Can a Bar Feel Like a Bar Without Booze?
The rise of alcohol-free bars asks if drinking’s spontaneity can be separated from booze's loosening properties.
Illustration by Breanna Wright.
As these nights tend to begin, I was sitting in a bar. It was Halloween weekend, and all the requisite signs of revelry were around me, including across the room, where a woman with long blonde hair was throwing herself into a rendition of “Hand in My Pocket” by Alanis Morissette. Arriving at the verse where Alanis sings “I feel drunk but I’m sober,” she twisted the lyrics ever-so-slightly. “BUT I’M FUCKING SOBER,” she screamed joyously.
Her adlib sparked uproarious cheers from onlookers, because she wasn’t the only one. The bar in front of me was fully stocked with non-intoxicating substances, and the expertly-mixed $11 cocktail I was sipping didn’t have a drop of alcohol in it. I was at a booze-free pop-up spot in New York City’s Williamsburg called Listen Bar—a four-day trial run for a permanent concept aiming to open in October of 2019, given it reaches its fundraising goal—and everyone around me (as far as I could tell) was stone-cold sober, and ecstatic to be so.
Listen Bar’s founder Lorelei Bandrovschi was also elated—she had dreamed up the concept on a hunch that the free-wheeling fun of a bar on a lively weekend night could be captured without the booze, and as she saw it, the events of the night were proving her right.
“I want to bring a bit of ease into not drinking, because that is something I think that is missing from the experience,” Bandrovschi told me. “The other thing I want to bring is rowdiness and fun and the things that alcohol has claimed for its own, which I actually think are totally human things that we all have in us and we all want to express and release.”
She continued: “When, on Saturday night, people were dancing on tables I just completely lost my mind, because that was the validation I had been looking for.”
Her dream may seem an irregularity, but Listen—which also hosted a Dry January happy hour series at Von Bar in NoHo—is one of three alcohol-free bars coming to New York City in the next year. Getaway Bar in Greenpoint and karaoke bar Mini Rex in the Lower East Side—a divided concept with a booze-stocked bar in one room and a sober bar in another—both have plans to open in the first quarter of 2019. Each is slightly different, but looked at collectively, they signal a possible reimagining of the role alcohol plays in our social lives, in our gathering spaces, and in our concepts of fun.
It also prompts us to wonder whether the spirit of bar-going—the lack of structure and glut of spontaneity that draws us to bars—is separable from the loosening properties of alcohol. I, a relatively new teetotaler, wondered as I sat there, sipping on some fennel-sage-tonic concoction, the lucid frenzy whirring around me: What makes a bar a bar?
Bars—specifically the booze-serving kind—have long played a vital role in American life as gathering spaces (and quite obviously, in the lives of many other groups of humans long before that). In colonial America, the tavern served the role of the ancient Greek agora—a public space where citizens came together to share ideas, iron out disputes, and even drum up revolution. They were so central to life that from those early days through westward expansion, settlers putting down roots in a new town would build a bar before any other structure, explained Christine Sismondo, a humanities lecturer at Toronto’s York University and author of America Walks into a Bar, which details the unique historical and cultural significance of the spaces.
“The American bar became such an institution,” Sismondo told MUNCHIES. “Every town built the bar first, so you would have at least one place to go, even if it was to settle legal disputes or sell your wares.”
These early American bars served more illustrious purposes as well—the American Revolution was conceived and discussed in taverns, leading the Green Dragon tavern in Boston to be dubbed the “Headquarters of the Revolution” by historians. Far from a fluke, argues Sismondo, revolutionaries would continue to incite change from bar stools, a more recent example being the Stonewall riots of 1969, made possible by the solidification of a gay community through clandestine bar meetings.
But how important was the format of the drinks served? It’s impossible to know, of course, how history may have been altered if the Green Dragon had served $11 alcohol-free cocktails instead of beer—one can imagine it would have closed swiftly, given what a ludicrous amount of money that would have been then—but Sismondo believes there is something to be said for the unifying nature of alcohol.
“Alcohol makes you sort of open up,” she said. “A lot of people think the reason humans as a social animal have managed to construct small groups that got along well together….they sort of fix that to the rise of beer.”
The argument is intuitive and commonplace: drinking lowers our inhibitions, relieves us of social anxiety and self-consciousness, and by extension facilitates bonding with fellow bar-goers. The breaking down of social barriers can make a bar a “magical” place, argues Sismondo.
Still, the ease and effectiveness of booze as a social lubricant is not an ironclad argument for its necessity in bringing humans together. It’s possible we’ve been socialized to believe alcohol is mandatory in social settings, that we’re doomed to flail awkwardly in conversation without it and, more to the point, that a nocturnal gathering space just won’t make room for fun and frivolity without its influence. Indeed, some would argue that our ancestors did us wrong, and we’ve been socialized to our detriment.
I have something of a personal stake in the booze-free bar gamble. I stopped drinking, at least for the foreseeable future, on New Year’s Day 2018—the date’s symbolic significance, bizarrely, a total coincidence—because alcohol seemed to be taking more from me than it was giving back. Giving it up has, for the most part, been a relief.
But it has also induced a sense of loss I can’t shake, and I’ve realized what I miss is not only booze but bars. I miss the ease of a bar, the walking in whenever and leaving whenever. I miss the invitation to leave your life at the door and the unknown on the other side—you never know who you’ll sit next to, who you’ll fall into conversation with, what serendipity might unfold. Sismondo, in our interview, noted the freewheeling nature of a bar that lent itself to moving in and out of conversations quickly, and the “leveling” nature that deterred drinkers from pulling rank during spirited discussions.
Now bars, spaces I once loved, are spaces that are no longer for me—they are spaces for people who drink. When I go to a bar, I am on the periphery, an observer of the shared activity and bonding ritual rather than a participant. Then there’s the social pressure to imbibe and the anxiety that comes with resisting that pressure. I worry over my demeanor when I decline booze—was I light enough, unbothered enough? I worry people will think I’m haughty or holier-than-thou. I often hope my glass of seltzer will be mistaken for a gin and tonic. In short, much of the ease that came with bar-going is gone for me—it went out the window when I gave up drinking.
The thing is, I had accepted all of this. Giving up a deeply ingrained habit means re-negotiating what your life looks like in the aftermath, without it, and it’s all but guaranteed that it will look different. Just as I’ve had to find new (healthier!) ways of managing my anxiety, I’ve had to find new ways of unwinding after work and new ways of socializing on weekends. And I’ve had to accept that something I once found solace in now a source of mild discomfort. I’ve found it’s best to recognize and accept the things I miss about drinking—to accept I may never stop missing them. The benefits of sobriety I’ve reaped over the last year far outweigh those lingering disappointments.
So I’ll admit I was cynical when I first discovered Listen Bar. I rolled my eyes at what I saw as an unnecessary attempt to make everything for everyone—bars are not made for non-drinkers, I thought, and that’s okay!
It hadn’t once occurred to me that it might be possible to take back any of the things I lost when I gave up drinking. It hadn’t occurred to me that some of the things I attributed to booze and booze alone could possibly exist elsewhere.
If you choose to look, there are a smattering of signs that American consumers are thirsty for more alcohol-free options, and are more open to the idea of turning traditionally debauched rituals on their heads than they might have been in the past. In New York, hundreds are already turning out for coffee and juice-fueled sober raves at 7 AM, taking a phenomenon synonymous with drug use and making it wholesome. Data shows Americans—in particular, millennials—are drinking less, and beverage companies are churning out zero-proof options in response. UK-based beverage company Seedlip has made a name for itself crafting non-intoxicating spirits with herbs and spices, and its popularity has caught on at traditional drinking establishments looking to ramp up their offerings for teetol patrons—Saxon + Parole, a Lower East Side eatery known for its cocktails, recently expanded its booze-free drinks menu to include intricate Seedlip cocktails, and the number of patrons ordering booze-free drinks has grown by about a quarter, according to bar director Maxime Belfand.
Bandrovschi is part a set of who wants us to believe that we can expand outside of our collective understanding of what a night out means.
“The quintessential serendipity of New York, that sort of walking into a bar and not knowing if you're walking in for 20 minutes or for six hours, that’s something we want to cultivate,” said Bandrovschi. “I think that kind of no pressure, no plan is what we love a bar for.”
Bandrovschi, who identifies both as a drinker and as “a person who really enjoys not drinking,” began to reconsider her relationship to alcohol five years ago, when a friend challenged her to give it up for a month. She discovered drinking had always been more of a reflex than a choice—if she was honest with herself, she didn’t always need or even want to do it, though the surrounding culture would have her believe that she did. The longer she went without booze, the more she enjoyed the sense of control and confidence she found in abstaining.
But the simple act of saying no made going out with her friends a relentless obstacle course in setting and reinforcing boundaries—bars, as I’ve personally discovered, are simply not for non-drinkers. Bandrovschi cut to the core of my experience as a sober bar-goer; she also made me wonder, for the first time, if my thinking around the potential of nightlife spaces was limited. “I had to manage my experience of not drinking, versus experiencing spaces that are as thoughtfully built around that experience as everyone has when they go out and want to drink.”
The alternatives for non-drinkers are few and incomparable to the bar experience; your house is well, your house; coffee shops close early; restaurants require dining, and their table turnovers resist unorganized, hours-long hangouts. If you’re looking to meet new people, the unstructured environment of a bar more readily lends itself to striking up a conversation with a stranger. That’s the serendipity Bandrovschi is talking about—that’s what she wants to reclaim for the abstaining.
Sober stylist (and soon-to-be bar owner) Karin Elgai’s vision for Mini Rex and Juicebox Heroes—the sober side of the establishment—is much the same, if a little more distinctly activist. Whereas Bandrovschi consciously avoids the word “sober” to avoid the impression she is promoting a lifestyle, Juicebox Heroes is billed explicitly as a “sober” bar and even plans to host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings during the daytime. Elgai is clear that her bar is for anyone who is not drinking for whatever reason, and she isn’t evangelical about sobriety, but the struggle of recovery was very much an impetus for the launch—she noticed nights out for karaoke with fellow teetotalers were cut short due to the temptation to relapse, and she wanted to create a space for them.
“I’ve been getting nothing but support from people in the recovery community because we do feel like we need a nightlife space, and we just don’t want to eat every time we go out,” said Elgai.
“I really hope more bars come up and say, ‘Hey, sober people need options too,’” she added. “We’re done hanging out in diners.”
Alcohol-free bars are not a new concept, but they have never been acclimated into the mainstream—sobriety, after all, has never been the default position for adults, and has always required an explanation. The temperance movement gave rise to temperance halls (booze-free taverns meant to replace bars), but they were tethered to the zealotry of the movement and tended to fail, Sismondo explained, never managing to rake in the patronage of a traditional tavern. Recent takes on the alcohol-free bar in America have tended to follow a similar model in that they are attached to a broader movement or moral imperative; Canticles Lounge, for example, a sober lounge in Bedford-Stuyvesant, is affiliated with the nearby Antioch Baptist Church, though it maintains it is open to all, and is headed by the church’s Reverend (I interviewed him about it at the time for the Brooklyn Paper). The Other Side, a sober bar in Crystal Lake, Illinois, was born when the local recovery community needed a place to hang out at night and so made one themselves—it hosts 12-step meetings during the day and even owns affiliated sober living homes. The bar open to everyone, said founder Chris Reed, but it is ultimately rooted in the mission to serve people in recovery; it’s not just a bar minus booze. Both of these spots were covered like one-off phenomena (Edible Brooklyn’s coverage of Canticles and The Other Side’s smattering of launch stories reflect this), no doubt because that’s how they were perceived: as anomalies with no ties to a broader cultural significance.
Even with The Other Side’s ties to 12-step culture, Reed’s findings in running a booze-free bar closely mimic those of Bandrovschi’s trial run for Listen—that it is in fact possible to manufacture the vibe of a bar without the alcohol.
“People start to get wild, people start to get stupid, people start talking over each other,” said Reed. “The idea alcohol is some social lubricant…that’s total bullshit, it really is. It’s almost entirely about the environment you’re in.” Such a claim bodes well for bars without booze as a concept gunning for mainstream appeal. But if this is true now, then it has always been the case. What could have changed to make a city like New York suddenly hospitable to a booze-free bar with no agenda?
The last few years have seen an increasing cultural trend towards “wellness”—an admittedly vague concept that is nonetheless a booming industry, and one that is expected to continue growing. A preoccupation with health and well-being necessarily leads to an increased circumspection about consuming vast quantities of a dehydrating substance proven to wreak havoc on the body. The science of alcohol’s ill effects have been well-documented—the social consciousness around it, however, has lagged, only to see peaks in conversation around things like medical studies, or evocatively written articles.
But that consciousness is catching up, in large part due to the wellness fixation, noted Ruby Warrington, founder of the sober event series Club Soda NYC (“Soda” is Warrington’s acronym for “Sober or Debating Abstinence”).
“As the wellness scene gets more and more mainstream and people are investing a ton of money, time and energy into practices that make you feel good, [when] you go out on the weekend drinking it really shines such a light on the actual after-effects and the actual costs of drinking,” said Warrington, who is gearing up to release a book on her experiences dabbling in sobriety, Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All On the Other Side of Alcohol.
Warrington also speculates that as people have become increasingly open about their desire to abstain apart from the assumed reasons (addiction, pregnancy, religiosity), that has opened the gates for an increased introspection about imbibing, and an increased willingness to take a break or abstain altogether. She started Club Soda NYC in 2016 to encourage that deepening of thought, and the events have consistently swelled in attendance since she first hosted a modest gathering of fewer than ten friends in her living room.
“It’s not even so much that people are afraid to say they don't want to drink—for a lot of people, it’s not even in their consciousness,” Warrington said. “The more people who speak out, ‘I don't drink, and this is why,’ I think more and more people will feel confident about making that choice for themselves.”
More consumers may choose not to drink, but not everyone in the mercurial hospitality industry is convinced that fact alone will prove a sustainable business model (especially in New York, where it’s a feat for any business to contend with skyrocketing rents). Jim Kearns, veteran bartender and beverage director of conjoined West Village cocktail bars Slowly Shirley and the Happiest Hour, says he gladly mixes booze-free versions of cocktails for his abstaining patrons, but he hasn’t seen much demand for those options and he would hesitate to make it a business model.
“I think non-alcoholic options have a place in NYC nightlife, but I have my doubts as to whether a bar that doesn’t serve alcohol at all will succeed in our city,” Kearns wrote in an email, adding that, although he is sober, he personally enjoys the “lively atmosphere alcohol can engender.”
“Frankly, I still don’t know if I can imagine a bar environment that doesn’t serve booze,” he wrote. “But I’m curious to see how it works!”
His skepticism is understandable—New York City is awash in liquor. The Lower East Side, where Elgai will open her karaoke joint, is notoriously bar-heavy. Plus, there isn’t yet an instructive model in the United States for areligious, sober-ambivalent booze-free bars. The nearest equivalent is in London, where a vegan eatery and alcohol-free bar called Redemption began as an experimental pop-up in 2013 and has since spawned two (soon to be three) brick-and-mortar locations.
London, like New York, is known for a frenetic nightlife that goes hand-in-hand with booze. Co-founder Catherine Salway wondered if she could convince people to come out and enjoy themselves without inducing a hangover—and she has, in ever-growing numbers.
“For generations, socializing and alcohol have been absolutely, inextricably linked,” said Salway. “And what we’re saying is, it doesn’t always have to be that way.”
The joyful karaoke and the elated cheers at Listen Bar, coupled with the perhaps slowly turning tide of sobriety as a trend, indicate that maybe it really doesn’t. That’s not to say that a place like Listen will perfectly replicate the bar experience sans booze—it doesn’t, and that’s okay. Your inhibitions aren’t going anywhere, but it’s nice to have them. It might be slightly more awkward to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but no one ever died from awkwardness. I still had a nice rapport with the bartender and still ended up chatting with a handful of other bar-goers. I didn’t leave my life at the door, but I felt a little of that ease I thought I’d never get back.