The Phenomenon: Stylized saloons
The Bars: 119 Bar, the Belmont Lounge
In a restaurant, the design is one of the many elements that can add to or detract from your experience there. While it sort of matters that you’re eating sushi in a faux ninja lair or beneath the creepy gaze of a glowing Buddha, it matters more that the check is twenty kafillion dollars or that the dragon rolls give you worms. On the list of disasters that could befall a person while dining, having to look at an unattractive sconce is toward the bottom.
Bars, though, are a different story. With certain froofy exceptions, drinks are pretty much the same across the board. It’s not like they’re making the beer fresh to order or anything. And again excepting the froofy drinks, prices are going to be within a few bucks of each other no matter where you go. For bars, design is like an outfit, explaining to casual observers what category it fancies itself to be in. Like how you judge a dude in a suit and a dude in a Green Lantern ringer tee differently, even if they live in the same building and make the same amount of money.
The perfect example of this is the block of 15th between Union Square and Irving Place. Sitting right next to each other are the Belmont Lounge and 119 Bar. Go in and order a Guinness at either place, and it’s going to set you back about five bucks. But because 119 Bar is all stylishly ratty, with their purposely ripped booths and purposely graffitied bathrooms and purposely (?) dirty glasses, it’s a considered a dive. And Belmont, which is tarted up all Meatpacking style with velvet couches and those little tables where you’re supposed to put your $400 bottle of booze and curtains as wallpaper, is a “club.” Granted, 119 Bar isn’t going to make you a $10 apple bellini, and the DJ at Belmont isn’t some guy with Whitesnake on his iPod, but essentially, these are the exact same establishments but for the décor. Yet walking by the smokers on the sidewalk, there’s no question about which patrons came from which place: in drinking land, they are night and day.
I guess the lesson here is that bars, like people, should be judged entirely on what they’re wearing. Ah, the things drinking can teach us.