Friday, 31 December 2010

Your Local: A State Of Mind?

The following piece was published almost exactly five years ago today in the New York Times...
FOR the last nine years, the Blind Tiger Ale House on Hudson Street in the West Village was one of the best places for New York's beer lovers to be on New Year's Eve. But last night, its doors were locked. The wee hours of Dec. 29 marked the end of an era - the last pint was poured at the Tiger...

The place had been around for only a decade, but in that time it became practically world famous for its beer selection. American microbrews, classic Belgians and a selection of others handpicked from around the globe were poured from 24 taps, two handpulls and endless bottles.

But the Tiger was more than just a place where you could count on drinking a Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale in the fall and Southampton Double Espresso Stout in the winter. It was a cornerstone of the West Village, a place where people from the neighborhood and beyond came to enjoy good company and great beer.

It didn't seem special at first glance. It was dark and a little dingy, just one small room with a few wooden tables. The graffiti in the downstairs men's room elevated profanity to an art form, and not all the barstools had their legs intact. The bar itself was elegant - a deep brown wood with zebra-like stripes in the grain. There were two televisions, but the Tiger was no sports bar.

I soon became one of the regulars. So regular that on Friday afternoons, the Tiger became my office. I sat at the corner of the bar with my laptop and cellphone, drinking seltzer, chatting with Louise the bartender and trying to make sure the bar cats (Sierra and Liberty) didn't pounce on my keyboard. And though the Tiger was a good place to work, it was an even better place to socialize.

But now, the bar is closed. Apparently, what has happened one block over on Bleecker Street is now happening on Hudson. The small, independently owned businesses are giving way to the fancy chain stores... While I understand the economics of the situation, it is still galling, even wrong. I have so many memories associated with the Tiger. Of sharing good times, birthdays, engagements. Of rallying behind a friend in need. And I'll never forget that night in September when regulars and a soot-covered news crew gathered at the bar as Humvees barreled up Hudson Street, away from the smoldering ruins of the twin towers.

There's talk that the Tiger will return, a few blocks away, and I would be the first in line for a pint. In a city of strangers, we find our families in funny places - coffee shops, office cubicles and, sometimes, the corner bar. I haven't yet heard of that happening in a Ralph Lauren boutique.
My mate Pete Fornatale wrote that, marking the closure of the old Blind Tiger. I met him and a lot of my other NY friends in there, and when I go back, the new Tiger on Bleecker Street is the first place I go. Last time I was in NYC, I hardly left. It's my New York local, and for more reasons than just the beer. It's a place where everybody knows my name. OK, I exaggerate, but chances are somebody will be there who I know if I stop in for a pint.

The loss of The Royal Albert in SW8 (Stockwell or Clapham or Vauxhall depending on your preference) started me thinking, and Pete's piece is as fitting a eulogy for a lost pub as any I've read. The Albert was a 'local' for me for almost a decade from around 1993. A pub owned by reviled Whitbread, hiding under their Hogshead brand, yet a committed management team used to run regular real ale fests around the time I started exploring the UK cask beer scene. When it stopped being a Hogshead and the beer choice became pedestrian, I still used it. Last time I was in, almost a decade ago, the barmaid was a tranny and it had a 'fringe' vibe. I was drinking light & bitter, the bitter being Worthington Smoothflow. Another mutation of a pub that must have reinvented itself almost half a dozen times in the years I used it. Most recently, it had apparently gone gastro, to no avail.

I've never really had one pub that runs as a thread throughout my beer-drinking. But I wonder, does anyone? Our expectations and tastes change, the market changes and pubs come and go. As the Albert slips into oblivion a neighbouring pub, The Canton, which I knew as a lairy locals pub with Sizzling Steaks, keg beer and Big Screen Football is apparently one of Fay Maschler's Top Ten new London restaurants (it's a PUB, Fay).

How many 'locals' does a drinker have during a lifetime? Is it always a local for the same reasons? Does it have to be nearby to be local? Perhaps there are weird and mysterious psychogeographical forces at play which lead us to our watering-holes. I dunno. This year I've paid more attention to the numbers of closures, the "49 pubs a week", "29 pubs a week" tale of the tape BBPA reports on every quarter, but I wonder, does anybody ever record the personal stories, the community of experiences, that were lost with each pub that closed? "In a city of strangers, we find our families in funny places", wrote Pete. Does that ring true in 2010 Britain?

Go careful now. And Happy New Year!


Unknown said...

Perhaps it's because when we say 'local' we actually mean 'regular'? Your drank at a local pub and became a regular there because there *was* one. Or, in the case of the town where I was brought up, sixteen. There was a pub for all tastes (just about) and some would be defined simply by what they were not; not where your Dad drank, not where you felt uncomfortable, not where you wouldn't get served...

If your 'local' didn't offer what you wanted, you went elsewhere.

Today, I'm a regular at a pub in the next village rather than the three that are five minutes walk down the road from my house. Because it offers me the combination of sociability and beer that I'm looking for.

In my mind, your 'local' pub is the one where you feel content, somewhere to meet mates or seek solace, something to be part of. And then it happens to serve the beer you're after. And it could be anywhere.

Birkonian said...

The local is severely threatened. Cheap supermarket alcohol and Sky Sports have combined to make staying in an attractive proposition to many.