Watering holes nourish our bodies, our minds, and our communities.
When I was younger, I longed for coffee shops. They were culturally ascendant in the ’90s, depicted in pop culture as places of leisure and spontaneity. Plus, I wouldn’t have to be 21 to enjoy them, unlike bars.
I was sure that a coffee shop in my hometown would change my life. I would have more friends, more zines to read, more bands to listen to, and other cool things to get into. The coffee itself was a secondary, even tertiary, aspect of this desire. A coffee shop represented the possibility of being cool and the potential to be part of a community, separate from school pressures and family obligations.
To grow up wanting to be a writer, like I did, often meant having a romantic idea of café and bar culture. I imagined my adult life taking place in the Parisian bistros of Simone de Beauvoir or the Prague cafés where Franz Kafka could be found late into the night. Whenever I’ve traveled, watering holes have been the site of my fantasies: Would this be my coffee shop if I moved to Buenos Aires? Will I run into Pedro Almodóvar at this Madrid sherry bar?
As I grew older and made homes in towns and cities that have thriving café and bar cultures, their significance to my social life only grew. Spaces to relax, make connections, and have spontaneous interactions are key to survival. They are the backbone of a healthy urban space, and since the last economic recession, their necessity has only become more clear. These days, I live in Old San Juan, a picturesque Spanish colonial district in Puerto Rico. There’s no shortage of cafés near me, and there’s a bar on nearly every one of its 74 blocks. When I walk into any of them, I expect to see a friendly face.
It might be the bartender who knows my Friday afternoon drink by heart, or a neighbor to whom I wave every day, though I don’t yet know their name. Will this be the day we get to know each other? It’s always possible. I’ll hear the local news there, like who bought which building or who’s in the hospital; my dog will be given treats and water, whether he’s offered up his paw or not. The hospitality feels natural, so long as it’s early enough in the day that the tourists and partiers haven’t gotten the run of the show. That’s when it’s time to head home, or to the wine bar, where the atmosphere is a bit more mellow. Sitting on a stool makes me feel like I’m part of the neighborhood, like I’m safe even if I’m not deeply known. A bar without a friendly face is just a place of transaction, but it always has the potential to be something more: a place for recognition and relaxation, spontaneity and possible connection. That’s what makes a bar special; that’s what keeps you coming back.
Today, in Old San Juan—an Old San Juan much changed since its own bohemian heyday—I’m the flaneur of my childhood dreams: walking, waving, popping in for a drink, getting on my way… Mornings at the café are spent in a neighbor’s company; afternoons and evenings bring the friendly faces of local bars. This is the culture of camaraderie I’d long sought, one that feeds me as a person and a writer.
Having grown up in the suburbs of Long Island and spent much of my younger years in an increasingly inaccessible and gentrifying New York City, I know that this culture has to be cultivated and protected. At a time when communities need them the most, watering holes are threatened by everything from pandemics to high housing costs causing displacement. People tend to meet around beverages—coffee in the afternoon, beer during happy hour—to release tensions, discuss their lives, and solve problems.
Both Historic and Futuristic
What is it about a cup rather than a plate that allows for such a comfortable place to conspire? The natural time limit imposed by the end of the glass or bottle inspires urgency, but it’s also easy to have another if the conversation hasn’t finished. We relax over beverages while on vacation, when we need a place to rest our weary feet and replenish, perhaps asking the bartender for a recommendation for our next meal. A place that is casual, quenches thirst, and meets social needs: This is the watering hole.
In the popular imagination, “watering hole” is another name for a bar, yet it has a specific definition as a water hole from which animals drink; it’s a geological formation, a sunken piece of land that becomes filled with water to sustain the life around it. Humans are made mostly of water, and we are sustained by community. That we’ve used this term informally to mean a tavern or bar—somewhere to drink alcohol—suggests that these spaces do more for us than act as places to go grab a beer during happy hour.
These are what philosopher Jürgen Habermas called the “public sphere,” or places of social life where “something approaching public opinion can be formed” and access is open to all. Under these circumstances, Habermas said, people act neither as business folk or professionals, nor as a voting body, but as something less constricted. The public sphere is akin to what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called a “third place” in his 1989 book, The Great Good Place—somewhere that isn’t work or home but is accessible to and necessary for a healthy society.
British pubs have historically been places of political meaning. Dr. Vicki Hsueh, a professor of political science, wrote in the 2016 study “Intoxicated Reasons, Rational Feelings: Rethinking the Early Modern English Public Sphere” that “reinserting emotion and intoxication into the emergence of the public sphere helps to flesh out the history of feeling and social ritual in civic engagement.” Coffee shops serve a similar purpose: Researcher Narciss M. Sohrabi, in a 2015 case study based in Tehran, Iran, wrote, “While these coffee shops do not provide sites where the public tends to organize and form political opinions, young people nevertheless use them for ‘everyday forms of resistance’”—places to mix, mingle, and discuss culturally taboo subjects.
Over time, watering holes have emerged as spaces for political engagement, and they are gaining steam in significance throughout the U.S.: I’ve picked up weekly fruit and vegetable boxes for community-supported agriculture at bars, where I’ve then sat at a stool for a pint. Since 2009, Chicago bar the Hideout has hosted an event called “Soup & Bread” where pots of soup and loaves of bread can be enjoyed for free or with an optional donation. Playground Coffee in Brooklyn, New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood offers community fridges, as well as events around literacy and food equity; these efforts ramped up and were of great use during the COVID-19 pandemic. While lesbian bars have been eulogized in much U.S. media, they are now reopening in Los Angeles and New York and offering thoughtful nonalcoholic beverage selections.
Broadening the understanding of the watering hole to include all kinds of thirst-quenching drinks is a significant aspect of bridging gaps in which watering holes can serve as public spaces. Beers, spirits, and wines have their place, but there’s more awareness in this day and age of the significance of nonalcoholic options—and the economics are bearing out similar data, with hundreds of millions in sales in the U.S. in recent years, and big growth in the category of nonalcoholic spirits and wine. Coffee and tea have their significant cultural spaces, yet later into the evening, options have been lacking for those who prefer not to drink alcohol. Now, sober bars are a trend, and high-end cocktail bars and restaurants put mocktails or alcohol-free wines and beers on the menu.
These bars—and the popularity of nonalcoholic beverages—offer a chance to help redefine watering holes as inclusive spaces for everyday engagement. They’re already performing that duty. How can they do it better, for more people, amid crises such as a global pandemics? How can cities be built in ways that help these spaces flourish as both businesses and neighborhood hubs?
Public Sphere for Public Health
Walkable, bikeable, and more accessible infrastructure certainly aids in creating this kind of thriving community culture with watering holes as centerpieces. Cities where pedestrian traffic is privileged over car traffic see their downtowns filled with more people more of the time, and this leads to the success of small businesses like cafés and bars. Adjusting zoning laws to allow for mixed use of spaces would mean that folks can live, work, shop, and socialize in the same area, without need for a car. This is rare to find in the U.S. outside of major urban areas, yet it is increasingly important; surveys have shown that around 60% of people feel lonely on a regular basis, which is considered a public health crisis. Changes to infrastructure on a large scale that enable folks to have more daily, casual contact would go a long way toward combating loneliness.
A focus on the individual, car-centric transport, and the lingering effects of Prohibition’s ideals of temperance have perhaps served only to make bars and cafés seem insignificant on a community scale in the United States—but this is an anomaly globally speaking, and crises have served to undermine this uniquely American notion that watering-hole culture is frivolous. Replace “meal” with “drink” in Michael Symons’ 1994 piece on the sociology of the meal and we understand the significance of this urge: “Persons who share no particular interests can find themselves sharing a meal—in this possibility together with the primitiveness and thus pervasiveness of the material interest lies the immense sociological significance of the meal.” This significance cannot be undermined for long: It’s a human impulse to gather around the necessary acts of eating and drinking. They’re necessary to happiness, to thriving neighborhoods, and to survival during a crisis.
In the 25 years since I longed to find my people in coffee shops, I’ve had the chance to make community, become a regular, and imagine new lives for myself. It’s in the watering hole, the third place, where I’ve been able to do these things—the din of a café or bar has been the background noise to so much of my writing, just as I envisioned it as a kid. And when the work is done, there’s always someone there to talk to.
Spicy Hibiscus Simple Syrup
Makes about 1 ¼ cups simple syrup
½ cup dried hibiscus flowers
1 dried chili of choice
1 cup cane sugar
1 cup water
- Place all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat, swirling with a rubber spatula, and bring to a boil.
- Lower the heat at the boiling point and let simmer until all the sugar has dissolved. Let simmer a few minutes more to bring out the hibiscus color, taking off the heat when a deep red has emerged.
- Strain into an airtight container and let cool before covering or using, then store in the refrigerator for up to a month.
Spicy Hibiscus Margarita
Makes 1 margarita
2 ounces tequila or mezcal
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice (save rind)
1 ounce spicy hibiscus syrup
Coarse salt for garnish (optional)
Dried hibiscus for garnish (optional)
- Place all ingredients in a shaker filled with ice.
- Rub the lemon rind around the rim of a rocks glass and dip the rim into the coarse salt. Fill the glass with ice.
- Shake the tin until all ingredients have been well incorporated and the tin is icy cold.
- Using a strainer, pour into the prepared rocks glass and garnish with dried hibiscus.
Nonalcoholic Hibiscus Spritz
Makes 1 spritz
1 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce spicy hibiscus simple syrup
Dried hibiscus for garnish (optional)
- Place lemon juice and simple syrup in a wine glass and stir.
- Fill the wine glass with ice, then top with seltzer to the rim.
- Garnish with dried hibiscus.