The Corner Pub

Matt is right that “nightlife”, like a lot of other industries, often clusters. People like to have options when they go out, and they like going where there are other people around, so watering holes that cluster together often find that they do better than they might outside of a nightlife cluster, despite the impact of increased competition within the cluster. And Matt is right to say that when you limit liquor licenses in an area, you cut off the potential gains of clustering to the consumer, you cut off the potential gains of clustering to the businesses, and you cut off the potential gains of competition to the consumer, since you effectively hand existing businesses a great deal of market power.

But I’m constantly reminded of another side of this equation whenever I’m in London. London, like cities and towns across the British Isles, is filled with pubs. They vary in type, quality, and clientele. I was very lucky this time around to find a near-perfect gastropub just a five minute walk from my flat. It was quiet and well-maintained with a great menu, and while there were always people there, there was also always a free seat. Kids were welcome during the day, as were dogs. Every time I went I thought to myself how great it would be to have such a place close by back in Washington. And every time I thought that, I immediately reminded myself that such a place, back in Washington, would be perpetually packed and fairly unpleasant. In the Washington area, you can’t have a place that’s both really good and quiet in a neighborhood-y sort of way.

That’s largely because it’s very difficult to open new bars. And the result is a pernicious feedback loop. With too few bars around, most good bars are typically crowded. This crowdedness alienates neighbors, and it also has a selecting effect on the types of people who choose to go to bars — those interested in a loud, rowdy environment, who will often tend to be loud and rowdy. This alienates neighbors even more, leading to tighter restrictions still and exacerbating the problem.

Sadly, this is the kind of dynamic that’s very difficult to change. No city council will pass the let-one-thousand-bars-bloom act, and neighbors can legitimately complain of any individual liquor license approval that it may lead to some crowded, noisy nights. It’s interesting how often these multiple equilibrium situations turn up in urban economics. In general, they seem to cry out for institutional innovation. It’s a little surprising, for instance, that we don’t see more “private club” type bars, that restrict entry by price or membership, in order to preserve the quiet along with the quality. Or maybe we do, and I’ve just not been invited to join them.


  1. Christopher says:

    Back when I lived in SF and people were moving into lofts and houses in previously working class or industrial areas that also were home to some of SF’s longest running nighttime establishments — great clubs, leather bars, after hours spots — and there started to be a call for more and more to be shut down, a group of motivated club goers created the San Francisco Late Night Coalition that worked to organize voters, register new voters, and educate club goers about the threats against their favorite night spots. (They also offered services and education related to helping deal with the GHB problem and other aspects of SF’s late-night drug culture.) It was the kind of thing that got then city council person (and now assemblyman from SF) and openly gay man, Mark Leno to actively work with bar and club owners to protect their existence. So it is possible but it requires people to counter the forces working against late night activities.

    A few other thoughts:

    1. Pubs in England have very different licensing and close earlier. This spawns the all night clubs, which aren’t quite as common. The pub is where you go earlier in the evening. And then move on to the bigger spots.

    2. DC has far too little retail interspersed in it’s residential areas period. This also creates clustering of bars. There are few corner stores. And even large arterial roads can sometimes have few commercial areas. I think of my time in Petworth and how far it was to even bodega.

    3. Not allowing licenses to transfer from one owner to the next and the insistence that the ANC must continually have influence over liquor licenses once they’ve been granted seems to work against bars and restaurants.

    4. Lack of a robust cab network also works against neighborhood bars and clubs. I was thinking while out in Manhattan the other night how sometimes spread out bars can be that I want to go to, but their are cabs everywhere. So you can just hop in one. And take $5-7 ride across town to get to your next spot. (In SF, we’d do the same. Or if you were really over the top you’d rent a limo for the evening.)

  2. WalkableDFW says:

    You’re absolutely right to call out the causes/effects of clustering. What we are dealing with in Dallas is a case where the clustering is happening on traditional neighborhood service streets where you once found a full ecology of commercial establishments. They all became bars drawing from the entire metroplex. The parking and the noise eat into the nearby neighborhoods causing conflict.

    The solution I have been proposing is to designate neighborhood centers distinct from regional centers. These have to be located in areas suitable to supporting the varying scales, ie a regional center has to be supported by the regional transpo infrastructure, such as having a regional metro stop there. It should also have a parking authority to manage supply/demand of parking and price it accordingly. Because of the increased infrastructure, these will also be denser areas.

    On the other hand, neighborhood centers should probably have a parking cap, so that retail doesn’t over cluster in certain areas, thus protecting neighborhoods and a BID be established to manage the array of business types in support of the nearby neighborhoods. These will be less dense/less intense areas but there will be a broader array of retailers serving daily needs of the neighborhood. It behooves the businesses to be sized and scaled for the neighborhood and vice versa.

    To sketch out what these look like, I think of New Orleans. Where Bourbon Street is the regional draw (or larger) and the place for loud and rowdy, Magazine Street might be that neighborhood service spine and there might only be a bar every few blocks that belongs to and is supported by the neighborhood.

  3. Ben Ross says:

    There’s a long history in England of liquor license restrictions having unintended – and very large – economic effects. Late nineteenth century prohibitionist-inspired license restrictions interacted with Gladstone’s tax policy to create a big financial bubble. I researched that story a few months ago and wrote it up here.

  4. Sorry Ryan, but what city do you live in? There are plenty of places in the District that are both quiet, good and neighborhood-friendly if you know where to look. See Cleveland Park, Columbia Heights, Barrack’s Row for a few examples. In my neighborhood on H Street NE, both Liberty Tree and Toyland fit the bill. Maybe you just live near a Busboys and Poets – a place that would be great if it weren’t so crowded all the time.

  5. Pat Neill says:

    Too bad you all dont live in Albany Oregon ! We have a corner pub in the best tradition.

  6. Kirk says:

    Check out the Saloon on U St. The owner takes steps to make it neighborhoody: no TV’s, soft music, a no standing rule, etc. It’s unpretentious and has a good beer selection, along with a great regular crowd that’s easy to get to know.

  7. George says:

    Hi all those the other side of the pond.

    I think this post omits one important point that pubs in the UK are closing down at a very quick rate the moment. At one point last year around 50 a month.


    The UK pub industry has had to change or die in light of changing attitude towards alcohol (drink more wine at home in front of the TV, instead of beer in the local), changes to the drink driving laws (?!) and of course the recession.

  8. Paul says:

    The problem of providing parking for neighborhood pubs doesn’t really arise in England – they’re within walking distance of most of their clientele and the rest will use public transport. So the footprint of even a moderately large pub doesn’t have to be that big.

  9. Mike says:

    In the flyover parts of the USA corner pubs are common. Stop in almost any small or medium sized city in the Midwest, South, or West and you’ll find a host of neighborhood bars full of old friends having a good time. Even East LA has a bar every block or so. So if you would like a corner pub that much, spend some time outside the Washington bubble.

  10. Tom says:

    Boston has a very restrictive (and expensive) licensing procedure. But in every neighborhood, there’s a good pub.
    I posit that the number of pubs is relational to the number of non-solar heating days. And is geometrically increased by the number of “too damn cold to do anything but walk to the pub” days.

  11. TV says:

    Chicago also has great places. Although the current Mayor Daley has done his best to shut many of them down, real “pubs” still exist in most of Chicago’s neighborhoods. I was born and raised in D.C., but moved to Chicago in 1996 and I love the pub culture here. Bars/pubs in Chicago come in all sizes and shapes – from appalling, frat-boy places that serve nothing but greasy “buffalo wings”, to family-run, dog-friendly places that have been open for decades and stock a selection of free board games and lending libraries to while away the day.

  12. GtheK says:

    The problem is that you’re in DC.

    Come up to Baltimore sometime, and the corner bar is alive and well. Don’t like it? Well, there’s another one a block down.

    I lived in DC for a dozen years and it’s a terrible city for anything having to do with culture. It’s a place to work if you’re in government, but otherwise to be avoided except for family vacations.

  13. owlstone says:

    the city of houston is a good case study.

    my perception is that houston is one of the only large cities in america that hasn’t fallen into the trap of districts and central municipal planning…there are plenty of good, local pubs/bars right in the middle of residential areas.

    live music, crowds and a decent varieties of beers with seemingly none of the social ill fallout.

    why, just down the street from me is a mcdonalds, sex shop, radioshack, veteranarian, and at least six pubs/bars, each with their own variety of clientele.

    i’ve lived in quite a few places around the country and sadly, houston seems to be the exception.

    why did we ever think it fit for any city official to ever say the political equivalent of: “no, you may not use *this* patch of the earth for erecting a building where citizens consume alcohol”?

  14. Aaron says:

    Spring Lounge, Nolita, Manhattan. On a corner. Open every day.
    And GtheK is right, DC fails in this regard.

  15. Seitz says:

    What TV said. I live in the Lakeview/Southport Corridor neighborhood in Chicago, and I can think of multiple bars/pubs of the type described within a few blocks of my apartment. It could be anywhere in the city, but it almost sounds like TV is talking about Schoolyard/Justin’s on the frat boy side, and Guthrie’s on the board game side. I’ll throw in Schuba’s, arguably the best spot for live music in the city, with a nice bar and restaurant attached. I can walk out my front door and be at any of these places in 2-5 minutes, and I live on a quiet, tree-lined street.

  16. Frank says:

    Yep, go to Baltimore if you’re looking for a corner pub. My brother has a pub right across the street from his house. Seems there’s a pub every other block.

  17. Nik says:

    I live in London, and love the pubs here. However, the best corner pub experience I’ve ever had was in Wilfie and Nell’s, in the West Village, NYC. Within ten minutes of settling for an afternoon drink, a colleague and I had five new friends, including the proprietor. All lived within five minutes walk of the bar, and one took me next door to his studio to show me his collection of bicycles. The place had the distinct feel of a local pub, while at the same time being welcoming to new people. I’ve literally never had such a friendly welcome in London. May have something to do with the fact that the owner of Wilfie and Nell’s is Irish.

  18. Pocket says:

    I haven’t spent enough time in NYC or London to compare the merits of their drinking scene, but having lived in DC for several years I can safely say that the constant lamentations of self-loathing District residents are just as annoying as the lawyer/lobbyist/Hillrat crowds that they so despise. I’d not shed a tear to see either group get up and leave. There are a startling variety of excellent places in DC (and believe it or not in VA and MD too) to get your requisite dose of whatever you are looking for.

  19. Tim says:

    The author has obviously never been to Pittsburgh, where the corner pub is still alive and well.

  20. Scott says:

    I live in a small city called Chicago. There is a bar on every corner next to every Starbucks. Double WIN!
    Also, many of Chicago suburbs have significant locally owned bars and pubs. I live a very short walk to Lunar Brewery, The Bulldog, Bar, Elmhurst Public House, and if I drive to nearby suburbs there is an equal assortment of locally owned places.
    I guess we could differentiate between pubs

  21. Mr. Gunn says:

    WalkableDFW has really made a great point. I’ve lived in New Orleans, where I have seen the dynamic he describes, and I’ve lived in Southern California, which apparently doesn’t have as smart of civic planners as DFW, and has chosen the opposite solution, with predictable results.

    The clustering effect is real, and can provide a real workable solution to overcrowdedness & noise. The key is that is has to be citywide. If some areas start banning bars while others don’t, they’ll just force the people to the areas that don’t, triggering further shutdowns. New Orleans has a regional draw, Bourbon Street, which traps most of the people there to be rowdy and act like they never would in their hometown which allows New Orleans to profit from tourism without disrupting neighborhoods. The neighborhood bars can then exist peacefully and everybody wins. The bars have enough business, the patrons have their pick of crowded and noisy or quiet and low-key, and the neighbors don’t get disturbed. The French Quarter basically “takes one for the team”.

    San Diego, on the other hand, is taking a less considered approach. They’ve banned alcohol on all the beaches, and they focus their enforcement efforts most strongly on the beach bars. This means the regional draw really has no where to go and disperses all over the city, disrupting the peace of bars, neighbors, and business owners alike. The cost of doing business is such that a small, low-key establishment can’t be successful, so crowds get focused on places like Hamilton’s, this wonderful neighborhood pub which is so crowded and noisy all the time that not only do they deal with neighbor complaints, but I can never go there, despite it being just blocks from my house.

    Of course, for the clustering approach to work, there really does have to be enough business that even the more low-key establishments can still make a profit. This means that the regulatory burden needs to be low and the licensing fees need to be small, but there’s a cultural element, too. You have to have people who, as in the English tradition, often stop by the pub after work or to meet a friend before going elsewhere. Even with lax regulations, if the prevailing ethic is “go out and get smashed, but only on the weekend” instead of “have a quiet pint in the evening”, then you’re still in a bad situation.

    Obviously, this leads to something of a circular problem, but I thought I’d mention that San Diego and New Orleans are useful case studies in addition to London/DC.

  22. GetOutofDC says:

    Good Sir,

    You seriously need to get out of Washington DC. Head to Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Madison, or many other parts of the American Midwest.

    There is a great pub culture, great microbrews, burgers, roast chicken, etc.. all shared between good friends & good conversation.

    I feel sorry for you.