Monday, August 20, 2018

The bar with too many names

The first bar I visited on a regular basis upon being old enough to legally drink was Auntie Annies on the Dublin Road. As a teenager during the Golden Age of Indie in the mid-noughts, this – along with the Belfast Limelight – were the places to see up-and-coming-bands, somewhere to bank that ‘I saw them before they were famous’ claim. A quick browse of shows a few bands that went on to bigger things (Biffy Clyro, Paolo Nutini, Frightened Rabbit) as well as a ton of bands many people my age would remember from ‘the next big thing’ sections in NME, Q and Hot Press but fell victim to an overcrowded market and a declining fad (hmmmmm, there's an analogy)

Aunti Annies -  only the 'Porterhouse' if yer porter of choice was Guinness
 (Photo via 'Geraldine D at Yelp)
It wasn’t just a place for indie kids though, a large projector screen would show the big football matches and it was a place where I could go with both my ‘music crowd’ and my ‘sport crowd’ and feel equally as comfortable. Service was often a bit of a nightmare and seating was so sparse that it was a write-off at weekends but for a midweek pint, a gig or a Champions League match, there was nowhere better in my view. I began to drift away from it when my friends all started going to university and most moved into digs up around Queens so we ended up gravitating towards bars up there – The Parlour, Ma Nelsons, The Globe, The Students Union – only venturing down the Dublin Road to go to The Limelight or Stiff Kitten for rock and metal nights in those clubs.

Continuing the false advertising theme - 'The Bar With No Name'
(Photo via 'Stevie M' on Yelp)
The bar was part of the CDC Leisure chain which also included the aforementioned Limelight complex (Limelight Club, Katy Daly’s Bar and Spring & Airbrake music venue, the other main hangouts for indie and rock folk). When CDC went into administration, the Limelight complex was sold on but Annie’s failed to find a buyer and closed in 2013. By that stage I probably hadn’t been in it for a year or two, finding Filthy McNasty’s directly across the road  (at that stage a tryhard charity-shop chic bar aimed at the indie crowd which of course I fell for) more to my liking. It reopened the following year with a new yellow façade, named, oddly ‘The Bar With No Name.’ Whether it was a play on the classic folk track ‘A Horse With No Name’ it was still a terrible moniker, as if it was deliberately going for a stereotypical ‘irony hipster crowd’ who they clearly underestimated the intelligence of. That didn’t last long and it later became ‘The Five Points Alehouse’ – an alehouse as long as your choice of ale was Smithwicks. I suspect this name caught the attention of a certain Hackney brewery (who have their own chain of pubs) and it has since become known as ‘The Points whiskey and alehouse’. I did naively pop in last summer when I saw the word ‘alehouse’ but when confronted with a row of Diageo approved taps, I left immediately. On their website there is a separate menu for the whiskey, cocktails and wine but no beer menu. This is such a common occurance in Belfast and indicative of the hold the big companies have on the local taps where somewhere can call itself an ‘alehouse’ yet not need to have an ale menu or even a selection of ales that aren’t available in every other damn Diageo pub (the rebranded Morrisons down the road will be called Pug Uglys Draft House and I'm not holding my breath for a wide draft selection). What finally brought me back here was advertising on their wall which was such a brazen piece of bandwagon jumping that I couldn’t believe my eyes. Perhaps conscious of the fact that the ‘alehouse’ had a menu for every type of drink bar ale itself, they now boasted that one could now order a tasting tray of ‘three great Irish beers.’

The short-lived 'Five Points Alehouse' -
No Five Points and very little ale (Photo via Stevie M on Yelp)
Such a tempting offer I absolutely could not turn down. The choice was limitless. Do I, as suggested, try the three different styles in Guinness stout, Hop House 13 lager and Smithwicks red ale and see if they taste that much different from each other? Or do I do a proper tasting and go for the three different Smithwicks offerings to see if they are spending more on their branding than their recipes? Think of the blog material Mac!

The biggest question of all however: would my social anxiety and acute sense of embarassment allow me to go up to the bar and ask for a f***ing tasting tray of f***ing Smithwicks of all things? In what can only be called the biggest victory against my shyness since the first time I asked someone out for a date, I did just that. And just like then, it couldn't have went worse.

My usual technique for plucking up the courage to interact with people in uncomfortable ways is to imagine the worst case scenario, reasoning that its unlikely to be that bad. And yet the exact scenario played out as if it was a deja-vu.

 "A tasting tray? I don't understand? You mean food? Oh, beer? Nope, we don't do things like that at all. It says it outside? Really? That's strange"

If I had a jerry can of petrol and a lighter I would have doused and set myself alight on the spot. Instead, I was reduced to hyperventilating and only just managing to blurt out 'Citra IPA please' (because, as any Norn Irish person knows, manners are absolutely mandatory no matter how bad the situation) before keeling over in acute embarassment, wondering if this is what hell feels like.

The view from the new snug which I can confirm is a solid
 hiding place for anyone who has an attack of acute embarassment
Thank goodness for the new snug just inside the front door. I grabbed my pint and made a break for it, diving inside and hiding round the corner while I plotted the best means of summoning the ground to swallow me up. Unfortunately this made observations almost impossible but frankly by that stage I was regretting the day I ever decided to take up drinking so writing a blogpost couldn't have been further from my mind. My anxiety wasn't helped by the music coming out of the speakers being some sort of cod diddly-dee derived pop song (Irish sufferers of anxiety will know exactly what I mean). Every single song in fact had prominant fiddle-playing. It was only at this stage I realised that this bar's current incarnation is themed as an Irish-American gangs of New York style place. The original Five Points name comes from an Irish-American slum in 19th century New York which, according to their website 'a melting pot of criminals and gangs of all types.'  Its been heavily renovated since the last time I was here, utterly unrecognisable from the meat n' two veg pub I spent my early drinking days in. The bar has switched from the left to right hand side with the raised area I always sat in now gone. Where the bar used to be is now a platform for live bands. The walls are covered with the usual bar tat and, while its a lot shinier and less grotty than it used to be, I cant help but feel the whole place is another victim of try-hard fakery contagion that has taken hold in Belfast. Paying tribute to an Irish American slum and romanticised criminality with a stereotype-ridden bar serving £5 pints seems fitting, don't ye think?

Open Gate Citra IPA
Said pint is from Guinness' artisan-wing Open Gate (though I believe the nationwide distributed beer is made as a high-gravity brew in the main factory). It was a lovely clear gold and smelt largely of the fake lemon flavour you get from yellow jelly babies. The taste is similar with honey and lemon delivering a very cleanly made - as expected - but predictably one dimensional and dull beer. Its not for the 'connoisseur ' who Diageo very reasonably assume will instead in a taproom with kettle sours in teku glasses and a selection of board games. Its purpose seems to be largely as a gateway beer for some (never forgetting that Guinness' West India Porter was a personal gateway), a nee-naw pint for others like me and it fills that purpose reasonably well.

Unfortunately in its current incarnation The Points doesn't really fill any purpose for me. Its not the place I felt comfortable in between the ages of 18-24, instead just another one of a number of Belfast bars which have stripped out their soul in exchange for shininess, fakery and increased prices. The Belfast bar industry clearly disagrees with me however as renowned jeans-n'-brown-shoes joint The Apartment prepares to rebrand itself 'Hell Cat Maggies' - taking its name from a notorious 19th century figure from New York's Five Points district. Taste, as they say, is subjective.

~ Mac Súirtáin

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