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July/August 2022
Thoughts on Beer

Just do it

Requests for places to visit and things to do when you get there are regular features on social media.

Alastair Gilmour’s advice is ‘go your own way’.

Today I shall be mainly not going to Manchester, Bilbao, Copenhagen or Lisbon. That’s actually not the best intro to a travel feature, is it? I’ll rephrase.

Like others on social media regarded as experts in their field, I get regular requests for foodie, drinkie, touristy, sporty, rocky rolly recommendations from contacts too busy (ie, indolent or inept) to work out their own itinerary. People seem to want it all done for them, served on a plate, can’t be bothered, saves them a job. A typical example might be:

“Hey northern beer friends!! (I’m) looking for beery recommendations in Manchester open midweek – hit me with your top spots!”

How on earth should we know from the zero information they’ve given us where their likes, loves and hates lie, when their day begins and their night ends? Do they prefer raucous bars to intimate restaurants; favour music venues over comedy gigs?

Usually they’ll finish off with the instruction “GO…” in the expectation that the person reading the message can only cope with filing their nails and checking their emails every thirty seconds while they get back to honing their own self-importance.

Has Twitter and the likes made us so reliant on other people’s opinions we need regular injections of recycled thought? Are we now so travel timid we require a hand to hold?

“I’m going to Bilbao for a week on Monday. Recommendations please for tapas, bars, restaurants appreciated. Also hoping to go to San Sebastian for a day.”

Requests like this could be simply boasting that while the rest of us are scrimping and saving until the end of our financial year gives us the nod, they’re not only planning visits to as-yet unknown hotspots in Bilbao but seeking tips on San Sebastian – which they probably had never heard of before posting their initial request.

Taking up random recommendations risks promoting the same bars and restaurants over and over again. It’s a hand-me-down culture where tourist honey-spots get ever more boxes ticked. Great though they are, surely there are equally good places to explore a city’s offerings than the Bermondsey Beer Mile in London or Dublin’s Temple Bar?

Social media recommendations can never prepare you for unique pubs like Brasserie Bercloux in SW France

“Dear Twitter, (I’m) looking for recommendations. I’ll be in Copenhagen on Sunday evening just for the night – where should I go, what should I do?”  

Tell you what pal, stand at your hotel door and make a decision to turn left or right. Left might take you to the most glamorous bright lights you’ve ever blinked upon and you’ll praise your clever-cloggery for ever more, while heading right could lead to an intimidating suburb populated by dimly-lit cafes and shadowy bars. The choice is yours, but if you do head right there’s a good chance you’ll regale your cafe/bar experience to all and sundry for ever and a day, telling them how you met the most amazing ‘ordinary’ Danish people who were only too willing to share their precious Sunday with you ­“and they’re just like us”. Only, you won’t because you’ve already sent a recommendation plea to Facebook. You’ll follow the herd, blinded by the illuminations on your left.


Be adventurous, it’s what travel is supposed to be about – broadening the mind, having stories to tell, not stuff to show and all that. The pub in Aberdeen where I spent ninety minutes until my train’s departure and fell in love… with Watson’s Trawler Rum. That tiny brasserie on a farm in South West France and being offered the most amazing beer, wine and cognac, all produced on the premises. The bar in Dundalk, Ireland, where the taste of the slowest-ever poured pint of Guinness blew my mind. The initially intimidating Klub Malých Pivovarů in Plzeň, Czech Republic, where I watched Viktoria Plzeň play CSKA Moscow on a small screen and witnessed one of the most bizarre goalkeeping errors in Champions League history. Social media recommendations can’t possibly set those up. You have to turn left or turn right – or better still, turn up at the door.

Resist being cocooned. Solve your own problems. Be original, don’t subscribe to second-hand opinions; they’re old hat.

A working trip to New York gave me the opportunity to test my hotel door/left/right theory. Right along 42nd Street would have taken me to the likes of Times Square and Broadway, which was deeply tempting. Left was an unknown quantity. What the heck…

“Hello sir, my name is William, would you like me to show you around?” says a bartender-come-guide at PJ Clarke’s which I soon discovered is the second-oldest bar in New York. (I had turned left). William then rather unnervingly opens a door marked Men to reveal the oldest set of urinals I’d ever set eyes on.

Klub Malých Pivovarů in Plzeň, Czech Republic, at the time when the actual door (no handle) was in an alleyway to the left
The headline needs no translation. The photos, bottom right, show a very slow back pass that trickled between the legs of Viktoria Plzeň’s goalkeeper

I had spotted the place from across the street, thinking it was a liquor store. William – charm’s own self – proceeds with an entertaining, beautifully delivered history from day one in 1884 that proudly confirmed the public bar’s primary function was as a social equaliser “where the newsmaker rubs shoulders with the CEO sitting next to the ironworker”. 

I sip my Brooklyn Lager, an all-too laid-back lunchtime beer with a refreshing bitterness and floral hop aroma that suits the mood just dandy. This is the charming Manhattan saloon bar I wanted to experience. Apparently, songwriter, singer, lyricist and record producer Johnny Mercer wrote One For My Baby on a napkin while sitting right here at the bar. Right here.

The Mens’ urinals in PJ Clarke’s
Lunchtime drinkers at PJ Clarke’s bar

William beckons me into the adjacent dining room, a riot of red and white gingham tablecloths.

“And this is the famous table number 20,” he reveals with a flourish. An upholstered bench-type seat occupies a shallow, exposed brick alcove. He says: “No matter how busy it was in here, this is where Frank Sinatra would sit when he was in town – and Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Onassis.”

Of course I sat there.

A painting on the facing wall glows with a montage of celebrity drinkers and diners ranging through Rat-Packers to football and baseball stars and politicians. In traditionally misogynist bar-room manner, PJ Clarke’s pay-phone is out of order so customers can neither ring out or their partners ring in – all pre-mobile, of course. The ‘wives’ beer window’ (the equivalent of a British ‘snug’) stands open, the broken cigarette machine remains broken, and the ashes of one of its favourite patrons rest in peace behind the bar. PJ’s renowned jukebox plays Frank, Buddy, Ella and Sting and I can’t get Johnny Mercer’s words out of my head. 

“We’re drinking my friend 

To the end of a brief episode 

So make it one for my baby

And another for the road.”

Frank Sinatra’s favoured spot – Table No20 – in PJ Clarke’s

Next beer is Goose Island IPA, a big, bold-flavoured visitor from Chicago. I’m congratulating myself – smiling, even – on my choice, on my luck, and having cracked it on my own. The beer’s fruity aroma, the dry malt middle and the hoppy bitter finish are a fine foil to the American football playing out in silence on the television between adverts and swooshing graphics. The game ends New England Patriots 48, Dallas Cowboys 27. 

Next day’s New York Times report reads: “Twelve penalties for 98 yards negated several big plays, including a successful attempt on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter...”

I didn’t understand it live and am none the wiser seeing it written down 24 hours later but I’m delighted to have had this experience. 

“I’m off to Lisbon tomorrow – I won’t quite believe it until I get there. You know all the best places. Where should I go?”

Oh, please give it a rest. Think of a direction to take, head for the hotel’s revolving door and don’t tie your shoelaces on the way out.

*PJ Clarke’s, 915 Third Avenue at 55th Street, New York 100 22.

*Johnny Mercer's songs are among the most successful hits of all time that include Moon River, Days of Wine and Roses, The Shadow of Your Smile, Something’s Gotta Give, I Remember You, Lazybones and Autumn Leaves. He received nineteen Oscar nominations, winning four for Best Original Song.

*All Twitter posts are genuine. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

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