What Makes a Pub?

La Cucaracha

Can you do the Can-Can?

At first the bird startles people. With its ability to make impossibly high-pitched croaks and whistles, it sounds more like a faulty smoke alarm or a broken stereo system than a myna bird. Only when it squawks do customers realize there’s a bird in the pub.

And after a while it’s sort of fun to watch the newcomers jolt with their inaugural squawk. throughout the evening, the bird gets rambunctious and lays out some serious vocals. It consistently freaks people out. It’s in a cage on the landing of the stairwell and everyone who goes to the bathroom stops to have a look at it.

It’s favorite song is the first half of the Can-can. For whatever reason the bird perennially sings the verse without ever getting to the refrain.

Other than pesky birds, the pub has other cool characteristics as well. It’s a brew pub, and designed with the giant brass vats used to boil and brew beer. The tables are close, so it’s impossible not to overhear the couple next to you whispering an argument about their pet dog. And the shots of hruškovice (pear brandy) are served with a little slice of pear on a toothpick, so you can feel quasi-healthy each time you shoot 100-proof liquor.

It’s Saturday night, so the mood is relaxed. The snow is coming down outside, so there’s an added element of enjoyment due to being warm, dry, and drunk all at the same time. It’s a perfect place to be on this snowy night, so I am wondering what makes this pub such a cool pub.

But then, what makes a cool pub in general?

As a guy who’s stood behind three bars serving drinks to all sorts of people, I have thought about this before. I have otherwise spent a lot of my lifetime on the intoxicated side of the bar obsessively studying the same question.

Just like potential partners, sex appeal, and funny, a pub can be perfect on paper but lack that special something in physical reality. And what is that “special something?” Surely, it’s sublime.

Some pubs are made cool by staff. A great staff can keep customers happy even when the night is less than ideal. A great staff also keeps the right energy flowing through a place and keeps the mood right. Pubs can similarly be made great by its overall unique character. A quiet, small, dirty pub in a basement might draw a bigger crowd than the neighboring pub with more space, more music, more windows, and more attentive cleaning ladies. There are pubs you want to visit late night and others you hit before going out.

The Czechs seem to understand this character. Czech pubs unapologetically stink of fried cigarettes and booze, and are often tended to by waitresses who may or may not want to give you a throat punch. They are void of music and amenities. If a Czech pub opened in the U.S. it would cause its customers post traumatic stress.

For all their cosmetic and personality failings, Czech pubs are better than the gentrified pubs which are so common these days. You know them. The cookie cutter, sterile pubs which have huge menus filled with items featuring ingredients you have never heard of. Places that often sound good on menus and on paper, but in reality are just the same place. In general I find these pubs lack the character needed to make them cool.

Some pubs have a gimmick and therefore sort of force its character. This isn’t always a bad thing, but I have found that I don’t frequent these places and simply go on occasion for a laugh. There was a pub in Pittsburgh whose bar was decorated with a large tree-house with a slide coming from its doorway. When someone tipped more than $10, a midget dressed as a caveman would slide down the slide and pour everyone shots.

As gimmicks go, that was a good one.

There are a few of these in Prague, ones which houses dozens of cats and another that has an archery range. Another one is decorated with old airplane parts and model airplanes. Small Czech pubs used to bring in clientele by having a topless waitress one night a week. It used to be (more) common to wander into a bar and get served a beer from a topless woman wearing a cardigan (cold on neck) and a bored frown.

When I get back from my revelry, I am no closer to answering my original question. I guess I know a cool pub when I sit in it. I also momentarily long for the days when you might stumble upon a topless waitress. The myna’s high-pitched whistle bolts into the first, and only, part of Can-can.

Who needs a topless waitress when you have a myna bird?

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