Building a better bar


Of all the components of a New York, professional life the one that has most consistently fallen short of expectations is my weekend nightlife. This smacks of confession of inner failing — something that belongs on Group Hug instead of this esteemed space. But I suspect I’m not alone here. Don’t get me wrong: I have plenty of fun on weekends. It’s simply a matter of unfair expectations consistently unmet.

Or high expectations aside: $50 spent, 7 hard-earned hours consumed, and a that freshly “hit by bus” feeling Sunday morning. Is it unreasonable to expect significant returns on that investment?

If this forum was about cool rationality, this post would be about those unfair expectations and moderation. But it’s not, so let’s find an scapegoat. Who is to blame? Grab your torches and your pitchforks and let’s go.

Bars! It’s all bars fault! These supposed factories of social lubrication more often turn out to be social sandpaper. The standard recipe of three part booze, one part striped shirt, and two parts Bon Jovi rarely bakes into 10 digits. There are a couple ingredients missing here. We can do better! Si se puede!

The problem is a stunning lack of innovation in the bar scene. It is the one institution that somehow remains aloof to changes in technology and social norms. A bar is 1) a room, 2) a bartender and 3) some booze and that hasn’t changed since Middle Age taverns. Bars that are commonly considered “different” frankly are really not. The most extreme examples you hear are “it plays 80s music” or “it has a secret entrance” or “it has a giant ice sculpture.” I want to throw out some random ideas for what could truly make a bar both stand out and better serve its purpose (social lubricant). A few different categories:


Currently at the forefront: Communal seating.

As mis Nuevoyorquinos know, people love Zum Sneider on Avenue C and Spitzer’s Corner on Rivington. Don’t let anyone convince you it’s the hefeweizen that’s bringing people in. It’s definitely those long wooden tables that force you to rub shoulders with strangers.

Sake Bar Satsko is my personal favorite for design-coerced socialization. Small individual tables laid side-by-side with bench seating on an elevated platform and a small L-shaped bar that is always friendly. Plus the bartender Jesse always wants in on the action. Sake bomb?

The next level: Privacy-averse design.

Still I would define communal seating in bars at best as “privacy-neutral.”Can we take the idea a bit farther? Make it something more coercive? One way is table curvature. Large round tables force conversation. But they have to be large enough to be inhabited by multiple groups. Three-walled enclosures (“nooks”) have a similar effect. While the configuration can help, the key is forcing people to sit with strangers

Step change: Dislocation

A bar doesn’t have to be a storefront. It can move. Same people, same bartenders, same attitude, but different scenery every week. Michael points out that laundromats should get into the bar business. Maybe bars can get into the laundry business on Sunday afternoon. A bar can convene at a baseball game, in the park with some brown bags, even in someone’s apartment! All it takes is an email to its patrons…

Crowd control:

Currently at the forefront: Limiting ingress

At Death & Co and the Bourgeoisie Pig, there’s often a wait but always a seat for me. These places are destinations and not pit stops on a barhop. They are comfortable and cool and make people want to linger. We have the asshole doorman to thank for that.

The next level: Limit egress

Sounds like a firecode violation, but hear me out.

First the advantages of limiting egress: A relatively static room of individuals leads to greater opportunities for socialization. The constant coming and going common to bar-heavy neighborhoods in New York leaves patrons disoriented and without the ability to “stalk their prey.” The ability to scope a scene and interact with the same set of people in different configurations eases socialization

There is exactly one practical way I can think of to this. Have people pay admission for multiple hours (with open-bar or drink tickets to have it all make sense). Individuals react irrationally to sunk costs. They will suppress their Friday-night wanderlust due to the initial monetary outlay. This phenomenon is beneficial to the bar scene as a whole, possibly justifying the policy.

Step change: Customer recruiting

When I want to throw a small get together, I send out a 20 person email. When I want to throw a rager, I send out a Facebook invite and evite. Sometimes I invite work friends. Sometimes school friends. Sometimes both. My recruiting choices give me a degree of control over the tone of the party. This is why house parties are usually better than bar parties — someone took the care to recruit.

Fancy clubs play the same game with promotors. There is no reason mainstream bars and lounges can’t play as well. Recruit some people who you think might get along. Invite people with the same profession or same interests. Invite only beatiful people. Invite only fat people. Invite only weird people. Everyone will have a better time. Invite some people 9PM-11PM and others 11PM-2AM and others 2AM-4AM. So many permutations. And someone’s job should be to organize this stuff.

Social engineering

Currently on the forefront: The neighborhood bar

Everyone loves a bar where they recognize a few folks and know the bartender. This is unintentional and informal social enginering at work. We can do better though …

The next level: The internets!

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Social networking lately has been that hammer. Fortunately, we’ve got the perfect nail. In the end, the business of a bar is in-person social networking. They need expand their capabilities online. Why can’t I Facebook the people who were at my bar last night even without knowing their names? Better yet, why can’t I Facebook the people who WILL be at my bar tonight? Bars need to get in on the social networking game that is increasingly being played on the internet. Pretty soon it will be played on handhelds with GPS. Is the girl in the corner single? Let me check my iPhone. Yes … and she likes the same type of movies as me.

Step change: Behavioral bars

Friends are usually pretty good at setting people up with others they think might hit it off. Bars don’t even try. In the same way that Google can serve me a relevant advertisement, bars should be able to serve me a relevant person. The mechanism is a bit tricky but not out of reach. Could Facebook or Google send me to a relevant bar algorithmically? Or even simpler — how about a behavioral bar directory where you can self-allocate based on the type of people you want to meet?

Providing common ground

At the forefront: Board games and Buck Hunter.

In other words, the “forefront” here is pretty lame. How can you give people more to talk about than the weather and what drinks they’re holding? And it doesn’t have to be kitschy or ironic.

The next level: Activities

Beer pong, flip cup, looking at art, contests, dice, debates, karaoke, 7 minutes in heaven, square dancing lessons, never-have-I-ever. Give me something to do besides sit around nursing a gin and tonic. Activities provide common ground and force interaction. Already done to some degree but would like to see more.

Step change:Introductions

A couple times I’ve convinced my friends to wear nametags out to bars. (not real names) The theory is a nametag will create common ground and make your more approachable. The most effective nametag: Dr. Zizmor. People will come up to you: “Hey, I saw you on the subway. Can you make my skin beautiful?”The nametag offered a small way for each of us to promote an aspect of our personality and create common ground. While not a game-changer, it does work.

How can a bar force people to let out more of themselves and create common ground? Their ability to fight anonymity will better serve their purpose. I have a couple ideas, but send me your thoughts.

Finally — painfully obvious but often ignored:

Unless there’s a dance floor, turn down the fucking music. Thanks.


Readers? Other nudges to encourage socialization at bars? Throw them in the comments.


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9 Responses to “Building a better bar”

  1. Dan Berger Says:

    Awesome post- got linked here by Jesse P.

  2. Jasper Says:

    As someone who spends a large fraction of his weekend hours frequenting and complaining about the DC bar scene, I was excited to read about innovations that could solve my social woes. There are some great ideas in here. But I think it only just begins to get at the biggest one: doing the hard work ourselves.

    Last night, I went out to dinner with some family friends at a trendy restaurant in Baltimore. As we waited for our table, I noticed a beautiful woman eating by herself at the other end of the bar. We made eye contact and smiled at one another. She was holding a wine glass in her left hand and there was no ring on her third finger. Immediately, I had obtained several pieces of useful information:
    1. She did not have a dining companion that night.
    2. She was obstensibly single.
    3. She had enough self-confidence to go out to eat by herself–not something many people do when not out of town.
    4. She was dark-haired, with big dark eyes and a great smile: superficially, just my type.

    So why didn’t I go over and talk to her? If we want to assign some blame to the restaurant, we can say that she sitting at exactly the opposite end of an L-shaped bar, about twenty-five feet from me, and there was no share/space next to her to stand. But that wasn’t why I really didn’t go over to talk to her. I didn’t go over to talk to her because I was a fucking pussy. Instead, I finished my drink, then sat down at my table and spent the next thirty minutes stealing glances at the back of her head during pauses in the conversation.

    I regretted my decision and of course blamed my own timidity, but being human, I’m looking for ways to diffuse the responsibility, and this post gave me pause for thought. Your search for ways that bars should make it easier for us to meet other people reflects less about the bars than about ourselves: As you so rightly point out, bars have remained essentially the same in design and format over the centuries. What has changed is the mindset of the people who frequent them. We are afraid of going out and doing the hard work of meeting people that we somehow used to be so good at.

    What is to blame for the change? The obvious culprit is the internet. Much as I enjoy perusing Facebook, it has gotten me in trouble a number of times when I know more about a relative stranger who happened to catch my eye than I have any right to know. (The irony, of course, is that in reality I actually know much less about this person than I think I do.) Having all this information at our fingertips prevents us from having to go over to that beautiful stranger at the other end of the bar, finding out what kinds of movies she likes, what she does for a living, whether she likes the city or the country, the oceans or the mountains, and so forth. Because as anyone who has ever been involved in someone who has different tastes than themselves can attest, what makes this person interesting is not what she answers when asked what her favorite movie is, but the way she answers it. People like people because of the way they behave like people–in quirky, unpredictable, charmingly human ways. (Humor, sarcasm, and wit on Facebook profiles are slightly different–how people present themselves (their ‘online social selves’) to the Internet audience is a fascinating subject that would make good fodder for a post of its own.) That we go out to bars and then sit in the corner talking to the same four people we came with while eying that cute blond girl the next table over doing exactly the same thing with her friends is probably less the fault of the bar than our own timidity.

    So while all of the improvements you propose are good at aiming to overcome our fear of breaking out and meeting new people (and the bars that I like the best are those that implement some of version of these), ultimately the final impulse to go out and meet people has to be our own. Don’t go to bars with the same three friends every weekend. Don’t go to crowded bars where you can’t hear yourself speak, but instead go to places with character that in turn draw people with interesting character. Excuse yourself from your dinner companions for a few minutes and introduce yourself to that beautiful stranger at the bar. Worst case scenario, she doesn’t have a ring because her fiancé is flying into town to propose tomorrow. But you got up and went over–that’s the hard part, the fear or rejection is far worse than rejection itself–and assuming your dinner companions aren’t totally boors, they won’t begrudge you having left for a moment nor make fun of your failure to get her number. Now you know how easy it is to do it again. And best case scenario, you both met a hottie and enjoyed a dinner with your friends, all in the space of an hour. How’s that for multitasking?

    The final innovation you mention–and the most successful by far–is that bars provide activities that promote social interaction. After all, this is how people have been meeting others, in and out of bars, throughout history: at work, in history seminar, playing frisbee in the park, in woolly mammoth-hunting parties. Of course, even if karaoke or square-dancing lessons are on offer someplace, the hardest part is picking up the mike or putting on your cowboys boots and hitting the dance floor. And the one thing that you mention as actually having worked in the past–wearing a name tag–is something you decided to do because you get fed up and took the initiative to try something new.

    As for me, I’m taking the small step of posting a missed connection on Craigslist. I’ll post a link to this blog.

  3. Jasper Says:

    And one more thing that occurs to me after a few more moments’ thought: the real hard part is not picking up the karaoke mike or stepping onto the square-dancing floor, but choosing to go to the socialization-conducive bar filled with people (admittedly?) looking for some help, rather than the boring, crowded, noisy place that is always filled with beautiful people. Ay, there’s the rub!

  4. Jasper’s thoughts: Building a better bar « The Invisible Hand, in your pants Says:

    […]  Jasper thinks we need to do the hard work ourselves. […]

  5. Santi Says:

    At last! Good post Phil. I guess…

    God bless the meatpacking district!

  6. Encouraging entrepreneurship « The Invisible Hand, in your pants Says:

    […] you are a fledging entrepreneur with a great idea in your head (for example building a better bar or better prostitution ring). What determines whether you follow through – soft factors like […]

  7. Guys love to aim « The Invisible Hand, in your pants Says:

    […] games (guys only). I’m lobbying to for “step change” status in Phil’s canonical bar analysis. Before you dismiss this brilliant idea as gross or weird, hear me out: I’m imagining deep […]

  8. Social Engineering: Mystery Guest Events « The Invisible Hand, in your pants Says:

    […] Transaction costs and information asymmetries are well-established culprits in causing market failures. But fortunately, economists have devised a few ways to overcome these barriers. I have become increasingly interested in using social engineering and the economic principles of “signaling” and “screening” to devise ways to vanquish the Three Why Nots. Here’s one example (also see Building a Better Bar). […]

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