Doing it Right: Stillwell Bar, Halifax, Nova Scotia

The bar industry is notoriously competitive. A pub can be packed one weekend, and be a ghost town the next. To survive bars and restaurants have to do a lot of things right. The same is true for breweries and distilleries. Vancouver is enjoying significant growth in the beverage industry at present, but consumers can be fickle, and there are no guarantees in this business.

Doing it Right is a new series at Alcohol & Advocacy highlighting producers and purveyors who exemplify best practices,  innovation, or have cornered the market in their particular niche.

Stillwell is a beer bar on Barrington Street in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. This past Christmas I was back home in Halifax and had the opportunity to drop by Stillwell for a couple pints. I’m glad I did. Stillwell is doing a lot of things right.

Bar Service Only

I love bar service only establishments. They’re a refreshing change from the table service norm. Bar service only is a simple and efficient way to operate a pub, with the added benefit of encouraging socializing among patrons.

Bar service only cuts out the middleman between you and the bartender. You’re free to roll up to the pine when you’re thirsty, or hang back if you’re pacing yourself. It’s easy to pay cash as you go, or run a tab for the table. There’s an autonomy about going up to the bar to order a drink that is lost when you’re squished into a booth at the mercy of a waiter.

Moreover there’s something very Old World about requiring guests to get up out of their chairs and saddle up next to the bar when they want another round. It forces interaction, it breaks down barriers, and it fosters conversation. Ever wonder why when you come back from Europe you tell your friends and family about how great the pubs are over there? Bar service only is the reason. Vancouver could use more of this.

Ordering directly from the bartender has tangible benefits too. He or she is in the best position to tell you what’s new, fresh or most popular. I spent years working as a bartender while in school and know from experience that every bartender has evenings where one draught line or another isn’t pouring quite right, or a certain keg is “off”. Like buying your meat straight from the butcher –if you’re serious about beer, ordering straight from the bartender is always best.

From a management point of view I also like the bar service only model. It keeps staffing costs low, but ensures that the staff who are working are busy, and busy bartenders are happy bartenders.


Short Simple Menu

The menu at Stillwell was short – maybe a dozen items are so, neatly listed on a piece of card stock. The prices were modest, and most items were designed for sharing – exactly what you want when out with friends for the evening. At first blush the food offerings appear very standard: popcorn, pickles, fries, nuts – but when you stop and think about how many bars actually offer these once standard-issue bar snacks, you realize how few bars have stuck by the classics. The card stock menus suggest that they are updated with some regularity, another plus.

Rotating Draught List

Stillwell has a dozen draught taps pouring local craft beer. The taps are arranged lightest to darkest, left to right behind the pine and are each marked with a wooden draught tap of a corresponding shade. Because the draught taps aren’t branded, the identity of the beer flowing through the line is handwritten in chalk on the wall. This is sublime. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and easy to read from across the bar. Plus they put up just enough information about the beer to pique your interest without overdoing it.

The chalk menu, updated in real time as one keg is blown and replaced with another has practical benefits too. It ensures that everyone is on the same page about what beer is currently being offered. For bar staff and customers alike it’s frustrating on a busy night when the waiter and the customer play a game of cat-and-mouse as the customer selects a beer, and the waiter reports back that that beer is currently out. With a big beer menu this game can repeat itself several times over the course of an evening and hilarity rarely ensues – except for the obligatory reference to the Monty Python skit about the cheese shop without any cheese.

Next time you find yourself on the East Coast pay Stillwell a visit and be sure to sit at the bar. You’ll be glad you did.

Dan Coles
Retired bartender. Young lawyer. From the East, living in the West. Interested in British Columbia's producers and purveyors of wine, beer and spirits.

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