On Saturday afternoon, Sally and I strolled through the early evening of a false Autumn toward Belmont Street. If I ever am forced to live anywhere else, I'll remember days like that one--cloudy and spitting rain all day, but so half-heartedly that the total rainfall measured just a tenth of an inch. It's the kind of weather that makes me want to go to a pub--not just any random pub, but a nice one that feels warm and inviting. A place with the appropriate Feng Shui.
We ended up at Circa 33, a place that has quickly zipped to the top my list for places with perfect ambiance. It's built like a cave, with the windows on Belmont standing in as the mouth. At the far back is a spectacular bar glittering with bottles. The light comes from overhead, but the main part of the pub stays in the shadows. It therefore has the perfect mixture of light and shadows. The menu is excellent and surprisingly cheap and there are a dozen rotating taps of local and international interest on tap. Perfect.
When I first started my pub-going life in the late 1980s, America was just emerging from a very dark period in which the tavern was not a particularly homey place to visit. Our Puritan streak relented enough to end Prohibition, but taverns were still no place for decent folk, so they were free of amenities like windows, decent food, or decent beer, children, and women. (Yes, that is an exaggeration.) Examples included the stalwarts I visited not irregularly along Milwaukie Avenue (Bear Paw, Yukon), in St Johns (Blue Bird, Wishing Well), and many points in between. For the cocktail set, there were definitely upscale redoubts that did have good food, windows, and women--but of course, no good beer. Your choices for good beer and great vibe were limited to, say, the Horse Brass.
It is a delight to live in a period where pubs are now as varied and individual as the people who create them. Think of Apex, Bailey's, the Widmer Gasthaus, a McMenamins pub, Grain and Gristle, Victory Bar: all different, all sporting specific visions of feng shui that will appeal to different people in different degrees.
Americans don't really do their beer drinking in pubs anymore--just 10% of all beer sales are draft, a number that hasn't changed appreciably in 30 years. I'm not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg--but it's no surprise that by 1981 no one felt inspired to head down to the corner tavern. But maybe the change in pubs will change the culture toward drinking in pubs, too. In 2004, just 9% of beer sales were on draft, and now we're up to 9.6%. Britain is chagrined to learn that draft sales have fallen to 50% there--a catastrophe I could really learn to live with. With pubs like Circa 33, maybe we can shoot for double digits.