Drink Locally

New Bars = Zero Ambience

So why am I here?

November 9, 2009

This post is kind of a rant. A reasonable rant, but a rant just the same.

It was my intrepid drinking buddy Lucy who made the following vital observation as we were out bar hopping on Saturday night. "The problem with these new bars is that they might as well be coffee shops," she said. And at that moment everything that had been bothering me about investigating the latest watering holes became crystal clear.

I’ve been to three brand new Portland bars in the last week, and I couldn’t find much to say about any of them. The drinks were fine, the bar menu adequate, the service attentive. So how come I didn’t want to return to any of them?

Because I was bored stiff. None of the rooms engaged me in the slightest. Nothing about these places encouraged me to stay a while.

All three of the bars I visited were sterile, scrubbed, and sorely lacking in any sort of atmosphere. All three were basically just rooms with booze in them. Cement walls, tables and chairs, a few TVs, exposed ducts, and not much else. I’ve been in Kinkos that had more bonhomie. See, if I wanted to drink in a dull, nondescript room, I have my house!

When I was in high school, any safe harbor to sneak a forbidden sip or two was enough. A basement, a park, a tree house, under a bridge, it didn’t matter. Now I require a space that embraces my battered psyche, with a design sensibility that helps diffuse my ever-escalating rage levels.

This is not to say I prefer to tipple in rat-infested hell holes, but you can’t fake heart and soul. What kind of bar is it? Where’s the polished wood accents? Where are the old timers? Where’s the food? (Sidebar: If I go to one more joint where my only chow options are salads and sandwiches, I’m gonna have a kanipshin. Yes, I am aware that starting up a business is expensive and risky, especially in this leaky boat of an economy, but a toaster oven and a lettuce crisper is not a kitchen.)

Note to would-be bar owners: It is crucial that your establishment have an inviting vibe, preferably with seating that you can melt into. Music should be at conversation level. It should have a sense of time and place, an idea, a concept, an aesthetic. Four walls and some chairs aren’t enough. Not if you want my drinking dollar. I need a destination that’s worth getting to.

This is why I bemoan the passing of kitsch-cool spots like Henry Ford’s and the Rose & Raindrop. This is why I like drinking at Dots, or the Matador, or My Father’s Place. It’s also why I like Beaker and Flask. There’s an ineffable warmth. A soul perhaps. A beating heart.

Am I being overly fussy? Wouldn’t surprise me a bit. Am I effectively articulating what’s wrong with the latest crop of bars in Portland? I haven’t the foggiest. Am I a grumpy old fart? Guilty.

I need some feedback. Please chime in with your own opinions. What do you look for in a bar? Should it be more than a stool and a tall boy?

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