The best part of being in a bar is, well, being in a bar. That’s the whole point of a third place—being served, meeting people, connecting with the energy of the whole room. This is so obviously the way to enjoy a bar that it would never occur to me that there was, for many destinations, an option that doesn’t require the absolute baseline activity of “leaving the house.”
But if sitting on your couch and watching other people drink seems like your idea of a good time, a surprising number of bars offer that option. Many of them are in vacation locales, like Key West, Florida, where you can watch patrons sip beers at 10 a.m. at Sloppy Joe’s and Hog’s Breath Saloon, or on St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where The Beach Bar says the live cams are there for you when you’ve “just left and feel that terrible empty hole in your life.” And although this may sound like a pandemic byproduct, most of these cams predate COVID-19. In fact, in proto–social media 2001, the Remote Lounge in Manhattan allowed guests, or even people at home, to “spy” on each other by operating cameras stationed around the bar. These webcam services offer live footage from around the world, like from De Haven beach bar near Amsterdam, and the Temple Bar in Dublin.
While it may seem slightly invasive, for some, the draw is being able to tune in to live music. Chuck Rogers, the owner and manager of Buffa’s in New Orleans, says the bar has been offering streams of its live shows on Facebook since 2012, and that “there are a few livestream regulars who tune in for their favorite musicians each week, one from as far away as Brazil.” The format proved helpful during pandemic lockdown, when Rogers invited musicians to use the bar and livestream free of charge.
Gregory Chaucer, of Hartford, Connecticut, first went to Buffa’s in person in 2005, but started watching the bar’s concert livestreams in 2020. Even though he can now return to New Orleans, he continues to watch the feed as “a way to stay in touch when I’m not in town.” He says that there are absolutely benefits to enjoying the shows from his living room: “The seating is more comfortable, the drinks are stronger and cheaper and there is no line at the bathroom.”
However, some of these livestreams offer nothing more than just watching other people drink, which, as anyone who has been the one sober person among rowdy groups can attest, is perhaps the most boring activity known to humankind. If you happen to be in a real live bar, there are any number of activities to engage in—watching a game with the people in your neighborhood, for example, or catching up with the bartender—but on a livestream, all you can do is look.
Chaucer, who watches streams of bars in other cities he has visited, says even that has its perks. “Usually, I’ll get a text from a friend to hop on to the cam while they are there, for a virtual happy hour of sorts,” he says. And while he hasn’t watched livestreams of bars he has never been to, he says it sounds like a good idea, as “a way to check out different joints prior to arriving in town.” On popular streams, sometimes hundreds of people will be watching, just to see friends or strangers sitting at the bar.
Perhaps this is just the most honest version of an activity plenty of us already engage in on a regular basis. What is scrolling through Instagram or TikTok but watching people doing things that you’re not doing, visiting places you want to go, and making them look as romantic and appealing as possible? But a livestream of a bar employs no filters or editing or upbeat voiceover telling you about what makes a place so special. It’s just the bare face of business, whether it’s happening in New York or the Caribbean.
This could just be depressing, watching a bar and everything it might mean to you reduced to a room with a tap and some stools. But the flatness of a bar livestream reminds us that the joy of a good bar does not reside in what you can see. On a livestream, you can’t taste a freshly mixed cocktail, eavesdrop on the couple next to you or simply remind yourself that you exist in a community of friends and acquaintances and strangers alike. Watching bar livestreams just made me miss being in my local bar, and resolve to return. That feels like the point.