Mr. Ballaris from the Italian monthly magazine Bargiornale (Bar, Reataurant and More) contacted me about an article that he plans to write for the March edition. He sent me a list of questions and, as I was answering them, it occured to me that several of you have asked me some of the same things. I thought I would share my answers to his questions with you. I assume this won't cut into the circulation of his magazine.
Ten Most Curious Bars That I Have Visited
1) La Ballena Azul (The Blue Whale)
This is one of the few remaining authentic Mexican taverns left Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Swinging doors lead you into a big barn of a place with just local Mexicans drinking up a storm. It is the Mexican equivalent of a dive bar if ever there was one. One of the only place I have seen an honest to goodness brawl break out, complete with flying chairs. You won’t find many tourists in this place and none stay very long. The bartender will chase the hookers and the drunks trying to hustle a drink away from your table. You can buy cigarettes one at a time from the machine on the wall and they have good spicy peanuts, compliments of the house. Pretty much a beer and a shot of tequila kind of place.
2) Steve's Sport's Bar
This place wouldn’t be unusual if it was in Canada, but the fact that it is Puerto Vallarta, Mexico gives it that distinction. The owner and most of the customers are Canadian and the owner is a big NASCAR fan. As a result the bar is decorated with all kinds of NASCAR memorabilia and if there is any kind of race going on it is on television. Otherwise you will find hockey and even curling. It is strange to walk in out of a hot sunny day after spending the morning on the beach to find curling on television.
3) Paddy’s Lane
Much like Steve’s, this wouldn’t have been too unusual if it was in either New York or Ireland. To find a real Irish bar with real Irish bartenders in Barcelona, Spain was what made it curious. There was Beatles music playing in the background and the bartenders were as friendly and as chatty as Irish bartenders tend to be. They poured excellent pints of Guinness but, unfortunately, charged prices that were more like you would find in either Ireland or New York than in Spain. In other words they were expensive.
4) La Torre de Oro Bar Andalu
This bar was in Madrid and had a bullfighting theme to it. A couple of things made it quite unusual though. First were the heads of bulls that were mounted on the walls, half a dozen that I counted. It turned out that these were the heads of bulls that had actually survived the bull ring by goring the bullfighter. They do not live to fight another day, they are killed and, I guess, their heads are sold and sometimes mounted. The other thing was that the walls were covered with pictures of bullfighters. This, in itself, wouldn’t be unusual in Spain. However, every picture in here was of a bullfighter in the process of being gored, carried out of the ring, or in the hospital.
5) Trailer Park
Back on Manhattan is this place that looks like, well, I am not sure. Just a narrow place that you can’t miss if you walk by, kind of a pale green with a beat-up old sign, pink flamingos, and a mannequin of mini-skirted woman out front. The inside has more pink flamingos, Elvis on black velvet pictures, a bowling ball return that serves as a table, and an actual trailer against one wall. More mannequins inside, including one of an obviously pregnant woman, lights all over the place and covers of National Enquirer magazines grace the walls. You could spend an entire afternoon in here just looking at all the stuff they have packed in here.
You have to know where this place is in order to find it. There is just a banged up metal door with a red light above it with no sign. Walk inside and you are inside a cavernous bar with, shall we say, minimal décor. The bar looks like it is made of plywood and is covered with cigarette burns. There is an orange Harley Davidson permanently parked inside, a Playboy pinball machine and a photo-booth. The walls are covered with Japanese anime style art by a local artist. You want to avoid the bathroom if you can. Hanging on the wall is a toilet bowl with a blow-up doll that looks like she is barfing into it. Pretty much a beer and a shot place.
7) Holland Bar
This is pretty much a run-of-the-mill dive bar. It is a really narrow place with just enough room for the bar, stools, and a row of people standing behind the stools. The place is usually packed and the people are friendly enough. What makes this place unusual is the urn containing the ashes of a former patron named Charlie that occupies a place of honor above the bar. The bartender also goes by the name of Doctor Bill and will give you a note on what looks like a prescription slip excusing you from work the next day.
8) Jimmy’s Corner
Right in Times Square this place is owned by Jimmy Glenn who boxed professionally and still is active as a trainer. The walls are covered with aging photographs of fighters and other memorabilia that has been accumulated over the years. The surface of the bar is covered with a decoupage of newspaper photos and other pictures of boxers. This is another place where you can spend a lot of time just looking at everything and talking to the bartender about it all.
9) St. Andrew’s
You find all kinds of Irish bars in New York, but this is the only Scottish pub that I have run into. The bartenders wear kilts and your initial reaction might be that this is a bit of a tourist trap. It isn’t though. They have a great selection of bottled and draft beers and, as you can imagine, a large selection of single malt Scotches including many that I had never heard of before, Scapa, Springbank, and Bruishladdich for example. They have a nice collection of drink-related books and lots of drink related conversations going on at the bar. The place was quite nicely decorated to capture the essence of a real Scottish pub.
10) Montero’s Bar
One of the few remaining old waterfront bars located on, appropriately enough, Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. They used to have a parrot in here when I first started frequenting the place but it died, probably of second-hand smoke before they passed the no smoking law. I have seen everything in here from a bare-chested Indian chanting at the bar to a man who claimed to have a sawdust filled leg. The bar has been in the same family forever and Pillar Montero, still sharp as a tack at 85, sits at her spot drinking white wine and reading the papers. And she knows more about sports than you do.
The Most Efficient Barman
This is a hard one to answer because most bartenders, at least in New York and most large cities, have to be efficient in order to survive. In fact I am generally in awe at how efficient they are. Now this doesn’t mean that they are all knowledgeable about how to make certain drinks, but that is a different issue. I find that there are fewer and fewer bartenders that have a grasp on how to make the classic cocktails such as a Manhattan or a Sidecar. Particularly I take issue with the failure to use bitters, a key ingredient in many drinks. I have even had bartenders claim that bitters is not an ingredient in a Manhattan and then, when I point out a recipe in a book that calls for it, they claim that their customers prefer the drink without the bitters. I ask them how they would know if they never prepared one that included bitters. On the other hand, more and more bartenders have gotten caught up in developing new and more exotic cocktails because they now think that is what their customers want.
The Most Interesting Cocktail Menu
Interesting to me may not be what is interesting to everyone. I prefer the old classic cocktails so two places come to mind. First is Flatiron Lounge, named after the Flatiron Building and the surrounding area in Manhattan. There is a lot of dark wood and wrought iron along with banquettes for lounging. The bar is art deco style and is supposed to have come from the Manhattan Ballroom. You walk through a yellow lit tunnel lined with barstools to get to the bar proper, kind of a futuristic Blade Runner approach to a classic old bar. The overhead lights are a bit futuristic looking too and the bar stools have black cushions. The red leather banquettes are along the sparkly blue and silver opposite the bar. Classic cabinetry behind the bar that is lit up in yellowish lights. If you love classic cocktails, this is the place to go. Remember I mentioned bitters, this place has at least four kinds. They offer flights of cocktails, three relatively, but still decent sized cocktails served on a silver tray. They know how to make drinks such as a Ward Eight and a Sidecar the way they should be made.
The second place is Brooklyn Social in, Brooklyn. It is this former prohibition era speakeasy and subsequent Italian social club that doesn’t look like it has changed much over the years. Narrow and dark and easy to walk by. Dark wood paneling lines the bottom half of the wall with yellowish cream colored plaster walls above. A few benches with black seats are tucked into three corners and black round tables with a single wooden chair each sit in front of two of them. Old photos of what looks like former club members adorn the walls They make both classic and not-so-classic drinks here. In fact they had fresh rosemary on the bar that they used in a drink they called an Almalfi. They also made the classics suck as a Brooklyn, made with straight rye whiskey, orange brandy, and a dash of bitters.
The Most Strange Cocktail
At a bar in Puerto Vallarta named de Santo’s my wife ordered a chocolate martini. Now I have tasted these when they have been made right and they can be quite good. This place made one that was basically gin shaken with ice with a squirt of Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup squirted into it. The syrup simply coagulated into a lump on the bottom of the glass. When I complained about it I was told that that was the way they made them here. Strange and strangely horrible. On top of that it was expensive, $9.00 American.
Most Interesting Bar Design
I guess I will have to refer back to Trailer Park. The design of the place is what made it an interesting bar.
How I Picked My Bars
I have lived in New York for about twenty-five years, both in Manhattan and Brooklyn, so I was familiar with hundreds of bars. I also used the internet to research bars in neighborhoods that I wasn’t familiar with and relied on Jimmy’s Best New York Irish Pub Guide, an excellent list of classy Irish pubs complete with a map showing you where they are. Because there are so many bars in New York once I found one bar it was easy to just walk around an find more. In Mexico and Spain I pretty much just walked around looking for bars and, again, because there are so many, had no problem finding plenty in which to have a drink. Also, once in a bar I would simply ask the bartender and customers to recommend other bars.
How Did I Visit Them; How Did I Travel
The vast majority of the bars that I visited were in New York. Many I could just walk to from where I live in Downtown Brooklyn. I also used the subway extensively. The subway also got me around in Spain, where they have an excellent subway system. In Mexico I pretty much just walked or, on occasion, took a bus to a small town.
Did I Use Evaluation Cards
I carried recipe cards along with me. I found that one recipe card, front and back, held just about the amount of information that I could reasonably post on my blog. I didn’t really evaluate bars as much as I tried to capture enough of the flavor of the bar so someone who read my blog and then walked into the place would say “Yep, this is the way he said it was.” If there was something particularly good or bad about a place I would make a note of it though. Good usually was a friendly bartender, interesting décor, great drinks, or friendly customers. Bad was almost always an indifferent bartender and poorly made drinks.
Difficulties In Joining Other Customers
I really didn’t experience many difficulties in joining in with other customers. I visited most of my bars during the day when there tend to be fewer customers and they tend to be regulars. Generally it was easy enough to engage them in conversation. The bartender was often key to this, but most bartenders are, by nature, friendly and conversational. Once people found out about my quest to visit 1000 bars in a year it was really easy talk to them. Of course you did find the neighborhood bars where anyone other than a regular wasn’t welcome and you realized that very quickly. These were usually the ones with an older clientele and, often enough, a bit of illegal activity going on, either smoking (against the law in New York now) or a bit of bookie action. This was a fairly rare exception though. Even in Spain and Mexico I had little problems communicating and conversing. I guess I am naturally converational.
Best Happy Hour
Lots of good happy hours in New York bars but $2 draft beers at Angry Wade’s in Brooklyn rates as one of my favorites because I like the place and it is close to where I live. At Rolf’s, in Manhattan, the drink prices aren’t all that great during happy hour but they put out trays of little sandwiches that are simply fantastic.
I would have to go with Flatiron Lounge for the best all around cocktails. I am a big Margarita fan though, and it has to be made right, fresh lime juice and absolutely no pre-made mix. For those I can recommend Mesa Grill and La Palapa Rockola, both in Manhattan. La Palapa Rockola was really great. The bartender’s name was Margarite, how perfect was that. She made a great margarita and mixed chili powder with the salt to rim the glass to give it a real kick. When I told her how much I liked it she whipped me up samples of a frozen hibiscus margarita and a ginger and blood orange margarita. They were both great as well.
Most Expensive Cocktail
In New York cocktails tend to be on the expensive side with the price escalating with the supposed classiness of the establishment. I think the most I paid for a drink was a $14 Bombay Martini in a few places. The most over-priced drinks that I had were a Dewar’s and Soda at a T.G.I. Friday’s in Brooklyn where I was charged $9.78 and they added the tax on top of that to make it an even $10.50. That was, in my opinion, outrageous. Another rip-off was the $10 house Margarita at Back Porch in Manhattan. Syrupy and with no discernable taste of tequila. I was gratified to see it go out of business and be replaced with a Caliente Cab Co.
I am 61 years old but started my journey through a 1000 bars when I was 60. I retired from the computer consulting business at 55 after starting my own sub-contracting firm. I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota and have traveled around quite a bit and lived in a number of different places including Boston, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky. I also traveled and stayed temporarily in lots of places due to the nature of my work. These included places such as Plymouth, Michigan, Hartford, Connecticut, Atlanta, Georgia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and more. I guess, because I traveled around a lot, I developed a skill in striking up conversations with strangers and an affinity for bars where it was easy to meet people.
I had done a few related activities prior to this. For example I once took a motorcycle trip with a friend from Minneapolis to Toronto, Canada where we tried to have a drink in 100 different bars. We only managed to hit 77 and yes, I know it was a foolish thing to do and I would never repeat it. A friend and I also put together a Bar Trek where the objective was to hit 26 bars in a single day. In the five years that we ran it only two people successfully completed the circuit.
It just kind of occurred to me one day that visiting 1000 bars in a single year would be something that I could do but would be hard enough to pose a real challenge. I also had never heard of anyone who had done such a thing. I know of one person who is now attempting it, but nobody has ever come forward to claim that they have done it. After talking to a few of my friends about this and, by and large, being told I was crazy, I decided to just do it. I started on New Years day with the encouragement of my brother-in-law Jim and the rest is history. Needless to say I have been overwhelmed with the interest in what I have done. It started out as a lark and the blog was more or less a way for me to keep track of what I was doing. I could never have imagined that it would become so popular.