Springtime in Maine is best experienced inside a good bar.

No mud.

No black flies.

No members of the Christian Civic League.

If the bar you’re in doesn’t meet those standards, you’re not in a good bar. Pay your tab immediately and leave. Even if it means slogging through over-saturated earth, blood-sucking insects and pious protesters.

Unlike much of the country, spring in Maine isn’t a season of rebirth and rejuvenation, unless you count the rebirth of toadstools and the rejuvenation of mold. The price we pay for living in a place with fine summers, gorgeous falls and challenging winters (except this year) is springs that are cold and wet, followed by clammy and buggy.

It’s enough to drive one to drink, except you shouldn’t need to drive, since you should always live within walking distance of a good bar.

Unfortunately, good bars are harder to find than affordable accommodations. The neighborhood dive is heading for extinction in Portland and Westbrook and the object of open hunting seasons in Old Orchard Beach, Lewiston, Rockland and numerous other parts of the state where civic leaders have decided municipal image is more important than shelter during the dreariest months of the year.

Augusta hasn’t had a decent joint in which to waste a drizzly afternoon since Brennan’s closed 20 years ago.

Bangor bulldozed the Unicorn around the same time, leaving itself with an assortment of hotel lounges and chain operations with all the charm of Guantanamo detention cells, as well as a Sea Dog brew pub big enough to attract an arena football franchise.

Biddeford? Offering a selection of beers means having a couple with names that don’t end in “Light” or “Ultra.”

Farmington? Some mediocre college bars and the Granary Brew Pub, which is neither a granary nor a brew pub, although it does boast the atmosphere of the former.

Brunswick? Boothbay Harbor? Kittery? Three towns with nothing in common except the absence of a pub worth the fizz in a bottle of Ballantine.

Rumford? Arrive drunk. It helps.

I wish I could come to the aid of those destitute places by turning their local watering holes into saloons capable of sustaining the human spirit during spring’s assault. But it’s not that simple. Defining what constitutes a good bar is like defining pornography. You know it when you see it.

There are, however, a few characteristics shared by all decent gin mills. Possessing them doesn’t guarantee a joint will provide suitable refuge from the cruelest months, because good bars are the result of more than mere physical traits. A good bar has a soul. A good bar has a personality. A good bar has a depth of character that doesn’t come from mahogany woodwork, tasteful artwork or excessive cleavage.

What a good bar does have is booze.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a huge assortment. One establishment I visited a couple years ago had only five taps, but used them to dispense as sensible a selection of beers as I’ve seen: Bud Light, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Carrabassett Pale Ale, Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale and Guinness Stout. If you couldn’t find something to your taste there, you should have been out in the rain and flies with the Christian Civic League.

A good bar should have people who know how to make drinks.

One night, My wife and I and another couple arrived at Pizza Villa, one of Portland’s few surviving neighborhood bars. I said I’d buy the first round. Except the two women wanted cosmopolitans.

Pizza Villa isn’t the kind of place where guys order girly drinks. It’s the kind of place that reminds me of the original Three Dollar Dewey’s (when it was on Portland’s Fore Street). One afternoon, a couple of young women dressed for success wandered into Dewey’s and asked for some frothy concoction. The bartender smiled pleasantly, leaned across the counter and said, “Ladies, this is a saloon. We serve beer and real drinks.

“Now, get out.”

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the bar at Pizza Villa. It’s not that I was afraid of getting thrown out. I’ve been 86ed from better joints. But never for being a drink weenie.

“Two I.P.A.s,” I said. “And two shots of Jameson. And, uh …”

“Anything else,” asked the bartender, a guy who looked like he only drank beer from cans he opened with his teeth.

“I don’t suppose,” I said, “you could make two cosmopolitans.”

“Ha!” he replied courteously. “Hoo, hoo, ha!”

He made them, though, and the women pronounced them excellent. I’m just worried that the next time I go in there, he’s going to ask if I want another cosmo.

A good bar should have food.

It doesn’t have to be great food, but a lot of the time, it is. You may have had better meals than the fried clams at the Thirsty Whale in Bar Harbor, the prime rib sandwich deluxe at Trail’s End in Eustis or almost anything on the menu at the Liberal Cup in Hallowell. But you probably didn’t have those better meals while watching NASCAR on TV.

A good bar should have a layout conducive to conversation, including conversation with people you don’t know. As Tennyson put it, a good pub is “Where village statesmen talked with looks profound, And news much older than the ale went round.”

If there’s music, it should be loud enough to identify and soft enough to ignore. It should not include anything by Barry Manilow, fat opera singers or currently popular bands with lead singers who’re dating movie stars. As Shakespeare put it, “Coldplay sucks.”

Lighting should be bright enough to make it easy to read the beer list and dim enough to make it hard to tell whether the person you’re talking to is fuzzy or just out of focus.

Games are allowable, provided they don’t interfere with drinking. We’re talking about good bars here, not good pool halls or good video arcades.

There should be decorations, including at least one that’s incomprehensible to non-regulars. There should be a happy hour with cheap booze and free eats. Decent tippers should get an occasional drink on the house. And you shouldn’t have to search too far to find the owner. Good bars don’t stay good without someone paying attention, which is why you won’t often go into Tufulio’s in Carrabassett Valley without seeing (and hearing) Skippy or Gritty McDuff’s in Portland without running into Ed or Richard.

Back in the 17th century, Bishop John Earle noted that, “A tavern is the busy man’s recreation, the idle man’s business, the melancholy man’s sanctuary, the stranger’s welcome, the inns-of-courts man’s entertainment, the scholar’s kindness and the citizen’s courtesy.”

It’s also the Maine resident’s escape from spring.

Regardless of the Christian Civic League, God, preserve it.

(And see if You can do something about the bugs and mud.)

[[tagline]] Al Diamon can be e-mailed at [email protected], although he may not reply right away, because he’s staying in a bar until June. His column on almost anything appears monthly.


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