What makes a great bar great?
Words by Simon Difford
Service, décor, atmosphere, drinks selection and food, or at least bar snacks, all contribute to make a good bar but within those broad headings it is numerous small things that contribute to make a truly great bar. What follows is something of a check list.
Friendly welcome at the door rather than "You're not on the list. You're not coming in mate".
Ideally every guest should be greeted and made to feel welcome as they enter.
It's difficult to engage in conversation with everyone sat at the bar so when at the Savoy's American Bar Peter Dorelli used to introduce guests to their neighbours to encourage conversation between them.
Friendly, efficient table service sets a bar apart. A good server notices that glasses are empty and remembering what the guests previously ordered asks if they'd like another. Similarly they should notice that a guest is not drinking and ask if it is to their taste.
Toilets should be clean and constantly monitored. Hot water and hand towels are a given. Toilet attendants waiting to pounce with a squirt of soap and a hand towel in return for a tip are to be avoided.
Well-designed bars improve with age while, conversely, it's telling when bars need a refit every few years.
Cluttered or minimalist
Minimalist interiors can look great but cluttered bars tend to be more homely with walls lined with pictures and/or objects stimulating interest, particularly for solo drinkers.
Great bars have a warm glow about them with no bright bare bulbs.
The floor of a bar not only has to look good it must be robust enough to withstand spillages and high heels. Thick planked hardwood floors are the surface of choice.
Well designed, practical and well laid out bartender stations are essential. Bartenders should have everything they need within an arm's reach without having to move.
People like to sit at bars so great bars have plenty of counter space. Bar stools should be comfortable with backs, arm and foot rests. The ideal height for a bar counter is 43¾ inches / 111 cm and the counter should have sufficient overhang (at least 10 inches / 25½ cm) to properly accommodate guests legs to allow them to sit closely to the bar. Particularly important for eating at the bar.
Every bar should have hooks at regular intervals under the bar counter for handbags and jackets. If there is no cloakroom service then there should also be sufficient coat hooks within sight of each table.
Seats and chairs
Chairs should be comfortable and not so low that they are difficult to get out of. A table or ledge on which to rest food and drinks should be in reach of every chair.
Good ventilation is essential, particularly where smoking is still allowed.
The temperature should be kept at a comfortable level - not too hot or too cold. Even in the toilets.
Challenging gender signs on toilets can be an embarrassing initiative test for guests. They should be simple and illustrated so understandable to different language speakers.
A great atmosphere is the hardest thing to achieve. Difficult to pin down but bars either have it or they don't. Really great bars manage to achieve this with relatively few people. Empty space kills atmosphere and island bars are a great way to break up space and make even quiet bars feel atmospheric. False walls which can be opened to reveal more space when busy are also very effective.
See design above. Bright light is not atmospheric.
Music should suit the mood and be at an appropriate volume.
Friendly and varied crowd but not too crowded.
Fruit flies are off putting and the sign of a dirty bar.
• Truly great bars have 20 plus beers on draught and 100s by the bottle but even if just three beers are offered the selection should be varied, encompassing different styles not just bland Euro lagers.
• Beers should be served in clean, suitable cold glassware - ideally specific to that beer. Never from the bottle.
• It's great to see a beer menu with tasting notes and perhaps food matching recommendations.
• Beer should be served by knowledgeable staff who offer tasting samples of draught beers.
• Truly great bars have wine lists to shame 3-Star Michelin restaurants but a dozen wines can still make a good list. The list should incorporate some interesting bins with varied grape varieties and styles. Blends should stretch beyond two grape varieties.
• The wine list should be well-designed wine with short tasting notes & food matching recommendations.
• Wines should be served by knowledgeable staff who can offer recommendations.
• There should be a good choice of wines by the glass with a Enomatic system or secularised to ensures wines are served at their best.
• Truly great bars offer a large choice of premium liquor brands across all categories - not just gin.
• Good selections include some interesting quirky spirits as well as more obvious must stocks.
• All but the fastest moving bottles should be kept sealed to prevent evaporation and contamination. A pour spout does not seal the bottle.
• The best bars have spirits menus with tasting notes with recommendations for aperitifs and after dinner drinks.
• Every 'cocktail bar' that describes itself as such should offer great tasting, well-balanced cocktails made using freshly pressed juices.
• Great bars have great ice with drinks preferably served over moulded/carved ice. (I prefer shaking and stirring with inch square cubes.)
• Cocktails should be served in clean, elegant and chilled glassware. No Z-shaped stemmed Martini glasses or huge Martini glasses (5 to 7oz max).
• Better to make a few perfect cocktails than offer a list of 100 mostly badly made ones. Many of the world's best bars have less than a dozen drinks on their menu.
• A selection of classic and contemporary cocktails with at least one house signature cocktail.
• Cocktail menus should avoid mentioning "sour mix", "grenadine" and local legislation allowing "sugar".
• Menus should only list drinks which all the bartenders are confident and proficient at making. "Our skilled bartenders can make any cocktail you ask for" is a ridiculous statement to list on a menu. Have you seen how many cocktails are on this website alone?
• Great signature cocktails can help drive a bar's reputation. Examples include the Pisco Punch at San Francisco's legendary Bank Exchange Bar, the Bellini at Harry's Bar, Venice, the Bloody Mary at Harry's Bar, Paris, the Singapore Sling at Raffle's Hotel, Singapore, the Daiquiri at El Floridita, Cuba, Tommy's Margarita at Tommy's in San Francisco.
• Beware the three great cocktail bartending variables: 1. Ice & dilution - size of cubes, old ice, length of stir or shake. 2. Accuracy of measure - difficult to 'free-pour' a fraction of a shot. 3. Quality of ingredients (particularly sugar syrup & juices).
• Non-alcoholic drinks and cocktails should be available for drivers, pregnant women, children... & even those who are simply thirsty.
• A great bar should have great coffee.
• Every bar should routinely serve complimentary iced water alongside alcoholic drinks - particularly short cocktails and spirits.
I and many others consider food an essential accompaniment to the responsible consumption of alcohol and in many cities such as Portland, Oregon it is mandatory for bars to serve food.
Customers stay for longer periods at bars which serve food rather than leaving to seek food elsewhere.
Simple will do
Even simple dishes such as a club sandwich, cheese selections and charcuterie boards with great bread will suffice.
Bar snacks should be just that and not require knives and forks.
Chips and dips
Every bar should serve chips (fries) and dips.