The Life and Death of The Neighborhood Bar
Bartender and broadcaster Jack Lauterback is a longtime American correspondent for MIXOLOGY. Today he asks, with the rise and, as some might say, saturation of the craft cocktail bar, has the tried and true neighborhood bar died?
Nine years ago, craft cocktails were just starting to come back in vogue. In most spots, ordering a well-made Old Fashioned was still considered novel. Bartenders were then un-ironically dressing like American Civil War surgeons and the harder your bar was to find, the cooler it was. The speakeasy revolution was in full swing, but you absolutely weren’t supposed to tell anyone.
Then a few years passed and all of this became cliché. Then, we were into classic cocktails with the freshest ingredients. Then the craft cocktail movement was dead. Then tiki was in. Then tiki was out. Then tiki was ‘retro cool.’ Then it was all about glassware. We then wanted 50’s cocktails, 60’s cocktails, small batch cocktails, cocktails from the 1480’s, cocktails they drank on the Titanic. Cocktails with ice cubes so big there was no actual liquid in the glass. It was all the same, really, and it wasn’t bad. Cocktails were being made well by people who genuinely cared about their toil. The bar experience was rising to a new level of quality.
But where did all this hasty improvement leave the trusty corner bar? The bar that still proudly serves cold Bud Light? The bar that doesn’t spend extra for fancy ice? The bar that only has (gasp!) one type of bitters?
Unfortunately, or very fortunately, depending on your station in life, not everyone got the craft cocktail memo.
Neighborhood Bars in the Age of Craft Cocktails
In Richmond, Virginia, an area of more than one million people, these saloons, these monuments to the status quo, are doing just fine. Of course, there is an abundance of amazing craft cocktail bars in town, and though they hate to be called it, there are a lot of mixologists plying their trade. Men and women who wear sleeve-tabs and who refer to themselves as ‘drinks program coordinators.’ Seven years ago in Richmond, there were about seven of these bartenders making fantastic retro drinks, doing what today is considered normal. These now ‘normal’ drinks (still) aren’t cheap, but the quality is out of this world. On par with anything you might find in New York City or Berlin.
But, like any mid-sized, working class city, there are a lot of neighborhood pubs. Corner bars. Watering holes. The type of place you meet up with your out-of-town friends during Christmas break. Places named after the proprietor. Sam’s, or Mickey’s, or Joe’s. Places with neon in the window. Order a classic daiquiri here and they’ll laugh your ass out the door. But rest assured, they make the strongest Jack & water in town, and that’s what you’ll be having.
Don’t they know that a bar is supposed to have witty drink lists and 17-dollar cocktails? That you must have a drinks program that fits the motif of your establishment? Wait, what is your drinks program in this establishment? You don’t have a drinks program?! Cue heart palpitations from the ‘drinks program coordinators.’
Does a Neighborhood Bar Need Cocktails?
David Bolton, a longtime Richmond bartender and someone who has worked at the high end and the low end of the bar industry, tells me that it’s either one or the other. “Nothing worse than going into a place a seeing a sad attempt at a cocktail menu,” says Bolton. “You have to choose.”
Bolton even hints that the days may be numbered for bars that can’t make the high quality swill.
“There are going to be a lot of out of work bartenders soon if they don’t start learning how to make proper drinks,” he says. “Watching these idiots shake a Manhattan is getting pretty old and these drinks aren’t getting any easier.”
I think we can all agree that anyone who calls him or herself a bartender needs to know how to make respectable versions of all cocktails, especially the classics. But there are plenty of bars where this is not the case. Bars where you are only getting a cold bottled beer or a one-mixer, one-liquor drink, and that’s that. And those bars would certainly never be featured in MIXOLOGY MAGAZINE, but they are where a majority of working class America resides comes 6pm.
It could be a socio-economic split. Let’s be honest, a high-end cocktail bar is a lot more expensive. Or it could be that some people drink because they enjoy a great cocktail, while others are drinking to get a buzz and forget the day. Probably a bit of both.
The Future of The Neighborhood Bar
While the trends continue to come and go, I think it’s safe to say that the bar with the neon glow that’s been open since 1932 is definitely not going anywhere. New, glossy, over-stylized bars can never replicate what the corner bar has: the history, the memories, the stains from drinks spilled long ago. There’s even a smell that an older bar has. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s recognizable. It’s home.
That bar is very much alive and well, even if you can’t say the same about the bars following in its wake.
Foto: Photo via Shutterstock.