As a beer writer, and one that has—admittedly—adopted tastes and a tone of voice in my over half a decade of semi-professional drinks writing that some folks have interpreted as rather snobby, I am almost as surprised to admit it as you might be to hear it: I sometimes love going to terrible bars.
And make no mistake, I’m not talking about “dive bars;” that subset of drinking establishments that are sometimes (and more often than not, intentionally) a little rough around the edges, but have a redeeming quality like amazing tacos, great draught, cool cocktails, etc.
I mean that much larger swath of establishments that pepper most north american landscapes both suburban and metropolitan and that, from a snobby alcohol-enthusiast’s point of view at least, really have no redeeming qualities.
They are those franchise pubs where we all cut our teeth drinking and where you’re likely still occasionally dragged for a work acquaintance’s birthday or a post-organized-sports pitcher. They’re sporty, named after two disparate nouns or have a vaguely Irish last name — Pucks, The Rug and Thistle, O’Sullivan’s.
They have cheap wing nights, karaoke, a clock counting down to St. Patrick’s day. Big corporate branding shamelessly adorns every sticky surface; a tacky plastic archive of years of visits from beer reps with expense accounts and a few kegs to unload. They’re the kind of places where the food is almost never what you want and exactly what you expect: big, fried, heavy, and available with inappropriate amounts of sauce for drizzling/dipping/Buffalo-ing. Where they serve Pepsi in heavy, branded 16oz shaker pints and they scoop the ice right out of the well using the glass.
The usual industrial lagers are on tap and often interspersed with the Diageo line-up of imports; Guinness, Kilkenny, Harp, and Smithwicks; and there are way too many porous surfaces— funky cushioned booths and, inexplicably, carpeted floors.
Theses places are of course, most often bastardized versions of an “Irish” pub, or what the rest of the world came to think an Irish pub was supposed to look like in the 1990s when huge American and Canadian restaurant operators started setting up Guinness and nacho purveyors across the continent. And it is perhaps that cookie-cutter sameness that I find endearing.
Because awful bars are at least a known entity. Sure, I know it’s a shitty experience through that door, but at least I know it’s a shitty experience I’ve had a hundred times before. Awful franchise bars are akin to the hospitality industry version of sweat pants and a pair of crocs. They’re not fancy, but they’re not expensive, and sure they’re embarrassing to be seen in, but god damn it, they’re comfortable. There’s something inviting about awful bars for those times when you don’t want to think about anything and, in this sense, I think of them as a sort of monument to the last gasps of restaurant-goers who just don’t want to think too much about their dining decisions. Indeed, they might all have the same slogan; “Ah, fuck it. Fine.”
My weird occasional fondness for these sorts of places is also, surely, some parts nostalgia. There is rarely a beer on tap I like and I’m certain to feel like garbage after I eat there, but these bars appeal to a baser part of me that remains from a time before I knew better.
Because before we were beer snobs, before our expectations for a night out involved 25 local beers on tap, a late night snack menu that included warm olives and truffle popcorn, and the possibility of a bourbon cocktail nightcap crafted by a mixologist who shaves her own distilled ice, weren’t we all creatures of shitty bars? We all had nights both regrettable and important in regrettable bars that at the time felt important. They were the arenas of our youth in which we were allowed to make the sorts of stupid decisions that later become fond memories. What was her name again? Why were we doing jaeger shots?
If I can help it, sure, I tend to avoid awful bars. And, indeed, it seems to be becoming easier and easier to do so as consumers, and even franchise owners, wise up. In 2012, for example the Firkin chain of pubs underwent a makeover to give its establishments a “Cool Britannia” vibe and essentially covered up the balsamic-vinegar stained carpets with Union Jack-adorned furniture and robbed Torontonians of a handful of some of my favourite awful bars (by making them a different kind of awful). And every other franchise bar and restaurant seems to be tacking craft offerings or some sort of artisanal add-on menu and trying to obfuscate their awfulness.
Obviously, publicans upping their beer game and trying to stay up to date in terms of their menu and decor is a good thing for consumers over-all, but sometimes I still yearn for a no-nonsense, truly awful bar. The world needs those bars with that kethupy, bleachy, beer-fart aroma and the too-loud sounds of a drunk dude ripping Livin’ On a Prayer off-key on karaoke night. We need those places that offer no more and no less than a shaker pint of Keith’s, some potato skins, and maybe a round of Golden Tee.
We need those bars that are awful.
Because they’re great.