I refer to those feelings of wonder and discomfort when one returns to his or her home country after being away for a while. Ask any expat what it’s like to visit an American supermarket after a couple of years abroad. They’re so big, so colorful, and there are so many choices. Each aisle seems to have a thousand brands, each brand seems to have a thousand flavors.
So my first night in Philadelphia—also my first in the United States in nearly two years—I didn’t go to a supermarket. I went to a sports bar. I wanted to fight jet lag and watch baseball on a big TV and drink IPA. So I did. It was mainly a sports bar but it had 40 taps anyway. They were blasting pop hits while a crowd of twentysomethings around the bar flirted and danced. I was back in America. It felt right.
Then, on the nights that followed, I went to several more bars, to meet people or to hunt for a nice beer. As it turned out, nearly all of them were loud sports bars too. Except that none of them were supposed to be loud sports bars. They were supposed to be beer bars.
A question for you: When we plunk down three or four times more duckets for a beer in a bar than we do to drink one at home, what are we paying for? What do we get for that extra money? I’m not talking about all the costs to the business, like staff and overhead and keeping those draft lines clean. I know why they do it. But why do we do it? Why do we decide that it’s worth a premium to drink in public?
Among the many possible answers—such as, “Oh I don’t know, I guess I’m just a people-person,”—I would like to think that atmosphere is an important part of the equation. We are paying for the environment, which we might like to be pleasant, cool, comfortable, or any number of other positive adjectives. Along with our beers of character, we like places of character.
We can all disagree about what’s good for atmosphere. I don’t need your favorite college party bar to be a chatty Kentish micropub. But it strikes me that among our variety-mad beer bars and taphouses were are suffering—ironically—from a lack of variety.
One of those bars in Philly was Brü, a Bavarian-themed pub in Midtown. Its 36 taps offer a range of options that usually include a few for German and German-inspired lagers—from Hofbräu to Jack’s Abby—and they’ll serve them in half-liter mugs if you want. It’s fun. Brü’s website says that it’s a “bierhall and wursthaus … serving the finest in Bavarian spirit.” So there’s your concept.
I go to Bavaria as often as I can. I love beer halls. But I have never been to one and seen a television. At some casual corner bars in Germany you might see TVs, often meant for soccer, but many have no screens. At Brü, I counted eight TVs, including three right next to each other behind the bar. It’s not a big place. The Phillies weren’t playing, so it was sports news and college softball. The whole bar was lively, the music was loud, and everyone was yelling so they could hear each other over the music.
So, besides the clever beers and schnitzel on the menu, did anything really differentiate its atmosphere from the sports bar? Not really.
It’s unfair to single out Brü, because I found the same in many places: multiple TVs showing ESPN even when no game was on, loud music, people having to yell to hear each other over the music and the yelling. (There were a couple of notable exceptions: Monk’s Cafe, which was loud only because it was packed, and its older brother Fergie’s, which had no TVs—I was grateful—but did have the music blaring, directed by one of those touchscreen digital jukeboxes.)
It’s also unfair to single out Philly. I remember the same thing in plenty of other American cities. Even at the world class Churchkey in DC, there are TVs over the bar. People expect them. They give us something to look at, in case we don’t want to look at each other.
I had forgotten. I had forgotten how much we love TV, sports, and being loud. And being in each other’s presence without necessarily talking much. I guess that’s what all those phones are for.
There are some places that do it differently. I think they are exceptions to the rule, but you know your own towns better than me. I’m thinking of places like the Saloon in DC, which has no TVs, no piped-in music, and no standing, so you’ll just have to sit down and be comfortable. Nope, don’t get out your phone, that’s not allowed either.
Or in St. Louis there is Civil Life, a brewery whose pub only brings out the TV and switches it on, maybe, if the Cardinals are in the postseason. Otherwise, nope. There are lots of nooks and snugs in which to chat though.
Then there is the Moon Under Water.
If you like bars and pubs and you’ve never read George Orwell’s essay, “The Moon Under Water,” go and do it. He wrote it in 1946 for the London Evening Standard. It’s about his ideal (fictional) pub.
Among its traits: “In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano, and even on Christmas Eve and such occasions the singing that happens is of a decorous kind.” We can guess what he’d think of having a TV in there.
But Orwell was not an American, and we don’t have to do things the British way, nor any European way.
Our way, I think, is not just to be loud but also to have plenty of choices. Our bars are offering us lots of those, when it comes to beers. But are they offering us enough choice, when it comes to atmosphere?