Bar trends: all bar none - style bars set to conquer suburbia but flexibility remains key
Style gurus have London Fashion Week, car dealers get the Motor Show...and barflies have got bar. , Britain's dedicated trade fair for the on-trade.
About time, you might say. But after all the hype and sparkly PR, last week's debut show at the Business Design Centre in Islington, North London felt a little undernourished. Once you've plodded past half a dozen stalls selling near-identical pine bar stools, you realise that the organisers have struggled somewhat to fill their enormous space. Perhaps things will improve as the show gets a better sense of itself and its audience.
But bar. did offer some intriguing clues about where the on-trade is going next: down to the second-hand furniture store for a start. Judging by the rash of chocolate brown leather sofas on display, we're in for an outbreak of retro-cool. At best, that means more bars like Sobar in Birmingham and Something Blu in Manchester. At worst, imagine a nation of 'ironic' chintzy dives laid out like a Seventies sitcom. OK, so we enjoy watching Seventies repeats late on Friday nights after closing time, but that doesn't mean we want to live in 1976, like, all the time...
Chain bars like All Bar One and Pitcher and Piano have already conquered suburban high streets. Upmarket design bars are set to follow, armed with turgid PR nonsense (thank you, UDV) about "the culture of serve". Style writer Peter York, speaking at a bar seminar, thought this design-led trend was a good thing. "A lot of people in suburbs and small towns don't want to be somewhere edgy," he said. "But they do want somewhere comfy, somewhere sharp." York thought design bars would start to satisfy that need, even though "there is a danger of replacing one set of cliches with another."
These cliches will soon include fluorescent bar taps, stainless steel tables and absurd designer chairs. Vitra International was touting the "Tom Vac" chair at bar: a low-backed, contour number inspired by the drop dead trendy Ron Arad. "It's made of polypropylene" said the salesman helpfully, as I fell backwards into rubbery comfort. "Ron Arad's got a show at the V&A, you know," he added. Such details may well get forgotten after eight pints of premium lager, but no matter. On the other hand, the Tom Vac chair could well turn into one of the best anti-drink drive devices ever invented: stone-cold sober, I had some difficulty extracting myself from its designer clutches. Less agile punters could be stuck there well beyond closing time.
Before this begins to sound like a dispatch from the Paris Fashion show ("Blue will be very big this autumn...and look out for cheeky indigo!"), I should add that bar. didn't stint on the liquid front either. There was only one problem. Drinkers might find that next year tastes rather like this year. Like record companies chasing the last big thing, Britain's major producers are looking for clever twists on old favourites.
bar. was filled with endless variations on the Red Bull and spirits formula - with products like Warp, Shark ("high velocity ingredients to fight exhaustion") and Red Alert. First prize in the Smacks-of-Desperation category, however, goes to the company offering Cranberry Cider. We won't shame them here, as it's hard to imagine exactly who will be tempted by such a surreal offering. The presence of coffee makers like Illy and Lavazza was a reminder that bar managers will have to diversify to survive, as punters opt for coffee bars over saloon bars.
bar also laid on some suitable entertainment, centred around The Idea Bar. Dick Bradsell, "the greatest living barman ever" and one half of Bar Solutions/Match bar with business partner Jonathan Downey, was showing off his masterclass, mixing traditional cocktails with a new twist.
There was also the promise of "Tony Hart on Rum" sounded too good to be true. UK readers may remember the guiding spirit behind Take Hart, the children's art review show - would he be doodling under the influence? Sadly not. Unless my memories of children's TV have faded with the years, then this Tony Hart was about two foot taller and a couple of decades younger than the one I remember.
Still, Tony Hart Jr did have some handy hints on how to take rum at 10.30am on a Wednesday morning. The solution, I soon learnt, is to take it very very slowly. Particularly when it's Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum, 62% proof. "You'll find a different delivery on the palate here," said young Mr Hart knowledgeably. "More wood and less fruit." I begged to differ. What I needed was delivery of a new mouth.
Staggering away from the Rum stall, I ended up in the bar.futures debate, where some more pessimistic voices were being raised. The editor of Class magazine, Simon Difford, wondered whether excessive competition was stifling innovation, rather than rewarding it.
"It's getting harder and harder to rise above the background noise," he said. Arena writer Jennifer Kabat thought the Brit Bar obsession with fashion and design had gone too far. "Design of itself, what you might call mediocre modernism, is really banal," she said. "It's in danger of becoming the new chintz. People will end up going to cool old places instead."
The new captive market, Hibbert pronounced, was the "Middle Youth" mob. People like herself, in fact. "We want to hear each other talk, but we also want to be hip. We might have moved out of the city, but we still want to feel part of the city." The bar futures debate also gave us a peek at what's just around the corner, with a video on bar life in New York.
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