The Best Bars That Never Existed

If "third places" are our social venues outside of home and work like bars and cafés, then "fourth places" are, arguably, those third places fictionalized in novels, movies and on TV. Wayne Curtis explores the some of the best bars that never existed.

fictional bar characters orwell

In February 1946, George Orwell published an essay about his favorite pub, a place called the Moon Under Water. It’s “only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights,” he wrote.

Other reasons he loved it: the architecture (“uncompromisingly Victorian”), the barmaids who called everyone “dear,” proprietors “particular about their drinking vessels” and the fact that it sold aspirin.

Also—and unfortunately—it was wholly fictional. “There is no such place as the Moon Under Water,” Orwell admitted. But if any establishment lived up to its standards, “I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.”

About 25 years ago, Ray Oldenberg popularized the idea of a “third place” in his book The Great Good Place. It defined locations that were neither work nor home, but semi-public gathering spots like bars and barbershops that contributed to civic engagement and social cohesion. A whole generation of sociologists has grown up writing about third places and their decline.

The sort of oasis imagined by Orwell could aptly be called the “fourth place”—or a third place, but fictional. These are the places we read about in books, and we see on television and in the movies. We are very familiar with such places because there’s a good chance we spend more time in them today than we do in actual third places. (Think: the bar Cheers in Cheers, or Central Perk coffee house in Friends.)

“The thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its ‘atmosphere,’” Orwell wrote. Atmosphere is partially determined by things like décor and quality of the drinks, but more so by the people who gather there. An eccentric invariably improves the atmosphere. (Hello, Norm. Hello, Phoebe.) The atmosphere of a great fourth place is complex, and requires a precise molecular structure, as it does in real life. For instance, one negative person won’t badly infect a bar’s atmosphere, as long he’s situated between two positive people, like a molecule of water.

The chemistry of a fourth place is precisely positioned to manage our attractions and repulsions, and—I like to think—can be broken down into four basic molecular structures involving characters-as-tenants.

Fourth places provide succor and solace. For Orwell, the Moon Under Water provided nourishment, and not just corporeally, but also spiritually. It was comfort food for the soul, where he could feel connected to both people and the past.

The most noted fourth place in modern American history is arguably Cheers, the fictional television bar. It’s where “everybody knows your name,” a defining quality of community and an antidote for the impersonal world’s daily chafing. Who doesn’t want to spend time in a place where every joke you tell is greeted with thunderous laughter? (Coach: “Can I draw you a beer, Norm?” Norm: “No, I know what they look like. Just pour me one.” And…LAUGHTER.)

So popular was this fourth place that it spawned a pair of replica bars in actual Boston—Cheers Bar at Faneuil Hall, and the bar formerly known as Bull & Finch. Regrettably, these are much sadder in reality than in fiction, with their many gawkers and tourists whose names nobody knows.

Second, fourth places encourage personal discovery. If everybody always knew your name, then it wouldn’t be a third place. It would be home. Unfamiliarity that tests one’s character strikes a spark that illuminates deeper recesses.

In J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, that place is Ernie’s, a Greenwich Village nightclub. It’s one of several stops underage Holden Caulfield makes in Manhattan. At first Holden feels at ease, finally getting his oft-denied soda and scotch. But then, listening to Ernie (“this big, fat colored guy who plays the piano”), he finds himself slipping away from himself. He tunes into the crowd’s “phony” adoration of Ernie and his “phony” piano riffs, and is increasingly annoyed by the “phony” conversations around him. He then encounters the girlfriend of an acquaintance, and her chatty phoniness sends him back out on to the street—feeling even more alienated from the world around him. Ernie’s is the place where he believes he’ll connect to the world, but his interaction with its clientele repels him further away.

Sometimes alienation comes in more literal terms. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker goes to meet Han Solo and Chewbacca at Mos Eisley Cantina (more formally, Chalmun’s Cantina). Filled with reptilian aliens, the bar neatly captures what it feels like to enter a bar in a foreign country (but with the volume turned up to 11). Luke is hesitant when he steps in—especially after his droids are barred from entry—but he soon gets comfortable (despite the fleshy reptilians) just as we all do when we successfully convert a situation from the alarming to the familiar. A fourth place allows characters to grow, either by offering consolation, new ideas or a chance to clarify internal conflicts.

Third, fourth places offer a platform upon which one can stand up to the challenges of an unkind world. They allow one to face difficult odds and, in triumph, reveal one’s depth of character.

At Bob’s Country Bunker in Kokomo, The Blues Brothers and their band play an unannounced gig in a hostile environment. And despite enduring a fusillade of cans and bottles, they eventually overtake with “Stand By Your Man” and “Rawhide” covers. At the Korova Milk Bar in Clockwork Orange, Alex and his droogs change the mood of the bar with their edgy and arrogant attitudes, altering that small world in a way they can’t the larger one.

And then there’s Poor Richard’s in The Office, the “seventh best bar in Scranton,” (and a real place, actually), where characters grow outside of their natural habitats. Some only confirm what we already know—Creed sells fake IDs—but others rise above, such as when Pam stands up for her usually timid self and sends back a bad drink. Fourth places selectively allow the annoyances of the outside world to creep in, where they can battled—one at a time—revealing a character’s depth and strength.

And finally, fourth places offer a portal into another world. When he went into The Moon Under Water, Orwell could leave behind humdrum reality and all its vexations. In the 1990s television series Twin Peaks, it’s the red-light soaked brothel-bar One Eyed Jack’s where the real world suspends to give way to a bizarre world of creepy revelry, and the town’s true deviancy is revealed. Or Moby Dick’s Spouter Inn, the 18th-century Massachusetts tavern where Ishmael first encounters the tattooed cannibal Queequeg, cracking open the door to the obsession that would eventually consume him. “The liquor soon mounted into their heads, as it generally does even with the arrantest topers newly landed from sea,” Herman Melville wrote, “and they began capering about most obstreperously.” It could be a scene from the oft-grotesque dream world of Twin Peaks.

Perhaps my favorite description of a Dantean portal bar is the Farolito in Mexico from Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano. “Only after he had grown to know it well had he discovered how far back it ran, that it was really composed of numerous little rooms, each smaller and darker than the last, opening one into another, the last and darkest of all being no larger than a cell. These rooms struck him as spots where diabolical plots must be hatched, atrocious murders planned; here, as when Saturn was in Capricorn, life reached bottom.”

Fourth place bars are—though fictional—equally everlasting; they exist all around us, and they never disappear. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner famously wrote. They’re in our minds and through them we view our own third places, perhaps allowing suspension of disbelief in our own realities, if even for a moment or two.

My ultimate fourth place? Rick’s Cafe Americain in Casablanca, which embodies all four elements. Rick’s is a place of consolation and cheer for regulars (the original title of the play was “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”). And although it’s the precise inverse of the Mos Eisley Cantina—familiar on the inside, but placed within an exotic environment—it’s the ultimate setting for personal growth and confronting the unjust while existing as a portal into a swirling world of intrigue and corruption.

It is, in short, the perfect bar. If its equal existed in the real world, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as Rick’s Café.