whole concept of trees, shrubs, flowerbeds is being pushed so far to the recesses of memory that the audience will forget even that they can desire them. This is how it works – this is the world some at the top really want. This is why European Bar Guide will always champion pubs and bars who fight for a distinct identity.
And lastly, something to ponder:
‘The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken’