Bars with Beds, and Other Methods of Safekeeping the Inebriated

By Ben Schaffer |

Twenty years ago, I made regular use of the hospitality of a certain bar on 81 East Seventh Street in Manhattan, known for convenience as “Bar 81,” though more solemnly dubbed “Verchovyna.” The moniker was Ukrainian for “highland place,” despite the bar’s clear position closer to the bottom of any hierarchy.

Among its faded linoleum, scratched wood, and three dollar highballs, a crowd of dreamers and drifters accumulated. Those whose lives had been short on comfort could find comfort there. Well-being was meted out in bottles and glasses as days and nights unfolded. For some, long spans spent in the Verchovyna’s welcoming embrace brought them such calm that they decided they needed a nap. But as they settled down with head at rest on the bar, Bill, our host, would slap sharply on the wood and remind them of a cardinal rule: “No sleeping.”

The dilemma for these men was clear: they did not want to be away from the bar’s cozy conviviality, but their bodies traitorously yearned for rest. Again and again they would try to sneak a brief respite, and again would come the slap and the castigation that broke, for a moment, their contentment.

“Hey Bill,” I suggested. “You should put cots in the back.” It seemed a reasonable approach: let the weary patrons take time out before getting back in the game and the game would be played at an even higher level. We laughed and I had another drink.

Yet today, this practical innovation is finding its way into our bars. In big-shouldered Chicago, celebrated shot-pourer Longman & Eagle offers six rooms for overnight stays. It is at the vanguard of this practice, which seeks to reverse America’s long shunning of what is still well-known abroad: bars with beds. As the pioneers at Verchovyna recognized, we need them both, so why not have them near each other?

This essentiality was understood in ancient times. The tavern or inn is, after all, a bar with beds, for the refreshment and repose of the traveler, and has been with us a long time indeed. At El-Kab, Egypt, lies the tomb of Renni, an administrator for Amenhotep I (1525-1504 B.C.). Depicted on its walls are scenes of daily life, including one set in an inn. A customer demands of the servants: “Come now, bring me eighteen cups of wine with thine own hand. I will drink till I am happy, and the mat under me is a good straw bed upon which I can sleep myself sober.” (At least, according to the hieroglyphic paraphrasing of French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero and his English translator Alice Morton.)

Roman officials stayed in government-run inns known as mansiones when they traveled on business. Lower class travelers made do with cauponae, somewhat disreputable inns that also furnished prostitution and often mugging. The practice of roadside hospitality was exported to Roman Britain, where after a few short centuries it was handed down to us as the public house.

Accordingly, today in Britain one still has many options for sleeping above a pub. For example, the Fox & Anchor in London sports the wood-and-leather-wrapped atmosphere that epitomizes the classic pub style. Their rooms are homey, well-appointed, and only a staircase away from your morning-after breakfast back at the scene of last night’s crimes.

Longman & Eagle’s accommodations have received mixed marks from online reviewers, though dissatisfaction seems to stem from improper use. “This is not a hotel you should choose if you enjoy sleeping. Rooms are directly above the restaurant, which is currently playing the Ramones,” writes one unrested guest. Another suggests avoiding the bedrooms here “unless you intend to get dead drunk from whiskey at the bar and you want the shortest way to your bed”—which is exactly the power user’s approach. Clearly, the opportunity to stay here is not to be mistaken for a night at a regular hotel with regular sleep, but as a coda to a whiskey symphony.

Many of those regular hotels, of course, also have bars. Latitude 29, New Orleans’s crucial contribution to the current tiki revival, is not a hotel bar, but a bar and restaurant that happens to rent space from a historic French Quarter hotel. While some hotel guests are not even aware of its presence, others are on a tiki pilgrimage for which the hotel is merely a convenient staging area.

After a session sampling the rum-based preparations of tiki researcher Jeff “Beachbum” Berry at Latitude’s bar, some guests are reluctant to leave. Others are physically incapable. “Occasionally, we have the opportunity to deliver guests safely to their rooms after they had one too many for the road—the road being the elevator,” notes Annene Kaye, partner at Latitude 29.

Ms. Kaye recalled the most significant event of this type in their three years of operation. “During a particularly busy night, I assured the rest of the staff that I would be able to take charge of a young lady who was going all rubber-legs on us, and get her up to her room on the fourth floor. I was still unfamiliar with the hotel, and I didn’t know that the fourth floor is actually the result of two different buildings that were joined together some time back in the last century, so there are ramps and steps at unexpected junctures. Not so many ramps and steps that you’d notice, unless you were navigating them with a dead-weight human in tow.

“Of course I’d left my phone in the office, so there was no calling for help, and I couldn’t leave her unattended in the hallway. Luckily, she thought the whole thing was hilarious, and gave me her key so I could get a bedspread from her room, plant her on it, and pull her down the hall over the last ramp. I saw her the next day, and she seemed to have no recollection of what happened, which was best for everyone.” That is heroic hospitality, folks.

Stage Left Steak, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is perhaps the most accomplished fine dining restaurant in the state, known especially for its wine dinners featuring the winemakers themselves toting cases of their best juice. The restaurant often partners with the hotel across the street to offer a special rate to those diners who want the full experience at table without the hazy trek home. But, acknowledging the American reality of driving everywhere and back, Stage Left has come up with its own creative approach to patron safety.

The proposition is simple: arrive in a car service, and your total bill is reduced by five percent. As co-owner Francis Schott relates, “Now with Uber and Lyft, there’s no excuse not to. And it doesn’t cost me anything. I’m sure that people buy five percent more if they know they’re getting five percent off. They feel great about it, I feel great about it, and it’s a zero cost thing to me.” Guests can take advantage of more the evening has to offer, while knowing their way home is taken care of. It’s a clever technique, and one that other bars and restaurants would be smart to consider.

So enjoy your evening, but plan to stay safe. And if such plans are too much to contemplate, patronize one of the enlightened bars and restaurants that have thoughtfully done the planning for you. You will sleep all the better for the peace of mind—just, please, not on the bar.

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Ben Schaffer is the author of The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual: Secret Recipes and Barroom Tales from Two Belfast Boys Who Conquered the Cocktail World, which won “Best New Cocktail & Bartending Book” at Tales of the Cocktail 2016.

Illustration by Gina Haase.

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