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

June 21, 1998|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

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."

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