The Case for a Woman Alone Going to a Bar in a Strange City


Before I visit a city, near or far away, I make a list of the things I want to do--which vary widely, of course, depending on the destination. But the list almost always includes one entry in particular: a stop at the best bar in town, preferably on the early side of cocktail hour. This is because somewhere along the line, maybe from "Thin Man" movies or Cole Porter songs, I developed an appreciation for having cocktails on the road.

Women and bars are a dangerous combination, or so one is told. But I don't care, and it isn't just the beverages that appeal. Bars have practical applications. For instance, nursing a drink in a quiet bar is a good way to rest and recharge after a long, hard day of sightseeing.

If you arrive before the crowds, you can start up a conversation with the bartender, often an excellent source of information about where to eat and what to do; eavesdrop on people nearby; and indulge freely in nuts, pretzels and happy-hour hors d'oeuvres.

Sometimes the nibbles yield to surprisingly affordable gourmet bar meals, such as the one I had several summers ago, after polishing off a martini at Cafe Campagne in Seattle's Pike Place Market: spreadable pork rillettes with crusty sourdough bread and a chevre cheese salad, for about $20, including the drink. In Santiago, Chile, I favored local red wines and cheese samplers at the bar of the Hotel Plaza San Francisco Kempinski for $11, about the same amount as I was paying for my spartan fourth-floor room at a budget pension around the corner. And because I was dining at the Kempinski, no one stopped me from taking advantage of a few of the hotel's amenities, such as the fax machine.

Then, too, in almost all cultures, bars are social centers, where travelers have a chance of rubbing shoulders with locals. My mother still tells the story of her visit 25 years ago to a packed Dublin pub, where she was one of only a very few women. Pushing her way to the back, she was stopped by a red-faced fellow, who clinked pints with her and said admiringly, "Oh my, what a faerie queen!"

Just as often, though, I meet fellow travelers. I like tourists, and the way fast, deep friendships are formed between strangers on the road. Such was the case the time I took a seat at a table in a Parisian wine bar called Le Passage. There I got to talking with the couple next to me, a Frenchman and a beautiful young Quebecoise brought to Paris by her work. She asked me over to her apartment for a drink the next night, where I learned that Frenchmen, too, have commitment problems, which was why she was quitting her job and going home.

But I'd be telling a baldfaced lie if I said I don't care about the drinks, themselves--liquid evocations of place, such as the sophisticated Sazerac Slings served at the gently rotating Carousel Bar in New Orleans' Monteleone Hotel, or the long, pink Tequila Sunrises made in the rooftop bar of the Hotel Los Quatro Vientos high above Puerto Vallarta. A nip of Jameson's whiskey neat takes me straight back to County Clare, Ireland, where my sister and I went cycling one sweet, flowery spring; and when I think of Cannes or Nice, I can almost taste pastis, the anise-flavored liqueur that flows like water in bars along the Cote d'Azur.

'Women and bars are a dangerous combination, or so one is told. But I don't care . . . '

Generally, though, I gravitate to beautiful bars with decorous atmospheres, like the one depicted in the Edouard Manet painting, "The Bar at the Folies-Bergere." For example, the gemlike Art Deco Cruise Bar at Denver's Oxford Hotel, the stylish postmodern watering hole downstairs at Miami's Delano, Winston Churchill's civilized drinking haunt at the Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech, the colonial bar in New Delhi's Imperial Hotel and the Round Robin Bar at the Willard Inter-Continental around the corner from the White House.

At places such as these, I find I get the best service if I dress for the occasion, and I am rarely bothered by hopelessly unsubtle, cruising men. To further discourage unwanted male attention, I take a book or diary and look studious, pretend I don't understand the language, sometimes wear a fake wedding band, lie outright about impending rendezvous with nonexistent husbands and boyfriends and enlist the aid of the bartender if it comes to that.

But usually, I can take care of myself. Take the time I ended up next to an obnoxious man, smoking cigars and drinking one scotch after another, at the Bemelman's Bar in New York's Carlyle Hotel, where the walls are lined with beguiling murals from the children's book, "Madeline." When he leaned over and said, "Are you lonely, love?" I put $10 on the bar to cover the drink, sidled off my stool and said, "Not so lonely that I'd want to talk to you."

It's a lot harder to assess the ramifications of an encounter with an appealing man because almost inescapably, bar-sitting has a sexual subtext. How much should you say? Should you let him buy you a drink, or even take you out to dinner? And if you do, what will be expected? I'm very careful about this because forming liaisons isn't on my touristic agenda. But I like interesting people, 50% of whom happen to be male, which is why I took a little chance several years ago at the Cafe Rivoire on the Piazza della Signoria in Florence.

I was sipping a gin and tonic when I noticed a debonair, older man at a table nearby reading the Herald Tribune. He noticed me too, and lent me his paper after he was through. When we started chatting, I learned that he was a divorced businessman with a summer home in Tuscany, but, generously, he didn't press me to talk about myself. As the light faded over the bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, he offered to buy me another drink (which had its attractions, at $10 each). The evening mellowed so beautifully and benignly that when he asked if I'd join him for dinner, I agreed.

In the ladies' room before we left, I wondered if I was making a big mistake. Then, when he rose from his chair, I saw that he walked with a cane in each hand. I didn't ask him about his infirmity, just accompanied him slowly to a small, wonderful restaurant known only to locals, tucked away in the medieval maze that is Florence.

I could never find it again. Nor do I really want to, because that evening has lodged in my memory as a perfectly poised interlude, well worth the little risk taken in pursuing it. When dinner was over, he gave me his card, called me a cab and kissed me on the cheek.

Here's how to find some of the bars mentioned above: Cafe Campagne, telephone (206) 728-2233, on Post Alley, Seattle; Carousel Bar at the Monteleone Hotel, tel. (504) 523-3341, 214 Royal St., New Orleans; Le Passage, tel. 011-33-1-4700-7330, 18 Passage de la Bonne Graine, Paris; Cruise Room at the Oxford Hotel, tel. (303) 628-5400, 1600 17th St., Denver; Round Robin Bar at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel, tel. (202) 637-7348, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington D.C.; the Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, tel. (212) 744-1600, Madison Avenue at East 76th Street in New York.


This new column about women's travel will appear weekly. Spano, who joined the Travel staff recently, is a seasoned traveler who has freelanced widely. She will also write destination stories for Travel.

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