What Makes A Bar, More Than Just A Bar?

The other day I was scanning my RSS feeds, and the following headline from the NY Times caught me off guard and stopped me in my tracks… “The Last, Lush Hours of Bill’s Gay Nineties” “Bill’s Gay Nineties is closed?” I asked out loud to myself. Surely the headline was a joke.

Bar Sign Collage

The other day I was scanning my RSS feeds and the following headline from the NY Times caught me off guard and stopped me in my tracks…

“The Last, Lush Hours of Bill’s Gay Nineties”

“Bill’s Gay Nineties is closed?” I asked out loud to myself.

Surely the headline was a joke. Just a ruse to get people to click on the link and read a story they were writing about Bill’s long history and connections to Prohibition.



After 88 years (having never closed its doors since it opened during Prohibition), Bill’s was closing because the owner lost her lease. It’s a sad and bitter ending to a legendary NYC watering hole. Here’s a brief quote from the NY Times article.

“Bill’s — a time-warp relict of the hegemony of hard liquor in a neighborhood now sleek and seduced by mixology — was pubby, snug and stained-wood-clad till the bitter, boozy end. It has been a clean, well-lighted place for generations of bon vivants, and was suddenly swarmed with nostalgic customers after Ms. Olmsted announced the closing earlier this month. Visitors trod its murky carpeting and made pilgrimages to the ghost-frequented, oak-timbered dining room on the second floor.”

Bill's Gay Nineties

Based on my surprise and sadness at the news of its closing, you'd think I had been a regular at Bill's. The truth is that I had only been to Bill’s one time. A few years ago, I met up with an old college friend while in NYC for business. And just like the old friend I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years, I connected with Bill’s instantly. It sounds cliche, but it was a homecoming for me in many ways. The place just felt right. The way a bar should feel.

Although I barely knew Bill’s Gay Nineties, I can say without a doubt that it will be missed – even if it can resurface at a new location. I hope the new version is as welcoming as the original.

Bill’s demise made me think about what makes a bar more than a bar. What elevates a bar to more than just a “hole in the wall” that serves alcohol?

What makes it a place you feel connected to – like it’s an extension of your circle of friends?

For me, a bar has to be inviting. If it were a person, it would be approachable, easy to talk to and, above all else, honest. It’s that honesty that really does it for me. Any pretense or ego instantly turns me off. Only the real deal can be more than just a bar to me.

A bar’s soul is its bartender. The bartender should exhibit the same qualities as the bar itself (some may say that the bartender’s character actually defines the bar’s character) and be a master at remembering people, recalling their drink of choice and adept at storytelling.

Along with these qualities, the bar has to be comfortable in a physical sense. I like many leather chairs that can be easily rearranged so I can “banter” with my friends. If all you have is bar stools and tall chairs, I probably won’t be there for more than one drink. And, of course, the music volume needs to be low enough for me to carry on a conversation.

Of course, this is just my own opinion. I decided to ask the Bourbon & Banter community on Facebook for their thoughts on the subject, and here’s what they had to say.

“Attractive and friendly bartenders who free-pour.”

“A bartender that knows you and knows your drink. Being pretty and blonde doesn’t hurt either…”

“Perfectly crafted cocktails …… Or good booze straight with “a friendly neighborhood crowd”

“The Banter, of course.”

“Excellent question. I was on temporary assignment a few summers ago in Greenville, SC. While several of my colleagues gravitated to the sports bar scene…I found an out-of-the-way, yet classy establishment, with a manager/bartender that knew his whiskeys. After one night, all I had to do was walk in after shift, sit down, and he immediately poured my bourbon of choice (for their establishment) each night. The lighting was low, but not dark—traditional bar, with rail, with comfortable seats. Before 10 PM, there was no music, just the ballgame on the TV, with the sound muted. After 10 PM, the music was in the background, but not so loud that you couldn’t carry on a conversation. And finally…on the menu was a chef’s choice marinated ribeye with garlic mashed potatoes. It made my time away from home less lonely.”

“Atmosphere, good food, friendly staff and the right drink selection.”

“Good atmosphere, and a great selection of scotches and whiskeys/bourbons. Music isn’t bad if it isn’t too loud, I like to be able to carry on a conversation, and besides, my hearing isn’t what it used to be. A friendly staff is always a plus, especially a bartender. I’ve always felt, and this is just me, that a great bartender makes the tavern what it is … and great people that enjoy a good, well-made drink.”

Clearly, we all have our own opinions on the subject. What I think is important is that we all continue to seek out these bars, these homes away from home, these places of good friends and good banter.

I’d love to hear what you think makes a bar great. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.


~ Pops

PS – Feel free to share with us your favorite bar. You never know when we’ll need a recommendation in your neighborhood.

Note: Bar Sign montage by Matt Weber.