Life Food & Drink

Sunday 31 August 2014

'The greatest little pub in the world' -- and it's my local!

The Harbour Bar in Bray has been named the world's No 1 by 'Lonely Planet'. Aidan Coughlan explains what it takes to be the best

Published 25/11/2010 | 05:00

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Aidan Coughlan and Raoul in the Harbour Bar in Bray

Picture the scene. Stony-faced politicians jetting over to Brussels, international finance bosses descending upon our capital city, a deeply ominous feeling spreading itself across the nation, and pints being joyously raised to celebrate a truly fantastic achievement.

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Wait, what was that last one?

Yes it may have evaded our collective attention as our sovereignty teetered on the brink of destruction, but The Harbour Bar in Bray -- my own local since I was, um, 18 -- has just been named the World's Best Pub by the international travel bible itself, Lonely Planet.

In a week where the Vintners' Federation of Ireland bemoaned the loss of a thirsty generation to stay-at-home drinking and naggins smuggled into nightclubs, the news seemed somewhat jarring to me. Surely if this land can produce the best watering hole in the known universe, more of my youthful peers could be enticed to have a poured pint rather than drinking from a can -- as an occasional treat, at least.

That's easy for me to say, though, having been reared on Bray's finest.

While news of the award took me by surprise, I had always maintained to anyone who would listen -- and a few who wouldn't -- that it was a superb little establishment.

The O'Tooles, who have run the bar for six generations, are universally known in a town that often feels too big to have a community spirit any more.

Located at the end of the famous promenade -- the town's most popular route for evening strollers and weekend walkers -- their bar serves as the perfect venue to warm up and grab a pint after exposing yourself to the elements. The conservatory cosily rattles under rainfall, the tunes are chilled (while the Guinness thankfully isn't) and it doesn't take long to become recognised as a regular.

"Any good bar should be a home from home, serve a great range of drinks and most of all offer a friendly welcome to all who visit," says Lonely Planet writer and spokesperson Tom Hall. "The Harbour Bar fits the bill to a tee, and it's really refreshing to see somewhere we hadn't celebrated before come to the fore to win this.

"I hope they buy me a pint next time I'm in town."

But if it all sounds like Hollywood perfection, well, it isn't.

The bar has been criticised as grubby, in need of a new set of sofas and so loaded up with knick-knacks that you can barely see the walls -- but then, it manages to encapsulate the wonderful thing about a top local: even the unlikeable aspects manage to charm you into submission.

True, it's your companions who ultimately make the magic, but any top establishment has to meet the punters halfway -- so here are 10 of the must-haves for a quintessential quaffing experience.

Closing customs

While there's a simplistic romance to flicking the lights on and off, the best joints will go a step further and have a song, or a distinct noise (vuvuzela, anyone?), to alert their customers that the time has come to rush the bar waving five-euro notes.

A closing tune can embed itself in the minds of regulars, in the same way as a kid's TV theme tune or 'your song' with your first-ever girlfriend.

Flicking the lights is fine, of course. Giving no indication at all is a contemptuous no-no.

Tiny Tunes

On the subject of tunes, this is an obviously crucial point. However, it's not so much the music that's played as the volume it's played at.

I have never met a single person -- nope, not one, ever -- who enjoys having to raise their voice as they settle in for a post-work pint at 5.30 of a Tuesday. It's impossible to nail the choice of material, because everyone's tastes are different, but the volume is something we can all agree on.

Better to play rubbish down low than gold at full blast, and if that's fogeyish of me then cart me off to a home right now. Crucial.

Lights down low

Like music, it's a matter of balance -- but if in doubt, turn it down. Otherwise-perfect bars have their ambience ruined entirely by coastguard spotlights beaming down vertically from the ceiling, highlighting every blemish in our surroundings (and our companions).

We don't come to these places to look, we come to listen -- so turn it down. Turn everything down, I say!

Service with a... smile?

We all know that what happens in the pub stays in the pub, but a lesser-known fact is that the opposite is also true.

A local barman will know your name, acknowledge you upon arrival and pour your order regardless of what qualms you've shared in the outside world. Dumped his daughter and run over his cat (or vice versa)?

Doesn't matter.

And while he may hit you with a stare of unbridled hatred as you wait in awkward silence for your Guinness to settle, the important thing is you still get your pint. Now that's service.

Filthy fittings

The market for stained, grimy upholstery hasn't developed to the point where IKEA have introduced a range. But in this parallel universe, different rules apply.

A weathered, dirty sofa has borne witness to generations of bums, each connected to a person who chose to come and socialise in this spot. Squeaky clean means sterile and emotionless.

Words of the prophets. . .

As above, a scribbled-up wall carries the voices of all those who went before.

Well, all those who had the foresight to bring a marker to the loo. The only reason a cubicle should be painted over is to clear the canvas for more witty comments, urban poetry and... well, rude drawings.

Two out of three ain't bad, I suppose.

What to do. . .

Activities and gimmicks need to range beyond the horrors of karaoke, to open-mic comedy, board games, movie nights, trad sessions, storytelling evenings and whatever you're having yourself.

For all the beauty of sitting with a pint and chewing the fat of the week gone by, it's nice to mix things up the odd time. The Harbour Bar has all of these things -- but crucially it's also built in several sections.

So if you don't want to listen to the witty observations of a first-time funnyman, you can take your pint elsewhere to escape.

Take it outside...

I'm not a smoker, but even my clear-lunged companions will agree that there's no better escape on a rowdy night than a sheltered, heated patio.

Even the most calm establishment will reach fever pitch at some point in the week, and that's when you need your Plan B.

Small-screen hero

A good local is incompatible with sport, as that requires a large screen which will dominate the room if switched on for any other purpose.

A small telly, mounted up in the corner since colour broadcasting was a novelty, is perfect for sticking on the news, or gathering around intently to watch seismic moments of national interest -- like Mary's progess in The X Factor results show

My Goodness. . .

It's a cliché, yes, but for some reason Guinness will forever be used as the ultimate benchmark in quality.

There is an inexplicable link between the homeliness of a place and the character of its stout -- what the quality team would deem a champion pint is often overchilled and flat-tasting.

As with everything else, the beauty is in the imperfection.

Irish Independent

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