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.

A Bratislava pub crawl

Cherries in your cocktails, sombreros on the wall, and no live music after 10

Time may have stopped once in the Bratislava Irish Pub for a Guinness and a steak and kidney pie, but he’s long since moved on, leaving the Irish to careless hands.

As a place to start a pub crawl that takes you through a bit of recent bar history in the Slovak capital, the Irish is the inescapable choice. Not much seems to have changed here since the place opened in December 1996, with the same tables standing in the same positions, the same big screen in the back room telling the fortunes of the same scruffy Irish sports teams.

The human element, however, has under-gone a subtle shift that seemed to begin when the Norton brothers sold the joint to the owners of the next-door El Diablo in 2000. The Irish crowd became more Slovak and less expat, the wait staff a little less concerned to get it right.

On our arrival this June evening we manage to command a quick and well-poured Guinness, but our guests, arriving minutes later, are not so lucky. By the time my pub crawl partner Chris Togneri and I are ready to go, our guests are still sitting there, Guinness-less and doing a furious head-swivel for service. Even the Guinness I spilled on the table and in their laps is still sitting there, waiting to be served. I wipe it up on our way out with paper napkins taken from the bar. Our guests have at least been cheap.

We move on to De Zwaan around the corner on Panská Street (opened in 2000), with its wicker seating outside, cool dark wood in. Ahhh, so this is where the expats who used to drink at Irish have come. As if to prove the surmise right, within five minutes six people we both know have pulled a chair up and flopped down, all having memorised the same code words (‘well, as long as you’re buying’). Even with the skinny 0.3 and 0.4 litre draft the Swan serves (domestic and Belgian), this is going to be an expensive night if we don’t move on.

Move we do, down to the renovated Hviezdoslavovo Square, opened May 19, 2002 after spending almost a decade under hillocks of construction material. We walk a little past the glow of the Carlton Hotel to 17s (Hviezdoslavovo 17). It’s not a big pub, 17s, with some five booths and ten barstools inside, but you always seem to find a seat there, and Chris likes the waitress. We get big beers and pizza, the latter served hot in ten minutes and consumed in half that time. The music, like the evening, has been improving, from ‘It’s Raining Men’ at Irish to the Black Crowes here, and we settle up with the satisfaction of men for whom the evening holds promise (at least of more free drinks on the company).

In the mood for something a little less stodgy than another beer we stop by the Greenwich bar (Biela 6), which offers just about any cocktail you can think of for 100 crowns ($2) and up. I get a Whiskey Sour, Chris a Dirty Mother for the amusement of saying the name to the waitress (‘I want a Dirty Mother, hahaha’). She acts like she’s served people like us many, many times before. Chastened, we eat our maraschino cherries, down our drinks and leave Greenwich to those not under the rigorous discipline of a beer march.

It’s clearly time to get back to beer, so we march off to Aligátor on Laurinská, a basement den with sticky tables and nightly blues. But Aligátor too has moved on from its past, and when we arrive we find it decked out in AC/DC posters. It now has a low-ceilinged, late-70s feel to it, guys in sweat tops with the sleeves ripped off, chicks chewing gum. We sit at the lone free table and wait; after about 10 minutes a waiter grudgingly extracts himself from an engrossing conversation with the bartender to volunteer the information that the table we’re sitting at is reserved. Off we go, and if there had been a door to slam we would have.

But then, outside the Aligátor, the evening magically clarifies. The few stray notes of Ozzy Osbourne which waft up the stairs are suddenly drowned out by a bray of live Dixieland jazz. It comes from a new joint called the Studio Cafe, just a few steps up from the heavy metal hell hole.

We walk in and, the evening already playing its new notes, find a free table right between the stage and the bar. One moment your head is halfway up a trombone, the next you’re pulling the bartender’s sleeve for another rum and coke. The kind of place that, wherever you’ve been before arriving, has the both of you asking ‘why the hell didn’t we come here before?’

The Studio Cafe is not, after all, new. It used to be the Opus Theatre way back in the 1920s, a breeding ground for jazz with a small stage for plays. Most members of the six-piece band now onstage are ancient enough to have known the pre-war Opus, old guys with their belts winched tight over bulging bellies as if to restrain some imminent gastric catastrophe. But they can sure play, and acknowledge every round of applause they get with a majestic grace.

There are a couple of young punks playing along as well, one on piano and the other on drums, both perhaps technically better than their elders but without the stage presence and soul, happy just to follow leads. They remind me of my son helping me do the housework.

As Mood Indigo comes and goes, several small distractions remind us of where we are. The first is the waiter, a sneaky little upstart with a pencil moustache. He keeps pretending to misunderstand how much I intend to tip him, e.g. I give him a 200 crown note for a round which costs 127 crowns, telling him 140 is fine. He hands me back 50 crowns and then strides off, confident that I won’t make a fuss over ten crowns. The next round he comes over and tells me ‘that’ll be 150’ without bothering to give me the bill. I ask him for it; it’s 123 crowns. I hand over another 200 and wait for him, sighing gustily, to count out every crown of the change. Watching his sulky little face I’m reminded of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, who tells a sullen waiter: “Most people would have kicked your arse for you by now. If you don’t give me my change in the next five seconds I shall call the Manager. All of it. Now. Give it to me.” If only my Slovak were good enough.

The other distraction is a lady, perhaps 60 or more, who arrives with a big plastic shopping bag which she deposits beside the sound man with a great display of familiarity. He looks bewildered. She then moves to the centre of the crowded pub and commences to dance, by herself. Jerky little movements in a long skirt, her face alight with pleasure. As the band moves on to a slow song, she approaches our table and says, looking at us with reproach, “It’s such a shame when a lady has to dance to a slow song by herself.” I try to catch Chris’ eye, but his head is already dropping down and to the side in resignation. The lady hasn’t danced more than a dozen lonely steps before Chris rises to take her in his arms, Mrs. Robinson if she ever existed. The pub patrons applaud once again, this time for the gentleman in our midst rather than the music.

But at 10 p.m. sharp it all ends, due to a city by-law restricting the hours when live music can be played in the capital’s downtown core. The Dixieland and the somnolent mood it has created have survived the waiter and Dancing Danka, but not the Bratislava Old Town council.

Our travel along the Bratislava pub timeline has also reached its terminus, and we agree that there’s little point in looking for something to rival Studio Cafe. So it’s back to Hviezdoslavovo and the Kelt pub for several rounds too many in the midst of a Babel of conversations (EC delegation workers; a Polish military team; some African students here studying medicine).

At Kelt we also pick up a couple of tag-alongs who accompany us to the last stop of the night, the El Corrida Spanish theme bar on Laurinská. It’s an outpost, a desert town where human intercourse is stripped to its barest elements. As a monstrous shaven-headed thug sits at the bar and ‘protects’ the joint, one of our new friends chides Chris, whose main fault, apparently, is that “you ain’t never served your country.”

When I first came to Slovakia ten years ago Bratislava seemed a grey little burg where everything shut tight before ten at night and bars were unabashedly places to get drunk.

A decade after independence you can be out all night if you want, have cherries in your cocktails and sombreros on the walls. But the fun, like the live music, still feels rationed.

By Tom Nicholson

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.

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