Or, Why Your Bar Needs Ambience
It is, in fact, illegal in the state of California to serve a patron of any establishment—drinking or otherwise—while intoxicated (the patron, that is—as far as I know the barkeep can be as blotto as she wishes). As much of an oxymoron as this seems, there is a reason for it: drunk people do stupid shit.
That said, this rule goes unheeded about 98% of the time. My concern here lies with the other 2%. The two-percenters are the ones who are too drunk to speak, too drunk to make it to the bathroom in time, too drunk to get home safely, too drunk to f...well, you get the idea. These are the ones that eventually get cut off, 86'ed, or packed up by "friends." No one likes the two-percenters, although many of us rightious folk are in no position to judge (come on, I know you've hated your own self in the morning on at least one occasion). They are generally messy, require constant supervision, and rarely buy a round for the rest of us.
A good bartender knows how to recognize the two-percenter while s/he's still in the 98th percentile and take preventative measures accordingly. The easiest way to do so, however, lies in the hands of the bar owner. Quite simply, decorate the place. It may seem a simplistic response, utter crap, even. But it's not and here's why: an undecorated bar is the two-percenters breeding ground.
You see, ultimately a bar should offer rich promise: the promise of scintillating conversation with the barkeep, a fleeting romance, expanded flavor horizons, a killer juke, all of the above or any number of other possibilities. But a bar that offers no ambience at all is merely a place to get drunk. And who does that appeal to, but a two-percenter?
So for the love of god, please give me some mood lighting. Make sure there's at least a little soul on the jukebox. Hire bartenders with personality, and don't put Irish Car Bombs on special (better yet, don't serve 'em at all). If you really want to go the distance, try a theme (think fishing, owls, or black cats). But whatever you do, please remember that nothing but a counter with stools only ensures that someone will fall off of one by night's end. And nobody wants to deal with that kind of a lawsuit.
A note about this entry's title: The other night I experienced a cavalcade of drunken absurdity at a bar in the Mission whose sign rather pathetically—albeit aptly—reads merely BAR. Never having been particularly inspired by the place, I nevertheless exchanged a few pleasantries with the nice yet distant bartender while staring at the only item that could possibly constitute "decor" in the entire joint: a dancing tabletop Santa with a Barbie doll bent over and strapped to his waist. While in and of itself mildly amusing (particularly after a Maker's and soda), this is simply not an acceptable effort in the ambience department. No wonder every last person stumbled out of there bleary eyed into the streets. Should this really be encouraged?