Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Best Bars in the World

As most of you will have noticed, I visited my 666th pub last week.(This one above was not it, but I like the picture)

I wanted it to be a place that sort of fitted the occasion. I considered Hell Pizza in Dublin and Frankenstein in Edinburgh, my sister suggested Diablo in Las Vegas and I got a number of other interesting suggestions. In the end, I settled on Jeckyll&Hyde in Edinburgh. I looked up their website, saw some interesting pictures and decided that I liked it and that it would be a venue suitable for the occasion. After a night out on Friday, me and my sister had a couple of beers in other pubs around Edinburgh, and then went to Jeckyll&Hyde.

We had a celebratory beer, a bite to eat, toasted on the achievement and then had another couple of drinks. We then partied the day and night away and the end of the exercise is hazy. On the Sunday, we moved on to pub number 667 which, for those of you taking notes, was Finnegan’s Wake in Victoria Street in Edinburgh where I watched the mighty Dublin football team win the All Ireland title. It was, without doubt, the best gaelic football match I have ever seen, a statement that, no doubt, was influenced by the fact that Dublin came out on top. So, before we continue to the main story of the day, here’s a big cheers to the heroes of the Dublin football team, who finally brought the cup home!

Quite some time ago, a friend asked me what my favorite bars in the world were. I promised that I would write a story about it when I reached 500 pubs (The Green Arms hotel in Sydney, Australia, it seems so long ago now). For several reasons, the story didn’t materialise at the time, so I told myself that I would make a list of my 5 favorite bars as soon as I reached number 666. As always when making top5 lists, there are several problems. If, like me, you have visited over 2000 pubs and bars in your life, it is nearly impossible to cut this down to 5, just like making a list of your 5 favorite cd’s, movies or meals of all times. Then, there is the problem that some pubs are great for one thing, but useless for another. Murray’s Bar in Dublin, for example, is excellent for watching sports, with screens all over the place, that are also visible from the bar if you’re going for a fresh pint. It is, however, completely shit for watching live bands, as there is no stage, no PA system and the accoustics are horrible. (Somehow they still put bands on on a regular basis). The other way around, Baroeg in Rotterdam, Holland, is brilliant for watching bands but shit for watching football as there is only 1 (old) TV and you can only see it from the short end of the bar. Ofcourse, Baroeg is not a sportsbar and Murray’s is not a music venue, but this just goes to show you how hard it can be to narrow things like this down. So, I put up a couple of criteria to make the selection.

First of all, I had to feel at home and comfortable there. One of the most important things in a bar is that you feel at ease and enjoy yourself while having a good time. Ofcourse, it is impossible to become a regular in every bar you ever go to, but it is always nice to feel noticed.

Second of all, the bar has to be good at what it does. To go back to the example above, I didn’t hold it against Baroeg that it is crap for watching football and neither did I deduct points on Murray’s scoresheet for being shit at organising gigs. Every bar has its own niche and they should stick to what they’re good at. You are not going to get angry if a carpenter has done a beautiful panelling job but is unable to fix your plumbing. Likewise, you are not going to get angry with the restaurant chef if he can’t fix your car when you try to drive home after a great meal.

The third point of attention is that the drinks have to be reasonably priced. By this, I don’t mean cheap as such. Reasonably priced means that the price is decent for the place that the pub is in. If I, for example, was charged 3 euros for a pint in Dublin, I would be pleasantly surprised. If I was charged the same amount in Bratislava, I would be outraged by the rip-off. This was the main reason that places in tourist hotspots like Temple Bar, Covent Garden and Times Square all disappeared from the list. If you charge me 7 euros for a pint that costs half that across the river, there is a big chance that you won’t see me again for the next 7 years. You can probably rip off tourists by charging prices like that, but I’m not going to play ball. I once took a friend to The Temple Bar in Dublin and was charged EUR 13,50 for 2 pints. That was the last time they saw me in there.

The final thing that I took into consideration is that the place has to be unique in its own way. This was the end of chain-bars like Walkabout, Hooters and Hardrock Cafe. Apart from generally being not the most soulful places on the map, every Hardrock Cafe is pretty much the same. This is worse at Hooters. Every Hooters across the world is exactly the same. They occasionally adjust the layout to the size or shape of the building, but apart from that, they all look exactly the same, whether you are in Sydney, San Francisco or Athens. This is not to say that Hooters is not good, to the contrary, I love Hooters and always go when I am near one. It’s just not very original.

Now, before we go to the top5, there are 3 special mentions that I have not put on the list because I either worked there myself, or they have moved from the original building to a new, less interesting location(or both, in 1 case).

The first of these is De Gonz in Gouda.

I worked there for 10 years, was a manager for 5 and had lots of fantastic times there. I made a lot of good friends there, learned heaps of great new music, drank an ocean of beer and worked countless hours, often until the sun came up. The bar was situated in an old house in the centre of the city of Gouda (near Rotterdam, in Holland) and, well, it was tiny. There was a narrow hallway which led to the main room (formerly the living room when it was still in use as a residence) which measured only about 6 yards across and 15 in length and this included the bar which was home built by the people working there. To save space, the stage(also home-produced) was built up out of a dozen smaller parts, so it could be moved around easily when no bands were playing. The claustrophobic DJ booth was constructed just below the ceiling, again to save space and even I (though only 5’8”) could not stand up straight in there. The walls were all painted black with a big red rose (the logo of the bar) on the main wall behind the stage and the stem of the rose curling around the room on the other wall. Some years later, one of the employees decided to cheer the place up a bit and painted most of the place in various shades of yellow and orange with Canadian Indian designs. The debate about the make-over remains undecided to this day. The place was cosy, friendly and home to all kinds of people who didn’t really fit the bill in the regular nightlife scene. Metalheads, punks, skinheads and hippies all existed happily side by side. Unfortunately, after years of harrassment, threats of eviction and a dozen proposed new locations, the local city council finally pushed the place out of its home and moved it to the first floor of an abandoned factory a couple of miles away. As I expected, the place, though bigger and with better amenities, has lost the feel of the original building and the re-location outside the city centre has seen an increase in overhead costs and a decrease in punters. With bankruptcy constantly looming in the background, management has now resorted to putting on techno nights, singer/songwriter matinees and other activities that are a million miles away from the original spirit of the place. It’s a shame this unique place has been harrassed to near-extinction by the local council.

The second special mention is for the Dynamo Rock Bar in Eindhoven.

For metalheads over a certain age the world over, Dynamo is a name that is much revered. It inspires the same awe that the Vatican would in Catholics or Las Vegas would in gamblers. This is partly because of the outdoor heavy metal festival that was attached to it and partly because of the bar in the centre of Eindhoven, in the south of Holland. The Dynamo building is a multi functional youth centre that is financed by the local council. Over the years it has organised and developed pretty much anything that is related to youth work, from teenage pregnancy prevention classes, to fitness classes to breakdance work shops. All these activities took place in the main building, which also had a concert venue. To the back of the building was a battered black door, full of graffiti, stickers and flyers. Behind this door was a narrow staircase that descended into the Dynamo Rock Bar. Once your eyes had adjusted to the pitch black darkness in there, you walked into a dimly lit room and found yourself in a basement bar, all walls and the floor totally black, with a huge white pentagram in the middle of what mainstream people would have deemed ‘the dancefloor’. To the average Joe, this would have looked like the basement of the Church of Satan. To us, it was where we drank and met our friends. To the side of the room was a battered wooden bar, selling affordable beer, next to which sat a dj booth, closed off around with iron wire, where a dj played music at such an earsplitting volume that even I sometimes wondered how long it would take before my beer bottle would spontaneously explode. I absolutely loved the place from the second I walked in. The noise was deafening, the people, contrary to popular belief, were quite cheery and jovial and the atmosphere was always great. Entertainment (other than drinking) came in the form of a battered pinball machine that was thrown around the place as if it was a cricket ball, and a local game in which you had to ram 10 inch nails into a log with a hammer. Whoever sank the last bit of the nail into the log had to get a round (or drink their beer in one go, but I forget). In all the six years that I drank there on a more or less semi-regular basis, not once did I find the toilet endowed with a seat and 9 times out of 10 it was clogged. We didn’t care. Dynamo was great and we loved every second of it. Somewhere in the early years of the new millennium, Eindhoven city council announced that the Dynamo building was in dire need of renovation and it had decided, rather than rennovate it, the whole building would be torn down and rebuilt in the same location from scratch. This created panic in the Dutch metal scene because what would we do without Dynamo? Fortunately, the Eindhoven city council had a lot more brains than the powers that be in Gouda and guaranteed the management of the rock bar that they would again have the basement at their disposal as soon as the rebuilding project was finished. This more or less satisfied the crowd and during the 2 or 3 years that it took to rebuild, rock and heavy metal venues around the country jumped in to help and organised ‘Dynamo on Tour’ nights to keep the black spirit alive. When Dynamo reopened, the rock bar turned the lights down and the volume up and was open for business as usual. As you would expect, the atmosphere and feel of the place weren’t as they used to be. Floors were clean. Bar stools had padded seats. Toilets worked. A Strange Experience for sure. To be honest to the bar and the regulars, many of whom I know personally, I’ve only been in the new building twice and that was just after it was re-opened. They have been going in the new set-up for a couple of years now and I sometimes wonder how it is now. I bet it is just as noisy as in the past.

And now, the 3rd and final honourable mention in this election goes to Baroeg in my hometown of Rotterdam.

When you arrive at Rotterdam Central station, you can change trains and get off at Lombardijen Station, or you can take tram 20 and get off the stop before Lombardijen station. Either way, if you look to the left side of the road, you will see a large park with a stream running through it. Next to the stream in this idyllic park, there is a small building with a 3 pointed roof. The building is covered in graffiti and has a big chrome door. This, my dear readers, is Baroeg.

Baroeg is the centre of heavy metal culture in the west of Holland and has been going strong for 30 years now. Originally a youth centre, towards the end of the 1980’s Baroeg deviated from its original course and slowly but surely changed into a daring underground venue that catered for the heavy metal, punk and goth scenes. The place has the look of a classic heavy metal dive: a bare concrete floor, black walls, covered in murals of punk and metal legends (Ozzy Osborne stares at you from the entrance) the L-shaped black marble bar has 3 bar stools at its short end, bolted to the floor. A couple of tables (also bolted to the floor) make up the rest of the interior decoration and for the rest it’s just black tiles, black walls and a big black double door that leads to the stage area. The stage area is not the biggest and has a second dj booth and PA table. If you squeeze hard enough, you can just about fit 400 people into the whole place. (It does get uncomfortably busy though when the place sells out). Throughout the years, Baroeg has excelled at booking bands in most louder genres before they strike it big. Bands like Exploited, Cradle of Filth, Cannibal Corpse and Dropkick Murhphys have all taken to the stage here over the years. Baroeg is a unique place with a unique history and an atmosphere different from anywhere else.

So why is it not in my top5 list? The reason is that I worked there for 5 years. I first walked through the door in the spring of 1996 and up to the moment I moved to Ireland, I could be found there with increasing regularity over the years. I met lots of interesting people, made a lot of new friends and in fact, I met some of my closest friends there. I have had so many great parties there over the year, both at the bar and behind it, that I could write a book about my time in this place in its own right. And maybe I will in the future. I don’t know what first sparked my enthousiasm for the place, but when I first walked in there, I knew that this was a place where I would become a regular. Though it was much closer than the Dynamo, it was still a bit of a hike from where I was living at the time. To my annoyance, this normally meant that I had to leave for home just when the party was in crescendo and while everyone ordered another round, I had to make a beeline for the rail station or the tram. This all changed one night in the autumn of 2001. I was talking to one of the regulars at the bar, and his girlfriend stuck a flyer in my face, advertising the cd release party of their band. I happily accepted the invitation but informed them that I would probably have to leave early as it was a night gig and I had to get the train home. She rejected this notion and informed me that there was an afterparty at their house and I was invited and could sleep on the couch, the floor or anywhere else. After using the open invitation to stay over as often as I wished for 2 years I decided that, since I spent most of my time the vincinity of Baroeg anyway, I would move closer and I got a flat around the corner with a girl who worked in the kitchen there. I happily worked and drank there for another couple of years until I moved to Ireland. I still love Baroeg and it is one of my favorite places in the world. I have worked there as a bartender, dj, ticketseller stagehand, manager and even as a kitchen hand on occasion. Whenever I get back to Holland, I always try to make time to go down to Baroeg for a beer or, if there’s nothing on, get the old crew together for a beer in the pub. It is one of the few things I miss about living abroad- Baroeg and the people I met there.

So, that was the introduction to my Top5 list. I will present the official countdown next time around.



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