The new El Diablo pub is one of several to have recently opened in the Old Town.
photo: Matthew J. Reynolds
El Diablo sits next door to the Dubliner Irish Pub on Sedl8rská ulica, Bratislava's most popular expat pub, and probably the most successful bar in the city. Theoretically, El Diablo and the Dubliner are competitors, but you'll hear nothing but friendly words among the owners. "It's a great-looking place," said Robbie Norton, one of three brothers who own the Dubliner. "I congratulated those guys on creating a great bar and I'm delighted that they are our neighbours."
If the latest trend of new night-spots opening in the city centre continues, existing establishments may soon be welcoming a slew of even newer pubs to the Old Town neighbourhood. Besides El Diablo and The Dubliner, in the last year alone four other restaurant/pubs with foreign themes - Montana's, Kelt, Sam's and jazz joint Ante Portas - have opened in Bratislava. Yet as any potential patron who has attempted to find a free table on a Friday night will attest to, the demand for late night watering holes in Bratislava remains high. And although the costs of running a business in the city centre are stiff, pub owners and town officials expect that new establishments will continue to spring up.
Back in 1996, before the Dubliner first opened, Bratislava's night life consisted of small, smoky underground pubs along with some cafés and restaurants, which typically closed at around eleven. "When we were invited here by the mayor's office, the Old Town was completely dead," Norton recalled. "There was nowhere to go later at night to have a few drinks and a good time."
Since their opening, Norton estimated, over 20 different pubs have sprung up in the city centre. Nevertheless, he said, his business had not suffered. "In Bratislava there seems to be an elastic demand - the more places there are to go to, the more people go out. In Prague there was a boom and eventually the pub culture reached a saturation point. But that's still a long away from happening here."
For local citizens, the influx of new pubs has been a long time coming. "At last there are some places to go at night," said Katarína Staroňová, a 26 year-old Bratislava native. "It's great, and I still think there is a lot of room for more places with a distinctive style."
Milan Vajda, spokesman for the Old Town City Hall, echoed her enthusiasm, saying that he too hoped development would continue. However, he did sound one note of concern: "Sometimes I question the taste of juxtaposing new themes and Old Town history. For example, right below the most historical monument in the old town, Michalská brána (Michael's Gate), you now have a grizzly bear."
The grizzly in front of Montana's is one of the several new themes accompanying the new pubs. Besides The Dubliner's obviously Irish theme, Sam's is named after America's most famous uncle, while Kelt pays homage to the Celtic tribes which dominated much of Europe in pre-Roman times. El Diablo's Mravec, meanwhile, said that besides the country theme, his pub hoped to gain a reputation for playing quality tunes. "You'll never hear disco or house music here, only rock 'n' roll and blues - no B.S."
Although the pubs appear to cater to western expats, owners say that Slovaks are their core customers. "People are always surprised when I tell them that 90% of our customers are Slovak," said Norton.
Bratislava - unlike Vienna, Prague, and Budapest - has not yet become a popular hot spot for tourists. "This is not a tourist destination," said Vajda. "It's a one or two day visit at the most. Therefore, if you look at who is spending money around town, it's the Slovaks."
This being the case, the owners say that prosperity in the future will depend more upon improvements in the Slovak economy than on any increase in foreign visitors. "As far as I'm concerned, the economy is the most crucial factor affecting my business in Slovakia," said Grizzly owner Ky Didier, who recently celebrated the one year anniversary of his establishment. "There's always a certain amount of competition - but the bigger dilemma is not if my customers go somewhere else, but whether mama needs a new refrigerator."
Pub owners face other obstacles on the road to financial success. Besides the sagging economy, the costs of running an Old Town business are exorbitantly high. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Old Town pub owner said: "The largest obstacle is probably rent. In the Old Town we pay around 12,000 to 16,000 crowns ($260 to $350) a year per square metre. Then there are the taxes - beer is taxed at 33% and overall profits at 49%."
Another nuisance of operating in the Old Town, which few pub owners like to talk about, is having to pay the Mafia gangs who control the Old Town protection money in return for 'security' services - which often turn out to be a few skinhead bruisers who sit at the bar drinking free beer. When asked about this practice, the same pub owner cringed at first, but then downplayed its impact. "The bad guys are of course bad, but they aren't crippling," he said. "All those factors I just mentioned are much worse."