The 5 Defining Characteristics of a Great Place to Get Drunk
After having spent the past 10 years as a stand-up comedian, drinking in bars, and having just hosted Barmageddon, a show for truTV that is set in them, I can honestly say that I know bars better than any functional human being ever should.
Over the years, I've probably given them half my income and 100 percent of my dignity, and along the way I've learned a lot about these noble institutions -- namely that there are five factors that must be considered when determining how great a bar actually is. Well, six if you count whether or not a bartender is willing to give you a hand job in the parking lot before she goes home to her five kids, but so far that has turned out to be an isolated incident and part of why I'll always love Billings, Montana.
The other five factors are:
It Should Feel Used
A bar has gotta look like it's been enjoyed for me to enjoy it. If I can tell that the furniture is brand-new, I can't cut loose. I feel like if I spill, the owner's kids won't go to college. I want a bar that's got some stories, that's made some mistakes. During Barmageddon, we shot in a place where a baby had actually been conceived on top of the piano. That must have been one hell of a song! Then again, there is such a thing as a bar being not classy enough. We shot in a biker bar where the staff was forced to cut paper towels into squares in order to save money on cocktail napkins.
The money is not worth this.
When your economic plan involves arts and crafts, you know it's time for a change. Out of all the money-saving tactics I saw while shooting the show, this paper-towel-napkin thing sticks with me as the ultimate sign of a bar owner having hit rock bottom, like it's the business decision one makes right before switching from serving beer to cooking meth.
Bartenders Who Aren't Dicks About "Mixology"
When it comes to drinks, I'm open-minded. Jalapeno Martini? I'll try it. Coconut-infused mimosa? Bring it on. An alcoholic chipmunk's breast milk with a pickle back? As long as you're buying. But if you're gonna be cocky about mixology, your drink better be fucking amazing. There's nothing worse than a bartender giving you a long explanation about how his fresh ingredients are locally sourced and he makes everything from scratch, right before he serves you a drink that makes you gag. One place we shot in served me a drink that had an actual lavender branch in it.
So, a piece of scented wood. Floating in my drink.
I'm sorry, is this a bar or a renaissance fair? And if it is a renaissance fair, hand me a sword, because that's about the only way I can drink lavender and still feel like a man. In other words, indulging in mixology is like getting to know the personality of a one-night stand: if it's great, it makes things a little better, but for the most part it's a major letdown and you're better off keeping things simple. And, you usually wake up feeling better as well.
An Entertaining Customer Base
We all go to bars to get laid. Well, some people go on Craigslist to get laid, but they should be reading a different article. However, when you're in a bar and your lines aren't working, it's important that the place have some colorful characters in it that you can laugh at with your friends. They provide entertainment as well as a chance to feel better about your pathetic self all at the same time. While shooting Barmageddon in South Florida, I met a woman who tanned three times a day. She was 70, and her skin looked like it was made out of melted pennies, but that hadn't stopped her from getting enormous fake breasts, which she displayed with pride, as is the Florida way.
She hit on me when I was trying to film a segment, and when I explained that she was a bit too old for me she immediately tried to set me up with her daughter. I kindly explained that if she's 70, her daughter is probably a bit too old for me as well. Without missing a beat she mentioned that she also has a granddaughter. It was like one of those Russian nesting dolls: each one you open there's a smaller one inside, and each one wants to have sex with you. Or maybe they don't want to; this was all coming from a bronzed geriatric pimp who seemingly didn't stray beyond her own bloodline. The point is, she was entertaining as hell, made for good conversation, and I got the numbers of her entire lineage should I ever hit a major dry spell.
A Staff That Doesn't Hate Their Jobs
If you're going to be having fun in a bar, it's good if the staff is having fun as well. There's nothing worse than getting served by someone with dead eyes who looks like they're one shift away from taking a trip to the highest bridge in the city. While shooting Barmageddon in New York, I met a group of girls who hula-hooped on top of the bar in between serving drinks. When I asked them if they felt demeaned by the hula-hooping, they surprised me by saying that it was actually their idea. They had decided that, since they drank on the job, they should probably find a way to burn calories while on the job as well. That's a great plan.
Try it at home today!
In another bar where we shot, the bartenders kept themselves entertained by constantly switching their accents. They were both former actors, so they would take your first order as a noble Scotsman and your next as a rootin' tootin' Texan out to provide a knee-slappin' good time. Little details like this make the staff seem part of the party instead of just servers stuck doing a job. As someone who bartended for two years myself, I can tell you that a good attitude is integral; if you're not enjoying serving drinks, you shouldn't be serving them at all, which is exactly what my boss told me as I was being fired. Apparently, I was also drinking too much, which based on some of the bars I saw while shooting Barmageddon isn't even humanly possible.
That Extra Bit of Magic
Even the best bars with the best drinks and the wildest staff have a tendency to seem familiar, which is why it is absolutely necessary that they find a way to stand out by having what I call an extra bit of magic. They need to have a gimmick or a detail or an innovative system that makes them stick out in your mind, so that when it's time to go out and drink, you'll know exactly where you want to go. One bar we shot in was self-serve -- their entire economic plan was based on the honor system. Hell yeah! I like that, trusting in the responsibility and ethics of drunk people. Why didn't anyone think of that sooner?! Another place had an actual swing above the bar. If you felt like downing a shot and then revisiting some fourth-grade memories, you could climb on up and go for a ride. And then, as it turned out, go throw up in the bathroom. And then do it all over again.
Live your dreams.
In Baltimore, we shot in a spot that had a boxing theme and displayed photos of semi-pro boxers who lived and trained in the neighborhood. That's a nice touch, and it helps you figure out whose girlfriend not to hit on when you're drunk and feeling randy. The point is, people can drink anywhere: a bar, their house, under a bridge. If you want them coming to your place time and again, you gotta find a way to make it special. We shot in one place where the staff took turns dancing in a Zebra costume. I'm not saying you need to go that far, but I'll certainly never forget it. Unless I host this show for a few more years, in which case I'll probably forget everything I've ever known.
To see more from Mo Mandel, check out Barmageddon when it premieres on truTV, Dec. 3 at 10 p.m. ET/PT and 9 p.m. CT.