I’m generally skeptical of any place that has ambience. It usually means loud conversation, loud music, loud décor – in short a multi-sensory attack on your personal space, with the insidious assumption that a choreographed and uniform experience is preferable to what an individual could construct if left to his or her own devices.
That’s one of the reasons why I love the Saloon on U St. It has nothing most bars do. There is no TV. The tables and chairs are simple wooden affairs; they don’t match. There is music, but you have to really listen to hear it. There are people and conversation, but they respectfully keep to their own orbit. All of which is to say that the Saloon is a space that invites you to make the experience your own. This is the opposite of ambience – it is a setting.
Ironically, it is precisely such a minimalist environment that is the most difficult to maintain. Anyone can blast some generic beats or throw on a worthless college football game, but the Saloon’s pleasant hum requires constant vigilance. Hence the Saloon’s very particular rules – the scourge of many uninitiated patrons, but as with any successful enterprise, also its lifeblood.
Take for instance the injunction against standing. This will strike the average bar-goer, accustomed to enduring all manner of bodily contortion in hopes of landing a proprietary elbow on the bar, as counter-intuitive. There is necessarily a small amount of seating in proportion to potential standing room, he or she will think, so why would they turn away me and my eight friends just because there isn’t a chair for each of us?
This is apparently the thinking behind some recent reaction to the Saloon (via Bar DC): “I went here to meet some friends and was treated like absolute crap. At first the employees were nice enough, but once we realized how difficult it was to get a table big enough for everyone (no standing rule), they were extremely rude.”
Another review refers to the Saloon’s proprietor as the Beer Nazi, and the comparison to the Seinfeld character is not entirely off. First of all, they actually do look alike, or at least have similar complexions. And the guy can be a feisty devil, there’s no doubt about it. But in the end, any parallels are really a positive reflection on the Saloon. In the show, the rigid order of the soup line is the natural extension of the discipline and precision necessary to make consistently superior soup. The moral: excellence is never an accident; it requires strict standards.
At the Saloon, if there is no table to accommodate your party, you will be asked to leave. It may seem a bit harsh (the sign could be more prominent – but then again, should it really be?), but it’s absolutely necessary to preserve the Saloon’s excellent character.
If this doesn’t suit you, then fine. You don’t like the Saloon, and the Saloon doesn’t like you. But if you break the rules, like the anonymous Bar DC poster, why should you expect to be treated kindly? I would not presume to walk into a sports bar and kill the tube because I prefer to read. Likewise, don’t come to the Saloon and expect to overwhelm its happy occupancy because your friend from work brought three people along and you’re all wasted and therefore think you’re entitled to come piss in my quiet Späten Maibock.
Did I mention the beer? It’s damn good too.