These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Bottle Jugglers and Lenin Posters

Bratislava's Mean, Mad, Pub Scene

By Dewey Smolka

    KGB bar
 KGB bar
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Slovakia's capital can be a place of shocking contradictions. There's the shiny, angular eyesore across from the baroque presidential palace, for example. Or the massive, space-age, and oh-so-functional Nový Most (New Bridge) with its UFO-like tower restaurant, the construction of which chopped Bratislava's lovely Old Town in two and led the way to the Communist gotham-city suburb of Petržalka.

Or the fact that in the capital of a country that so likes its pivo (beer) -Slovaks are 10th in the world in annual beer consumption per capita - it can be downright challenging to find one that's not imported, at least in the swanky, glass-fronted watering holes of Old Town.

Take for example the Greenwich Meantime Cocktail Bar (Zelená 10), which admittedly holds no pretence of being your average Slovak pub. Most people earning average Slovak wages would balk at the 30-page drinks menu featuring seven flavours of mojito and no less than 17 different Caipirnhas, ranging from Sk119 to Sk149. The only beer on the menu is a small Zlatý Bažant, locally produced but a bit dear at Sk60.

Nonetheless, the pub's self-consciously hip interior, Latin music, and Tom Cruise wannabe bartenders (complete with turned up collars and bottle-juggling antics) keep the placed packed with well-heeled locals and foreigners, particularly on weekends.

Perhaps before retiring to the muted glow of the Greenwich, a few people visit the Café De Zwaan, around the corner on Panská street. With comfortable wicker chairs on its summer terrace and a cool, subdued, wooded interior, this place has become a favourite meeting place for European bureaucrats and staffers of the many embassies in the area.

Belgian and Czech beers are on tap, starting at Sk35 for Prague's Staropramen and Sk45 for Stella Artois. Slovak brews, however, are nowhere to be found, and while the décor and drinks may be Western, the service standards are not. You may have to wait a bit, and you are not likely to get a smile.

Up the street and just off Hlavné Námestie, is Bratislava's famous (sometimes infamous) Irish pub, the Dubliner, a decent bet for a well-poured Guinness enjoyed around an open hearth and the ambient sound of English being spoken.

The summer terraces of the Dubliner and next door's Diablo, an ersatz Mexican cantina, are often full on warm summer evenings, but the privilege of occupying a seat doesn't come cheap. The Slovak beer on offer, Zlatý Bažant, runs Sk45, but, as a friend of mine once asked, why would you go the Irish if not for a Guinness? While refreshing, the Irish stout now runs Sk95 and is usually poured a bit faster than a purist would like.

With all the new terraces and café's spilling out into Old Town's streets, many visitors completely miss a line of cafés on the corner of Ventúrska and Panská. The five or six places, whose terraces seem to just blend into each other, are crowded and lively in early evening, and a beer is just about always Sk25 or less.

But for that real Slovak krčma (pub) feeling, a visitor will have to get out of the Old Town. A good start is Malí Františkáni (Little Franciscans), at Námestie SNP 25. The tiny outside terrace hardly even hints at the labyrinthine corridors inside, which hide on different levels a café, a pub and restaurant, and a rather seedy side room with electronic slot machines.

If you follow the hall all the way down without getting lost, you will find a cellar decorated in medieval-looking wooden carvings and other monk-themed objects that is surprisingly cool, even on the hottest of summer days. An extensive menu complimented by Slovak and Czech beers starting at Sk25 make this a popular lunch spot.

Across SNP and up Obchodná there is the KGB, a cellar pub that also offers a range of pivo-absorbing food, though the focus here is much more on liquid refreshment. Hidden in a passage behind a yellow and black sign of a beer mug at Obchodná 52, the KGB has five Slovak beers on tap starting at Sk27, including Šariš tmavé - arguably the country's best dark beer.

While the kitschy Communist theme of KGB has been toned down in recent years, pictures, flags, statues, and other artefacts featuring luminaries like Lenin, Stalin, and Czechoslovakia's last Communist leader Gustáv Husák are still peppered about the place for a truly unique experience. At night, the KGB can get rather raucous with blaring Slovak heavy metal music and university students avoiding their studies.

A little farther up Obchodná is the aptly named Slovak Pub, a relatively new outfit that is so authentic, one has trouble believing it hasn't always been there. As the name suggests, domestic beers are the order here, but not only the dominant Zlatý Bažant and Šariš brews. Martiner, Topvar, and other lesser known (and slightly more sour) beers are on tap for reasonable prices.

The wooden interior lacks the English gentlemen's club polish of De Zwaan or the ordered-from-catalogue character of the Dubliner, but instead brings to mind a Slovak mountain chata (cottage), an image reinforced by the mix-and-match wooden tables and chairs. The tastefully dusty paintings of Slovak historical figures and folk heroes give the visitor the impression of being a guest at someone's rustic summer cabin rather than just a wallet on a barstool.

But besides contradictions, Bratislava also holds surprises, and one of the most pleasant has to be the Buddha Bar(Medená 16). Not exactly a pub, the Buddha is a cool cellar decked out in Indian and Nepali décor and featuring one menu for alcohol and wine, and another for its range of herbal teas.

One of the few Bratislava nightspots to regularly feature live jazz, the Buddha also has a large collection of vinyl records and a roster of DJs who spin them in their spare time, which seems to be always. Although the Buddha serves only small beers (and Czech ones at that), it is laid-back, open late, and filled with a young, English-friendly crowd.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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