Commentary: I miss my regular bar – but I accept I might never get to return, even after circuit breakers are lifted
Our F&B scene is partly shaped by consumers’ habits and desires, so perhaps our nostalgia for certain places and experiences will help revive the industry once social distancing measures ease.
SINGAPORE: One of the very specific feelings I miss about pre-COVID-19 life is the comforting chaos of having a drink in a bar.
On a regular day before circuit breaker measures kicked in, the gamut of hawker centres and restaurants sufficiently piqued my palette. But an outing to the bar holds a special place in my heart that goes beyond what you put in your mouth.
Those days of “let’s get drinks”, once a weekly ritual, now feel like the fleeting dream of a sweet confection.
Unfortunately, no one knows when we can “do drinks” again. Even though restrictions in Singapore will gradually begin to ease on Jun 2, social gatherings are still prohibited – at least until Phase 2 kicks in.
“LET’S GET DRINKS” IS DIFFERENT OVER ZOOM
Wanting this badly to wine and dine with my friends might seem inconsequential or churlish when you think about the massive upheaval COVID-19 has wrecked on F&B outlets.
Moreover, bars are potential hotbeds of transmission for the virus, as the cluster at Hero’s Bar at Circular Road reminds us.
While I’m not advocating for bars to resume business anytime soon, at least not without stringent safe distancing protocols, interestingly, even the biggest introverts I know yearn to dine out again.
Could this nostalgia for communal dining hold the key to saving our favourite places and revitalising the industry?
After all, whether you ordered food delivery from a five-star restaurant or your favourite hawker stall, the novelty of eating at home quickly fades.
Even a drinking session with a group of friends over Zoom doesn’t quite hit the spot, when people get cut off by several other voices chiming in at once and awkward pauses make such sessions exasperating.
I long for the day when I can finally raise my voice above the din in a noisy bar and have to lean closer into the other person just so they can hear what I’m saying.
I crave the day when I can see my friends again and we can spill secrets, nursing that one happy hour drink in the corner of a beat-up neighbourhood dive bar while listening to 80’s ballads blaring through cheap speakers.
I even miss the bits I hated about these evenings, like hailing a ride that costs as much as a drink at the end of the evening, wondering why I put my body and wallet through the wringer time and again.
But I know why. Whether my friends and I bought overpriced cocktails or substandard beers, slipped into speakeasies or splurged on fancy hotel bars, all those outings gave us the one thing our technology-driven, fast-paced lives and demanding jobs have eroded: Intimacy.
In that sense, the longing for a drink in a bar is less about the specific bar or drink, but about what these places represent: Small pockets of uninhibited, permissive camaraderie and that escape from life we badly need.
A REFLECTION OF WHAT WE TRULY MISS
“Bars are a kind of confessional place, oddly public and private at once,” reveals an essay in Good Beer Hunting, an American website dedicated to stories about beer culture.
Yet what is it about bars that cultivates the essence of human connection and drives this wish of mine for the F&B industry to return to life pre-circuit breaker?
For one, bars are governed by tacit rules, making it feel like you’ve entered another world. Everyone is somehow bound to each other, simply by craving a similar atmosphere for drinking.
It is odd that waiting for a friend alone in a bar after work doesn’t ignite self-consciousness, but provides that buzz of sweet anticipation. I often contemplate getting a pint before they arrive, using the opportunity to ask the bartender for their beer recommendations. These transactional half-friendships propped up by organic small talk give me a sense of belonging, even if it’s my first visit.
The relaxed ambience kills all your inhibitions and creates rare opportunities for conversations unlikely to happen in any other scenario.
You might, for instance, exchange a knowing glance with a stranger after witnessing someone’s drunken behaviour that made you chuckle at the same time, or dive into philosophical banter with a coworker while waiting for your drinks.
The right amount of alcohol helps people open up. I often find myself having gotten closer with acquaintances or casual friends at the end of the night.
Importantly, the confessional nature of a bar encourages little bursts of spontaneity that feel devoid in life under the circuit breaker, from throwing out a business idea with one friend to booking air tickets with another.
As uncertain as our future feels in a world of COVID-19, it's the inevitability of everyday life that cuts deeper. There’s ironically nothing more brutally certain than already knowing the exact tedium of the following day.
WHAT GOOD IS NOSTALGIA?
The truth is many of our bars and restaurants are hanging by a thread. Today’s it’s Jekyll and Hyde closing shop. Who will be on tomorrow’s chopping board?
Many F&B businesses might reach the end of the road if landlords refuse to relieve them of their rent during the circuit breaker, a CNA Lifestyle report reveals.
The report adds, “The diversity that makes our culinary scene so exciting relies heavily on imported produce, but with airlines grounding and supply chains affected by lockdowns across the world, food prices have gotten significantly higher and deliveries irregular.”
On top of exorbitant rent bleeding F&B outlets, these factors might be the final nail in the coffin, since “restaurants generally operate on two months of cash flow”. Even if they survive, it might take some of them “five to six years” to recover.
But what of the smaller bars? Will they still be left standing when rules finally allow them to open?
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Will I still get to squeeze past tables of sweaty young adults on a Friday night just to get to my friend’s table at the corner of Stärker Signature in Holland Village?
Will I still get to drink one pint of draft beer at Bojangles Pub & Diner, while watching sports on their old TV and observing a group of polytechnic students learn how to play pool? Or will I need to buy more pints and several platters of oily finger food, in order to keep them afloat for a few more weeks?
Will I still fail to catch my friend, who owns The Tuckshop Assembly, as he busily attends to throngs of customers, who spill out from his cosy bar onto Guillemard Road on a crowded weekend night?
Will I still be able to sit in the dingy Countryside Café in Little India, sharing a bucket of ice-cold beer with a friend, without worrying that the place might fold the next day?
I don’t have the answers – and I might not have them even if my favourite bars are there to reopen for business in the months ahead. Many will not be.
We’re barely out of the COVID-19 woods, so our struggling F&B industry will be part of the new normal for some time. Our sheer nostalgia for the good old days will have to take a backseat to rules, caution and common sense when the time comes in resuming social gatherings.
There are many things I don’t miss about going to bars pre-circuit breaker: The overpriced mediocre food, the buyer’s remorse after splurging on a trendy cocktail, the long queue for the single toilet when people are getting ready to head home.
But like everyone who took for granted the simple joy of having a drink in a bar, I will miss the sum of it.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA Insider.