We’re all for equal rights at Leite’s Culinaria. That includes the right to burn one’s bra or one’s apron, to stand at the stove—whether at home or a hoity-toity restaurant—and create all manner of deliciousness, to hold an opinion about things food- or drink-minded, and countless other things. We also ardently defend the right to plunk yourself down at a neighborhood bar and be treated like a regular, regardless of gender. Writer and drinker Rosie Schaap extols the merits of this last right in the following rant, excerpted from her latest book, Drinking with Men. As she explains this socially frowned-upon habit of hers, it’s not just the joking with the guys or the imbibing of the booze that appeals to her; it’s the ritual, the companionship, the sense of belonging. Maybe it’s the tomboy in me, but she had me at the word drinking.—Renee Schettler Rossi
Thirteen thousand hours.
That’s a rough estimate, scratched out on the cocktail napkin in front of me, of how much time I’ve spent in bars.
Many people would say that every one of those hours was wasted, but not me. I wouldn’t change a moment—not even the time I nearly got clocked by a barstool turned projectile in the midst of an altercation between two grizzled old punks, nor the evening a seemingly innocuous, if inebriated, couple all but forced me to referee their debate about whether they should stay together or break up. (For the record: I thought they were a perfect match, and advised them to give it another shot.) I’ve come of age in bars, and they’ve given me as much of an education as college did.
A certain type of bar—small, welcoming, with a lively chorus of voices and the house lights turned down to a warm glow—will exert a gravitational pull, compelling me to return one night after the other, But my attraction to bars is less governed by the laws of physics than it is the rules of romance. When it comes to where I drink, I’m a serial monogamist.
Bar regularhood—the practice of drinking in a particular establishment so often that you become known by, and bond with, both the bartenders and your fellow patrons—is often looked down upon in a culture obsessed with health and work. But regularhood is much more about the camaraderie than the alcohol. Sharing the joys of drink and conversation with friends old and new, in a comfortable and familiar setting, is one of life’s most unheralded pleasures.
And yes, that goes for women, too. Or it should, anyway. In many parts of the world, even in comparatively less patriarchal societies, a solitary woman at a bar is a curiosity, a wonderment to be puzzled over. Even in New York, where all things seem possible, as a bar regular who happens to be female, I am something of an anomaly.
Certainly in my youth I knew that patronizing bars was unusual behavior—but I figured that was due to my age, not my gender. There was the excitement of getting one over and getting served, of trying to fit in, unquestioned, with grown-ups in their natural habitat. But as I got older and that thrill abated, what I discovered in bars was much richer. I have found friendship, comfort, and community. Mostly, I’ve found that fellowship in the company of men. Relations between the sexes at bars are often perceived as predatory and dangerous. But I did not look to bars for a place to hook up; I looked to bars for a place to belong.
In 1936, Vogue editor Marjorie Hillis counseled readers of her single-girl guide Live Alone and Like It, “It is not incorrect for a woman to go alone into any bar she can get into,” she wrote, “but we don’t advise it…if you must have your drink, you can have it in a lounge or restaurant, where you won’t look forlorn or conspicuous.” I find it remarkable—and a little depressing—that nearly 80 years later, ideas identical to hers still seem deeply internalized by many women. “I just don’t feel comfortable walking into a bar alone,” a friend once told me. “Like everyone’s looking at me and feeling sorry for me. Like there’s something wrong with girls who go drinking by themselves.”
Regardless of my gender, a bar is my safe haven, my breathing space. My favorites have never been big, rowdy sports bars teeming with testosterone or trendy spots featuring cutting-edge cocktails, but intimate neighborhood places where relationships with other regulars have the right conditions to take hold, and where my instincts tell me it’s a safe space to be. At its best, bar culture is both civilized and civilizing, and at the end of a long, stressful day, I know the bartender will know exactly what I want and will set it down before me, ask me about my day, listen to me vent.
And instantly, I relax.
It’s not just the whiskey or the wine or the martini, though of course they’re part of it. It’s the familiarity, the ritual, the community. At the bar, my friends and I greet one another with hugs and pats on the back, catch up on one another’s lives (How’s the new job? Did your brother move out of your apartment yet? How was your trip back home? Is your mother out of the hospital?) and discuss other news of the day.
Someone ought to defend the great tradition of regularhood, of passing hours and days and years drinking and talking and laughing in bars. And it’s time someone advocated for equal regularhood rights for women everywhere. It might as well be me, a woman with a quarter of a century of devoted bar-going under her belt, a journey that’s taken me from the bar car on the Metro-North railroad to a beloved Dublin pub, from an expats’ haven in New York City to a neighborhood institution in Montreal. More than anywhere else—home, school, or work—bars are where I’ve figured out how to relate to others and how to be myself. They’ve not only shaped my identity, they’ve shaped my point of view—one that is profoundly optimistic about human kindness despite a healthy dose of skepticism. And I challenge anyone who becomes a regular at their neighborhood bar not to feel the same way.
Not long ago, I was talking with a young woman who’s lived just a few doors away from one of my favorite bars for more than a year. Like many in their early twenties, she’d rather go to clubs than bars—especially neighborhood bars with no complicated cocktails, no hipster cachet, no cute boys anywhere near her age. But she’s stopped in a couple times and acknowledged its earthy charm.
I asked her if she knew a particular bartender. Mmm, he sounded familiar, but she never got his name. “Go in and introduce yourself,” I advised her. “Get to know him. And get to know everyone else who works there, too. And the regulars.”
Even if she’d never become a regular there herself, I explained, this was still her corner bar. If some night someone was walking down the street a little too close behind her, this is where she’d duck in and be looked after until any danger, real or imagined, had passed. This is where they’d sign for her FedEx package when she wasn’t home. This is where she could leave that extra set of keys in case she ever locked herself out of her apartment. And this is where, if she ever happened to be really sad and really broke and really in need of a drink, they’d give her one— and people to talk to, too— and they’d know she’d be good for it, someday.
You can drink anywhere, I told her. But a good bar? It’s more than a place to have a few pints or shots or cocktails, more than the sum of its bottles and bar stools, its glassware and taps and neon beer signs. It’s more like a community center for people—men and women—who happen to drink.
Hungry for more? Chow down on these:
Excerpted from Drinking with Men © 2013 Rosie Schaap. Photo © 2013 Matt Occhuizzo. All rights reserved.