In a 2006 Wall Street Journal column, writer and jazz musician Eric Felten described his ideal bar, Blair's Blue Room. It has a long mahogany bar, white table cloths, a pianist (joined by bass and guitar on weekends), no TVs or sound system, and old-school bartenders who "realize a Martini is a drink of gin and vermouth," nothing else. Blair's Blue Room, of course, doesn't exist and never did. Felten concluded:
Sadly, I've never found a bar that has even half the virtues of my imagined Blair's Blue Room. Yes, I know where to find a beautiful hotel bar with big windows that look out on an entertainingly crowded street; I know of exacting bartenders who measure every drink they mix. But there is hardly a room in the country that has the courage to go without the dull laugh-track aesthetic of canned music. Rarer still is the spot that has the right glass for the right drink. But if you know of a bar that comes close, as [George] Orwell said, "I should be glad to hear of it."
Felten was referring to Orwell's 1946 Evening Standard column on The Moon Under Water, Orwell's own ideal--and imaginary--public house. Orwell's criteria included "draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio." The garden was of particular importance "because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone." Orwell's vision, like Felten's, went unrealized, although some pubs came close:
I know pubs where the beer is good but you can’t get meals, others where you can get meals but which are noisy and crowded, and others which are quiet but where the beer is generally sour. As for gardens, offhand I can only think of three London pubs that possess them. But, to be fair, I do know of a few pubs that almost come up to the Moon Under Water. I have mentioned above ten qualities that the perfect pub should have and I know one pub that has eight of them. Even there, however, there is no draught stout, and no china mugs.
I find both Blair's Blue Room and the Moon Under Water deeply appealing, and it's a disappointment to conclude that I know of no place like them here in San Francisco (although my brother David's bar in Washington DC, All Souls--that's him above--certainly fulfills his own ideal vision.)
Why does this matter? Because there's something uniquely valuable in public spaces that foster a sense of community, particularly in densely-populated cities where we face a stark choice between the anonymity of the street and the cloister of the home (an idea explored more fully in Ray Oldenburg's The Great Good Place.) There's something worth preserving in the culture that we've inherited, from old-fashioned cocktails to classic jazz. And there's something important about environments that shield us from electronic intrusion, that promote intimate conversation over the tyranny of the screen.
We don't have many places that reflect these values, an absence that Oldenburg highlights as he contrasts the German beer garden with the typical Anglo-American saloon:
[The beer garden] was a garden in a double sense--in addition to the greenery, human relationships and goodwill were cultivated. The atmosphere in which this is accomplished most effectively has a name well-understood in the German language. It is Gemütlichkeit. What is Gemütlich is warm and friendly. It is cozy and inviting. Of all the failings of the Yankee saloon, its lack of Gemütlichkeit was undoubtedly the greatest. Such places were for the brawlers and those determined to get drunk, but not for a man and his family nor for those who measured their enjoyment by the pleasure on others' faces.
The closest I've come to enjoying this atmosphere was the period when Amy and I frequented the Moss Room, the original version of the restaurant underneath the restored Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, which, lamentably, closed suddenly and all too soon. I don't really expect to find it again, but every once in a while I catch a glimpse of it.
Photo by Libby Jones.