Sloshed: Judging Bars by Their Actual, Physical Bars

Don't order a vodka soda here.
Don’t order a vodka soda here. Photo: Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis

I love bars, by which I mean I love bars, the physical spaces where customers sit and bartenders pour drinks, separated by a slab of wood or metal or whatever other material a designer sees fit to use. And while it’s easy enough to describe individual bars, there’s no system to classify them the way wine people have special charts and terms to organize their interests. So I propose that barflies establish a similarly obsessive and insufferable vocabulary of bars so that we may better choose our drinking spots based upon their actual bars.

What Makes a Bar?
Every bar has three main areas: The stools, the main bar, and the backbar. No matter what kind of establishment the bar is in, it will have those elements. These are the bones. The theme of the bar — swanky cocktail joint, divey sports bar, bar made totally out of ice — is just the skin on top. But there are four main attributes you want to use to judge a bar:

• Physicality: The material and shape of the main bar, as well as any character it might have developed over the years: cigarette burns, stains, scratches — patina.

• Comfort: The sitting and/or leaning experience of the bar, plus the realities of figuring out what to do with stuff like your jacket or a bag.

• Visual Experience: What customers look at while they’re seated at the bar, primarly the backbar, the top of the main bar, and whatever lighting scheme the owners have put together.

• Nondrinking Activities Available: Does this bar have board games, TVs, a jukebox, or possibly a Skee-ball setup?

Within those four variables lies a whole world of possbile bar situations. Here, then, the official Sloshed bar taxonomy. I look forward to your peer reviews.

The Tavern Bar
The tavern bar is, in many ways, the Platonic ideal of bars: It is what every movie bar looks like when a Katherine Heigl–like person comes back home from the big city and meets up with people she knew from high school and, o-mi-god, look who it is. The backbar will be filled with photos and memorabilia from the bar itself; there will be a lone TV. The bar stools are probably those weird swivel kind with back balustrades and carved butt indentations in the seat. Instead of a foot rail, they’ll have a foot shelf with that metal corner-protector thing. These are bars made for years of sitting, not just nights.

What to Drink: A shot and a beer, though you’re safe with basic mixed drinks and cocktails, too.
When to Go: Any night, forever.

The Reclaimed Historical Bar
In many ways, bars are meant to serve as sanctuaries, escapes from the real world. Owners that track down actual old bars and ornate backbars, then install them in their new businesses, make it very clear that the world they’re trying to re-create is a bygone one: Sitting at a gorgeous, worn-wood bar is like being in a movie about a bar from 1913 as much as it is about being at an actual bar in 2013.

The backbar will be a sort of floor-to-ceiling booze museum. There might be an elk head or an oil painting of Teddy Roosevelt. There will be a brass foot rail, and this rail will be perfectly placed. The stools will probably be bolted to the floor and made from something crazy like an old tractor seat. It will nevertheless be comfy.

What to Drink: Classic cocktails — strong ones. Expect to spend a lot, even if you don’t stay very long.
When to Go: Because of the ongoing popularity of cocktailing, you’ll want to avoid these bars during the busy weekend nights. These bars are best if you pretend you really are drinking pre-Prohibition and can drink literally whenever. Go on a Tuesday at, like, three in the afternoon when it’s quiet and stay until five o’clock.

A more or less perfect bar at Pegu Club in New York.Photo: Melissa Hom

Anything Wavy or Mirrored
Remember the nineties? Remember how many lasers and squiggly lines there were? That’s what wavy bars are like: cheesy and dated. The drinks, which will inevitably all be flavored “martinis,” will be similarly wacky. Bars should be straight, non-wacky affairs. A bar with mirrors on it, or on the ceiling, is trying too hard — like A.C. Slater straddling his chair backward.

What to Drink: Nothing. Even ironically, chocolate martinis are horrifying.
When to Go: Never.

Square Bar in the Middle of the Room (Sports-Bar Version)
I am not against sports bars. They have their sports-related time and place. To maximize the TV and stool ratio, a lot of sports bars will drop their bar into the middle of the room, giving you the prominent four-sided bar. On the surface, this solution makes sense: It reduces the panic that can set in when you don’t get a seat at a sports bar.

But vis-a-vis actual bar-sitting, the square bar is nonoptimal. There is something disconcerting about staring down a fellow barfly who is too far away to talk with. It violates the whole facing-the-same-way situation that gives bars their sense of purpose. And it makes any sort of real backbar impossible, which is an important visual aspect of sitting at a bar.

What to Drink: Beer to wash down the wings.
When to Go: During sports. Or important elections.

Square Bar in the Middle of the Room (Tropical Version)
The square bar layout in a tropical setting is actually the totally correct shape, because, you know: Babes and dudes can check each other out. And usually you aren’t really sitting at these bars anyway. You are pit-stopping here between pool and beach sits. (Bonus points if the bar is actually in a pool.)

What to Drink: A Miami Vice, which is a 50/50 combination of piña colada mix and daiquiri mix and is my favorite drink of all time.
When to Go: Vacation — the earlier in the day you can get started, the better.

The Sparse Bar With Dusty Booze and No Taps
I’m going to refrain from labeling these bars as “dive bars.” That term used to mean something, but the PBR-obsessed, flannel-shirted masses have really watered it down by referring to any slightly dingy establishment with a shot-and-a-beer special as “divey.” A bunch of band stickers in the bathroom does not a dive bar make.

A real dive bar is quiet and not so self-aware. It is merely a place to go get drunk, silently. Customers don’t go there ironically. The backbar contains nothing that has a shelf life. There will be bottles of liquor you didn’t think existed — stuff like Frangelico — from which no one has drunk for years. Unopened cases of beer will be stacked up next to the fridge. This beer will be Budwesier.

The bar top itself can range from wood to diner-style formica, but it will be utilitarian. There will absolutely be a TV, and it will absolutely be on. There is a jukebox, but you are discouraged from playing it. The bartender will be sitting, not standing, behind the bar; that bartender will behave more like a patron than a host. The floor is linoleum or carpet, and it is unholy.

What to Drink: Beer, and your only whiskey options are Jack Daniel’s or Dewar’s. Order something and shut up.
When to Go: Whenever they open, which will be variable, but sometime mid-afternoon. Weekdays are preferred.

The Ironic Dive
It’s just like a theme-park version of the above — the bar reappropriates much of what makes sparse bars feel “divey,” but the fellow barflies will be too young to have any real sorrows that need drowning. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a lot less depressing than the authentic version.

What to Drink: Miller High Life or PBR, chased with a shot of Wild Turkey.
When to Go: Weeknights, mostly.

The Euro-Style Bar
When you sidle up to this bar — there will be marble and glass involved — the bartender will serve you a water with ice, no questions asked.

After that, the aproned bartender will hand you a wine list. They will have beer, though those will probably be listed in some magic white marker on a mirror somewhere behind the bar. That mirror might even be hanging on top of a larger mirror, in front of which will be wine bottles, vases with flowers, plates, and mugs. It will feel light and moderate and civil, and you will think to yourself, Why don’t Americans drink with lunch? The stools will most likely be bolted to the floor, and they will of course have hooks for your bags and jackets. Next to you, people will be reading the paper and drinking espresso. The espresso machine will be on the bar.

What to Drink: Campari-and-soda.
When to Go: In the afternoon. If you go at night, it should only be after seeing an early-career Woody Allen film.

The (Non-Copper) Metallic Bar (Note: Could Also Be Concrete)
Think back to the first time you went into a craft-beer bar and they had, like, twenty taps and the chubby bearded dude behind the counter was super jazzed to tell you about their Trappist-style beers from Cooperstown. That’s the kind of establishment where you’ll find these industrial-material bar tops. It will look and feel cold and masculine — designed for people in their mid-to-late-twenties who love vintage motorcycles and selvage denim in equal measure.

All the fixtures will be wrought-iron rebar; all the surfaces metal or a deep cherry. There might be a TV, but nothing to distract from the beer altar along the backbar. These are bars built around a tap system, not the other way around. Definitely nothing curved or wavy; definitely no weird lit-up backbar. It will be good for sitting, and they will pack in as many of those science-lab stools as they can buy up.

What to Drink: Craft ales by the pint. They’ll also have mini glasses so you can sample.
When to Go: These are actually great weekend-night places, even though finding a seat can be tricky.

The bar at Tørst in Brooklyn keeps with the spartan, Scandinavian aesthetic.Photo: Melissa Hom

Copper Bars
There are exceptions, but if the bar is copper you are most likely in a cheesy hotel and should leave immediately. Copper makes your hands smell weird.

What to Drink: If you see tonic in small bottles, get a G-and-T. Otherwise, get whatever’s on tap.
When to Go: Only if you are stuck in an airport hotel in, like, Cleveland and have an hour to kill.

The Plush, Upholstered Set
Bars that upholster their stools and (worse) their elbow rail are usually not worth your time. It is one of those design choices that a nondrinker would make — cushioning seems to make sense, but I have found that stuff to cause more discomfort than not. The elbow rail is too thick; the stools unwieldy and hard to scoot. The design of these joints will be luxury, and they will include velvet, leather, and mood lighting (also possibly candles). They will absolutely have a cocktail menu, but it will be a trickle-down affair: stuff like greyhounds and mojitos. And because of the faux luxury and labored connoisseurship, it will attract a financial district sort of crowd, people who tend to ruin bar-sitting experiences by waving money at the bartender or elbowing in and ordering five Coronas at a time or whatever.

What to Drink: A rye old-fashioned or possibly a Negroni.
When to Go: Only when your finance friends insist on meeting for a drink somewhere close to their office.

The Dramatically Lit Bar
Lighting is important, but these are the places that go overboard and light fucking everything. They shoot lights up through the bottles; they light the underbar; they light the bar top itself. Because these owners inevitably think of their establishments as “nightlife,” they are going for a club feel. That means they do not actually want you to sit at the bar. They want you to stand and wait a hundred years for a drink and then awkwardly approach people for sex.

What to Drink: If there were ever a time for a vodka Red Bull, this is it.
When to Go: When you are 22.

The Sunken Bar
I have only been to a true sunken bar — the kind where the bartender is a few feet below the floor where customers sit — twice in my life, and both times I found it sublime.

I can’t make generalizations about bars like this having only been in two, but both felt like a club of which you were a member. Something about sitting in a normal, human-size chair (not on a stool) makes you feel like you are part of some council or something. When you order from the bartender, you are sitting and they are standing at eye level; you are transacting some business.

It must be a horror of a design challenge, but bar owners, please: more sunken bars.

What to Drink: Ask the bartender what he or she likes.
When to Go: Never leave.

Further Points to Consider When Identifying Your Preferred Bar Type:
• A bar that doesn’t offer a sitting customer enough knee room is not a bar — it’s a short wall. Treat it as such.

• To find your optimal bar height, follow these steps: Sit slightly slouched on a stool, cross your arms, and hold them out from your body at about a 30-degree angle. The bar should be at or just one or two inches below your elbows. That will be different for different people, of course, which is why when you find your perfect bar fit, you should also find an apartment nearby.

• There are three main types of bar-top ledge: the classic (just a good old corner); the improved (a simple piece of molding creating a lip for spill-control); and the fancy (ornate molding containing both spill control and an elbow rail). The improved is controversial in that its function — keeping a spill away from you — disrupts your comfort. And while I love the fancy edge, it is a heavy design choice. Also: the cushioned lip? Please. It’s like having bowling bumpers on your bar.

• Hooks for your bags and coats are a must. If your bar doesn’t have hooks, then the people who run it have either never been in a bar or do not care about their customers’ comfort. In either case, you don’t want to drink here.

• A bar that keeps its napkins within a customer’s reach is a bar with an owner who has considered many details indeed.

• There is no shame in being a bar-sitting snob. Or, at least, there is no more shame in being a bar-sitting snob than there is in being a wine snob. In both cases, some people will think you’re insufferable, but in both cases, you’ll be drinking better stuff than that person, so fuck ‘em.

Sloshed: Judging Bars by Their Actual, Physical Bars