Where everybody knows your name

An explosion of bars is feeding on our fantasy of the ultimate Nineties hang-out. Can they replace the pub in British affections, or are they just too trendy for their own good? asks Matthew Sweet
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Pubs are rubbish. Here are four pieces of evidence: draught liebfraumilch; lager and lime in a ladies' glass; monster truck racing on Sky Sports; brewers' inability to see that there's only so many times you can put the word "firkin" in front of a word and still expect people to find it funny - no matter how pissed they are.

Today's public-house punter is forced to choose between the pseudo-Celtic pub - an Eiresatz temple to "craic" filled with unidentifiable pieces of agricultural machinery - and the Victorian pub-manque, a institution drunk on the dubious pleasures of chicken-in-a-basket Pre-Raphaelitism and the Heritage Experience of stained glass windows in the B&Q style: flat-packed ambience for the Happy Drinker.

What everyone wants is a friendly neighbourhood bar with style and squashy sofas, a place where - just for instance - everybody knows your name, and where they're always glad you came. Somewhere cosy like Central Perk, the coffee bar in Friends, where you might while away the hours when there's nothing good on the telly by having engagingly kooky conversations just like Jennifer Aniston. Or, perhaps most radically, there might even be a market for a cocktail bar where they don't play Shakatak and that isn't stuffed with braying seccies asking the bartender to give them a Long Slow Screw.

Thankfully, this gap in the market is being enthusiastically filled: in a relatively short time, a new breed of bars has successfully colonised the capital. From the battered charms of The Living Room on Soho's Bateman Street, to the more self-consciously glamorous pleasures of Riki Tik on, er, Soho's Bateman Street, Londoners now have a plethora of stylish alternatives to the Pig and Whistle. Some might be too stylish for their own good: Riki Tik, whose patrons subsist on a diet of Woo-Wou - a cocktail of vodka, peach schnapps, lemon and cranberry juice - recently refused Quentin Tarantino entry on the grounds that his couture didn't make the grade. They also masterminded last week's Brit Awards - a little more ambitious than your local boozer's darts tournament. If you go, be sure to take your best dancing pants.

However, like a lot of good ideas (Vimto, Morrissey, Uncle Joe's Mint Balls), the new bar is a Mancunian invention. With its polished floor and fridges full of Moscow Mule, Dry 201 on Oldham Street was breaking out the board games long before loungecore and Madame Jojo made Ker-Plunk more glamorous than roulette. And it was the first to install toilets so stainless steel minimalist that patrons would regularly wee into the hand-dryers.

Created by Factory, the people who brought you the Hacienda, Dry spawned a series of swish oases owned by clubbing empire-builders, all keen to provide a place to meet before the evening's session of nosebleed house. Consequently, the city's Canal Street district is now pitted with aggressively fashionable watering holes like Mantos and Prague Five, catering largely to an affluent constituency of gays and strays.

But what is it that makes a bar a bar and not a pub or a club? Is it more than an absence of a Give Us a Break machine or those bags of peanuts stapled to a photo of a page 3 girl? John Beach thinks he has the answer. He ought to know, as he runs a consultancy that offers advice to bars on what to serve and who to employ to serve it. For him, the pub is all too often a shrine to complacency, while the bar has the potential to be a university of the palate, where his "mixologists" (the bar staff) can "educate people into how to drink liquor properly". And bars, he says, "aren't so much about getting pissed".

While "researching cocktails" in the States, he decided that Britain needed a shot of the skills of New York's bartenders. To this end, he's imported practitioners from swish joints like the Rainbow Room, and hired Dale de Groff, the elder statesman of the cocktail shaker, to give lectures and lead seminars with London's aspirant high-ballers. And he's a man with a mission to rehabilitate the cocktail: "People say that London's swinging and becoming glamorous again, and that's kind of true. But when you think of cocktails, this image of Del Boy Trotter with a sparkler in his pina colada still comes to mind". Instead, Beach preaches the technical discipline of frosted martini glasses and frozen peach puree, anticipating "a massive boom in cocktails in the next six months".

In fact, the sector is growing so fast that insiders suspect a backlash may prevent the bar from becoming the community centre of the Blair generation. "The mid-market has gone so intimidatingly trendy, it could easily eat itself," argues Beach. Even if that happens, the institution is sure to autocannibalise in a stylish frenzy of freshly squeezed cranberry juice.

THE VINYL CAFE Inverness Street, London NW1

Regulars include (main pic, left to right) Marcus, 21, DJ; Ben, 31, journalist; Lawrence, 26, guitarist; Fabienne, 23, "matchmaker"; Jenny, 34, researcher

The Vinyl Cafe is Camden's smartest venue for that pre-club discussion of Russian formalism, or a quick cappuccino and chapter of Kerouac. Jenny was attracted to the bar's sleekly industrial aesthetics and changing art exhibitions: "It feels fresh - pubs can be dank and smoky and have old carpets. The bar's a nice place to go on your own and read the papers on a Sunday afternoon." It's also good for less sedentary occupations: "I feel like getting dressed up to go to the bar, whereas if I go to my local pub I just throw on an old bomber jacket. And if you're looking to pick someone up it's a lot better: flirting here is sexy, but not lechy."

THE LIVING ROOM 3 Bateman Street, London W1

Regulars include (pictured above, left to right): Michael, 24, "occasional playwright"; Katy, 26, Anna, 26 and Matthew, 25, all actors

Of the new bars that have sprung up around Soho, the Living Room has made the best attempt at the cuddly stylishness of Friends. Michael explains: "If I go in on my own I know I'll meet people, but it's also the sort of place where you can sit on your own and read a book and not feel like a plonker. The armchairs look like they've come out of a skip, but they're very comfortable". Most regulars, he says, are a bit on the arty side: "sometimes you walk in and they'll all be sitting there with sketch pads and it can look a bit wanky, but it has a very informal feel." And are they always glad he came? "Its not like Cheers, no-one says 'Hey, Michael!' when I walk in".