223 Congress St., Portland
A snug is an enclosed booth inside an Irish pub where women were traditionally corralled – er, allowed – to drink. It’s an architectural burka of sorts, a vestige of that ignorant era before men realized women not only enhance a bar’s atmosphere, they can be the reason you go there in the first place.
So we have The Snug, a new establishment on the corner of Congress Street and Washington Avenue, at the foot of Munjoy Hill. Owner Margaret Lyons has created a pub with a comfortable, convivial atmosphere attractive to both sexes. For the guys, there’s beer and women. For the gals, there’s whatever women go to bars for – cocktails and conversation, apparently.
Well, ladies, at The Snug you can drink and dish in the privacy of your own high-backed booth, partially enclosed on the opposite side by another high-backed booth. These four pseudo-snugs don’t provide complete creep-protection, and I’ve seen men mingling with womenfolk inside them, but you are given a measure of anonymity unavailable at, say, the similarly laid-out White Heart, The Snug’s classy, ‘cross-town cousin.
The Snug has a grittier, more lived-in feel than The White Heart, but this is not meant to imply it’s any less clean. In fact, that’s one of The Snug’s few drawbacks, aside from the lack of PBR. Arriving shortly after five on several occasions, I encountered a strong smell I initially associated with Off!, but which was later determined to be a cleaning product, brand unknown. (The blame really lies with Maine’s ban on smoking in bars. Even most ex-smokers would rather sniff the hint of last night’s Camels than the after-fumes of industrial-strength floor soaps.)
There’s plenty of woodwork (the bar, the booths), some exposed brick, and subdued but adequate lighting. The Irish knick knacks on display are subtle and, for what it’s worth, authentic – from County Cumberland to Cumberland County, according to the self-described “Irish-ish” pub’s Myspace page.
A couple years ago, when Lyons co-owned Acoustic Coffee (the recently defunct coffee house/music club on Danforth Street), she tangled with music-licensing giant BMI over fees, and lost (Acoustic had a strict no-covers policy to the end). This time, she’s opted to hook a laptop up to the house sound system and let iTunes shuffle away in the background.
The selections I overheard were pretty cool; indie rock, mostly. Guided By Voices’ “Take to the Sky,” an obscure cut from Under the Bushes Under the Stars, was a welcome surprise one evening. (It’s licensed by BMI, so I suppose that battle’s over). There’s no live music as of yet, but there’ll be some “someday.” In the meantime, another new place opening next door this spring, the North Star Café, will fill that niche [see our Jan. 26 Gossip item].
There’s television, but it’s neither the focus nor a distraction. A sign warns you against even considering to suggest a channel or volume adjustment, so don’t show up hoping to see your beloved Timberwolves take on the Celtics, or whatever. Awful Annie’s got cable up the hill. There are a few light food items available, soups and dips and such, for a reasonable price (cheap).
The Snug attracts a diverse clientele: office workers, working stiffs, artists, local politicos. (City Councilor Kevin Donoghue had a birthday gathering at the newest bar in his district a couple weeks ago, but went home before he got too Toothakered.) It’s a welcoming neighborhood joint that’s managed to reel in the locals without becoming a hideout for the vaguely menacing crew who often haunted its predecessor in the space, Bottomz Up.
With the North Star Café on the horizon and Binga’s Wingas expected to launch a third location around the corner later this year, this part of town has the potential to develop into a happenin’ little nightlife spot. Let’s hope the Portland City Council doesn’t nix it by requiring that new bars be “dispersed” at least stumbling distance from one one another (about 150 feet from door-to-door, by official estimate), as is currently under consideration. (I suspect at least one councilor will be on the right side of that debate.)
Cheers to The Snug! May its taps run strong and cold for years to come.
— Chris Busby
The Snug is open nightly from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. (21+; children welcome accompanied by parent or guardian and “kept on a leash.”)