Defining The Best Bar

How do we know what “the best” really is

Recently a lot of attention is being paid to superlative lists of bars and eateries-and not just by people in the industry, but also by your average dine-out-once-a-week family types. When time is money, people don’t seem to want to waste any of their precious me-time drinking at unmemorable bars with questionable, average drinks. Why not instead let the “experts” do the dirty work of rounding up the best places and putting them all tidily into a categorized list from best to, well, still-pretty-good—a list that we can all access on our smart devices and use as a bucket list to check off  as our travels take us there. Holidays could now be planned around advance bookings of museum entry tickets as well as drinks and dinner reservations. Seems like an easy way to live and enjoy, right?

Well, remember that time when you went for a movie based on a good review in the local paper and then it turned out to be an utter waste of time? Well, we run the same risk with food and drink when we similarly choose to rely on other people’s opinions. What exactly qualifies these people to know what the general population will like? How do they know what is “best” of the bunch? Aren’t all such superlative qualifiers, by definition, subjective, and therefore debatable and not applicable to all?

And yet, the minute we know there is a new list announced, we scramble to see who won. Outlets display these badges with honor in the years they win and disparage the awards at other times when they may have been overlooked. So where is the veracity in it all? What factors can you go by when judging the best in the field? Here are a few questions to ask that might help you narrow it down.

1 Is it comfortable? From getting there and finding a parking spot to the right height of the chairs, the appropriate arm-rest width, the menu font size, and the volume and genre of the music, these factors (and many more) go into defining what makes a bar comfortable for you. Comfort and convenience matters long before you have even settled down to order a drink or a snack. It’s one big reason why people find a visit to their local pub much more suitable to their social drinking than a jaunt to the hoity-toity bar downtown.

2 Is it affordable? Speaking of hoity-toity, nothing that doesn’t fit your budget can ever be considered entirely enjoyable. Sure, it will be novel for a time, and that makes it memorable, but the rarity of the occasion also makes it fantastical and less real. The “best” place shouldn’t be something one gets to try only once—it should be a more frequently visited concept.

3 Is it convivial? Frequency builds familiarity, and that builds relationships. Conviviality always reminds me of that old TV show Cheers, based in a bar where, “everybody knows your name.” It might sound a bit dramatic, but being recognized for your individuality is the most important and positive feeling that one can ever experience. This elation in turn strengthens the attachment that you have to your favorite joints—emotional stuff that creates sentiment far stronger than a mere commercial transaction. When we hear of one such property downing shutters for good, it even causes heartache (something we all possibly experienced during the pandemic-induced lockdowns).

4 Is it pleasing on the senses? All said and done, the product has to be good. There is no point frequenting an establishment where the food and drinks are consistently average at best. Most often such places shut down and newer, more competitive ones open in their place, which may ameliorate the situation overall, but it can take time. So, when evaluating a space, it is good to be able to park our emotions to the side momentarily and try to assess  beverages for their overall tactile appeal.

5 Does it make you feel special? Do you feel at home there? Does the place create a sense of relaxation that you only experience in your lounge at home—a space that can make your resting heart rate drop, and where you don’t feel the need to make a conscious effort to live up to any level of propriety, whether imposed or implied? That’s a tall order, but then that’s what it takes to be truly the best. This last question is a sum total of the other four listed above—from comfy seating to being easy on the pocket, having simple access to simplicity of potions, and establishing a friendly atmosphere and familiar faces, all of these qualities feed into making a place feel like a second home, one where you are happy to pay for the privilege of being served.

Contrast these ideas with all the fancy lists citing the “Best Bars” (or eateries) in your area and you will realize that very often they are counting up the wrong accolades, chasing the wrong metrics, and certainly not aspiring to be a fun space. Instead they are in some sort of race to be the standout show pony of the year. It’s all good for the sponsors, the organizers, and certainly for the lucky “winners,” but give me a workhorse of a bar over any of these any day.

Armed with these questions, do you think you need to revaluate your idea of a best bar? Or even a favorite bar for that matter? If your answer is a hesitant “yes,” welcome, my friend, as you begin your journey into the world of true happiness.