Drinks notwithstanding, one of the greatest bars in the world is that at Au Petit Fer à Cheval, located in the Marais district of Paris. There, a century-old, white marble and zinc horseshoe-shaped beauty (for which the café is named) fully possesses the narrow space it lives in.
Yet, the physicality of the bar’s well-worn, chipped surface is superseded by the front row seat it provides to the incredible efficiency of the narrow backbar and the overlapping conversations that go on around it. All horseshoe bars, each compelling in their own way, possess this memorable and beloved nature; it’s why so many old ones have been maintained and replicated for decades. (In fact, a veritable doppelgänger bar to the one at Au Petit Fer à Cheval, designed and constructed from poured concrete by Home Studios, was installed at Greenpoint’s Alameda in 2013.)
I’ve always thought that the magic of a traditional straight bar is that the farther-reaching one is, the more compartmentalized it becomes. A lone stool, like a wall-less library carrel, becomes its own room; pairs of stools are intimate nooks; even groups of stools with friends loaded up two-deep behind inhabit their own time and space. But the alchemy of a curved, horseshoe-shaped bar is different altogether. There aren’t any perceived corners—for drinkers or bartenders—in which to hide out. It’s this face-to-face detail, in particular, that’s solidified these examples in the canon of great bars. It’s also why the slightly odd design has been so well-preserved.
The wellspring of bars with this wrap-around shape is difficult to pinpoint, though certainly the stylings of Parisian pastis houses played a role, as seen in the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans, which dates back to the early 1800s and survived Prohibition. (Then, the physical bar was actually relocated to a hiding place down the street and wasn’t reinstalled until after Repeal.)
In the U.S., Prohibition marks a noteworthy time for horseshoe bars in general: The assumption can be made that it was a time when bar-goers and bartenders wanted to be seen by everyone in the room, but also to be aware of who was watching. Like many New York bars, the one at the East Village’s Holiday Cocktail Lounge is believed to have been constructed during this time, though its history as a hangout for W.H. Auden and Allen Ginsberg and its popularity in the mid- to late-20th century are much better documented. Then, too, the horseshoe-shaped bar was a magnet for all sorts of drinkers.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, it was rumored that at one side of the bar would be the neighborhood mafia and on the other side of the bar would be the neighborhood law enforcement,” says Barbara Sibley, who acts as the creative director for Holiday, which was resuscitated in 2015 after being closed for three years. For structural reasons, the bar was moved slightly and the wells were modernized in the renovation; the circus tent-ceilinged structure seats 14 people, with up to three bartenders shaking drinks in the cramped space at any given time.
And that’s the thing: A bar has to be truly committed to the horseshoe shape, because it can be quite difficult for the people working behind one. “There’s a huge challenge with designing the workflow,” says Waine Longwell, owner of Alameda. “Everything has to be so deliberate. You have people behind you and on the side of you, and there’s nowhere to hide any ugliness that might exist behind bars.” One root of the problem is that the pre-constructed stainless steel elements of a back bar—the well, sinks, shelving—are built with sharp corners, not curved edges. Plenty of valuable space is often sacrificed.
This is why what constitutes a horseshoe bar has evolved over the years to include modified U-shaped bars, like the one Parts and Labor designed for Marcus in Washington, D.C. or that at Esters in Santa Monica (by Oonagh Ryan Architects), which have 90-degree corners rather than smooth curves so that all of the built-ins fit nicely underneath. At the four-year-old Hard Water, a whiskey bar in San Francisco, designer and co-owner Olle Lundberg, blessed with a particularly long space, created a horseshoe-straight bar hybrid that seats 17 people on the curve and another 15 on each of the long sides.
The new, futuristic horseshoe at Coin-Op in San Francisco, designed by sfHEIMAT, is, in truth, an octagonal bar that sits in the center of the arcade game-themed bar. Constructed of metal, salvaged wood and an incredible number of vintage televisions, this focal piece was designed with Tron in mind. It’s a perch from which drinkers can not only see one another and the bartenders, but also spy on who has the best chops at video games—a worthy exercise at a bar of this ilk, which has been pushing buttons for years.