ONE 2 • Raising the Bar

The Skinny Editor Rupert Thomson surveys the ethos of a night out, bar decor and why we go here instead of there.

There are two kinds of nights out I like. Socials: where you meet with friends and possibly new acquaintances, and talk. The better the talk, the better the social. And, wild nights: where you head out full of fire accepting that anything and everything might well happen. wild nights involve dancing, sex, and can be anywhere between a swally down the local where you know everyone, to a rave in a cave in another town. The main point is that a wild night stretches your experience in some way. It’s true that these two kinds of night can overlap; certainly a social can turn into a wild night; but they have distinct purposes which are worth enjoying (as often as time and liver allow).

The kind of night I’ve never really got is the kind in the middle: going to bars. Particularly fancy bars. What’s the point of going out if you’re not going to dance like a loon to crazy music, or put the world to rights with your mate’s mate who’s actually, now you think about it, rather attractive…such was my thinking. I had my opinion changed by a night out in London, in two fancy bars.

The first bar we went to merely reinforced my sense that bars aren’t worth the time of day or night. Cocoon sits on the curve at the south end of Regent Street, running almost a full block’s length under the arches of the grand façade. It is a sushi restaurant, but it is also a bar. At the time we went—at around eleven o’clock on a Friday night, it’s much more bar. The décor is primarily orange, with an ‘updated’ seventies feel: curved bowl chairs, low vinyl-like tables and circles as a prominent design feature. In many ways it makes good use of the space: this long curved room, with a very low ceiling for a busy space, must have seemed unusable until someone had the bright idea of installing a bar here.

Bright, because there can be no doubt that Cocoon makes money. There were a lot of people in there, the expert bar staff were working full tilt, and the drinks prices are extortionate. The exotically named cocktail list suggests you might be getting value for money (a rare or even unique mix), but look at the price of something you’re used to buying—single malt, in my case—and you’ll see that yes, it’s extortionate.

Why do people pay these prices? In the case of Cocoon, neither the quality of the drinks (decent) nor the atmosphere (neither wild, relaxing, nor particularly interesting) merited the cost of drinking here over other venues. Even in central London, there are cheap options if you know where to look.

One obvious factor is sex. Couples were leaving…couples who had clearly just met. Those not leaving with each other were watching each other intently. There is something quite explicitly Darwinian about the idea that the more exclusive the venue in which you’re drinking—exclusion coming from the price of drinks therein—the more desirable the other patrons are likely to be. It’s flawed thinking, but in the case of places like Cocoon, it’s clearly a big factor.

Sex, though, is naturally more complicated than the simple(ish) business of coupling, and this indicated another motivation which I think is at work in the attendance of fancy bars: voyeurism. It crossed my mind that we also go to fancy bars in much the same way as National Trust members tour stately homes: to see a lifestyle, and that lifestyle’s associated architecture and interior design styles. The difference, of course, is that the lifestyle represented by fancy bars has no historical context; rather it is the very lifestyle of its own voyeurs and fantasists. How very, er, now.

On a tangent I’d also suggest that the main reason people go to National Trust properties is sex: looking at the intimate lives of others, and imagining an idealised life (nothing like seeing servant’s quarters for a bit of contrast in the fantasy) of inequality and giant beds. Well that, and the carrot cake’s usually pretty good. But back to bars…

Couples were leaving…couples who had clearly just met.
Those not leaving with each other were watching each other intently.

In Cocoon there is a feeling, above all, of routine. A fake smile can be more than just an emotional deceit, it can be a sign of fatigue to match a sweaty brow—and most of the drinkers were looking dog-tired (for all their glitz). I’m as guilty as anyone of falling into patterns, but being in such an ‘exotic’ location as Cocoon and finding dullness came as a surprise.

The sense routine in Cocoon made me wonder about a connection between church attendance and going to bars. Of course, for some people church and drinking have been part of the same routine for years—pitching up on a Sunday morning still drunk from the night before, that sort of thing. But there is now a substantial population who don’t go to church (or hardly ever), but who do go to bars every weekend. Is there some fundamental need which links them? Routine is appealing, so is the opportunity to socialise, but the highly structured phenomena that churches and bars involve suggest there must be more to it than that.

It’s now familiar to hear consumerism described as religion’s ‘replacement’ in Western culture, and posing with an overpriced drink in a fancy bar is doubtless a part of that consumerism. But I would add that in the case of certain fancy bars, it doesn’t have to mean the usual implication of dutiful unquestioning attendance. There can be more to it than that.

The place that opened my mind was Sketch. Just around the corner, with drinks at the same kind of price, it was fun on a Versailles-like scale (let’s avoid the inequality issues for sake of argument). Chandeliers everywhere, bright colours everywhere, unusual lines under gloriously high ceilings. Sketch is set in a series of big Georgian rooms which have been tampered with so much that their original style really has to strain to retain its elegance—it did, making the full-on architectural balancing act no small achievement. And this is before you even get to the back bar, which is halfway out of this world.

There is a spaceship sunk into the floor, with two grand white staircases leading up into sheer whiteness above. A few steps down into the spaceship: it is a lounge, with a small round bar sunk further into the floor and intricate pencil illustrations covering the ceiling. Up the stairs and it gets weirder still. There is a papier mâché Dalmatian swimming in a pool. There is a French maid going about her business, dusting and offering assistance. And there are eggs. Giant, eight-foot eggs which each contain an individual toilet (there must be about twenty eggs, the room is ballroom-sized). It’s like the ‘heaven’ scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but all the more fantastic because, well, films are already supposed to be quite fantastic, but going to the toilet was never supposed to be like this.

It’s enormous fun, but interestingly, there’s something oddly satisfying about this deep frivolity. Thanks to a visionary architect— and, credit where it is due, the person who paid for the architect’s free reign—Sketch acts as a medium between fantasy and reality. And there’s something highly encouraging about encountering a credible—and not entirely impractical—vision of the techno-sublime which is, frankly, hilarious. Of course the future is daft, of course heaven is daft, because humdrum is daft and drinking is daft and thinking there might be more to it than that is daft. It’s not ironic but accurate, and such clarity of (non)sense is a godsend in this heart of pretentious London. You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the effect.