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Why the Hell Do We Call It a Bar, Anyway?

And what makes a bar a bar, not a pub or a tavern? Let's explore the long history of American drinking to find out

Sometimes I feel like the heart of my relationship to bars lies in prepositions. I work in a bar; more specifically, I work behind or, as we say, on the bar in a restaurant; when I go out for dinner, I don’t get a table, I sit at the bar. (Grammar nerds, I know you’re with me — go ahead and blaze one for this piece.)

And all this makes perfect sense. When you sit down for a drink, you are sitting at the bar. When I’m at work, I’m literally behind the bar. Unless you work at Coyote Ugly, though, you probably don’t actually work on the bar.

But why do we call it a bar in the first place? And what makes a bar a bar?

Let’s explore.

It’s About Geography

In the U.K. and colonial America, there were distinct differences between bars, pubs and taverns.

A pub served beer and cider and food; taverns served beer and cider and sometimes wine, maybe food; but a bar served all kinds of alcohol, from hard liquor on down.

In some states, mainly in New England, there are still distinctions between bars and taverns today. In Connecticut, for example, these differences are codified: Taverns are prohibited from serving hard alcohol.

And there aren’t very many left.

”Taverns fell out of favor in the late 1970s,” Jerry Langlais, an administrator with Connecticut’s Division of Liquor Control, told the New York Times in 2002. ”You used to see them fall by the wayside left and right back then. It was very popular at one time, particularly in blue-collar areas.”

Why the difference?

In Connecticut, a tavern license costs under $250 a year, while a full bar license is over $1,700.

But for many folks in the booze business, a tavern license is irrelevant: More Americans today want to drink hard liquor and cocktails, and it’s certainly where the profit margins lie.

Massachusetts doesn’t make the distinction between bars and taverns, but the Bay State does have extremely stringent parameters for which establishments can serve what booze. They differentiate between cordial permits (which allow beer, wine and, perplexingly, hard alcohol that contains a certain percentage of sugar) and full liquor licenses.

Because of some seriously outdated legislation, the fight for a full liquor license in Boston has become so bad that city councillor elections have been won or lost based on how candidates weigh in on granting broader access to full liquor licenses.

Why? Because keeping liquor licenses out of the hands of viable businesses perpetuates racial and economic inequality in what is still largely one of the most geographically segregated cities in the country. Food margins in restaurants are paper-thin, but alcohol? The standard markup on a glass of wine is something like 400 percent, and hard alcohol and cocktails net even higher returns.

Operating a restaurant is seriously risky business; having a bar in said restaurant increases the odds of its survival exponentially. 

Whether you work somewhere that serves hard alcohol or not, if you are serving and preparing alcoholic beverages, you are a bartender. One does not identify as a pubtender or beer pourer.

Why? Other than because that’s ridiculous? When you walk into a restaurant, three distinct areas are immediately apparent: There’s the dining room, where all the tables are; the kitchen, often somewhere off to one side of the building or hidden behind a decorative wall of sorts; and, if the place has one, the bar.

It’s a Literal Barrier

You can’t miss the bar. It is literally a giant flat surface in front of the bartenders. This is where we put drinks.

This is why it is called a bar: “so called in reference to the barrier or counter over which drinks or food were served to customers,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

There are variations on this theme, of course — we have horseshoe bars, for example, and three-sided bars — but even the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans, one of the longest running bars in America (est. 1807), sticks to the counter-service style we know and love today.

Even within the space of, say, a tavern, there are generally a few tables scattered about where guests and their friends can take their beers from the bar (see, more with those prepositions) and sit and drink.

If you were to come meet me for a drink at this kind of establishment, I’d text you when I arrived a few minutes early (occupational hazard) and say, Hey, I’m at the end of the bar.

When you arrived you would know, immediately, not to scan the tables looking for me. Your eyes would beeline to the large flat surface in front of the bartender and look for a short woman with short hair dicking around on her phone.

Language Evolves — but Hospitality Is Forever

I miss the days of being able to call a cab for a bar guest who looks like they need help home. I’m obviously not prohibited from doing this today, but the advent of Uber and Lyft blunted the reflex to inquire about how someone is getting home: It’s ubiquitous, particularly in larger cities where few people drive themselves to bars — you’re calling a car.

Whether you use Lyft or Uber or another app-based ride share service is totally irrelevant, because both words translate to I have a person responsible for driving me home on the way. If I lean over the bar and ask an intoxicated guest if their Lyft is on the way I can absolutely guarantee you they are not going to correct me and say, “I use Uber, but yes my ride’s on the way,” and they likely never will because the end result is the same.

It doesn’t matter what you call it — a bar, a pub, a tavern, a public house — even with codified licensing distinctions in play we’re talking about the same thing: a space to gather over a drink and be a part of something.