Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Digital Bar Crawl

Illustration by Harry Campbell for The Wall Street Journal

Can your smartphone tell a 'power' scene from a 'hipster' one? A thirsty writer puts several nightlife apps to the test

It used to be there were so many different bars to choose from that we had to turn to technology to help us narrow things down. Now there are so many different apps trying to help us find the best places to drink, we need an app to sort through the nightlife apps. Don't steal that idea.

A bar-finding app, much like a bar, is only as valuable as what it has on tap. Most of them operate under the same premise, using your GPS location to recommend the nearest bars, which you can then narrow down by search parameters such as cost, style of bar or level of sausage-fest-ness. So I went out on a test run of them in Boston, where I write about bars for a living. Man versus machine. Like when a chess master battles a supercomputer, only much more important to the human condition.
At the outset, I came across two bumps in the road. First off, not all of these apps are available in every city. SceneTap(free, available on iPhone and Android), which sets itself apart by using facial recognition cameras to identify the makeup of a bar's crowd, is currently only available for Chicago (there's a national roll-out in the works). And using the apps to find the nearest drink specials proved complicated too: Discounted alcohol is illegal in Massachusetts. Thanks, Puritans!

Instead, I could search for cheap booze prices in general. At the start of my digital bar crawl,Drink Owl (free, available on iPhone, Android and BlackBerry) told me about $1.55 drafts at the Beacon Hill Pub, which is exactly the type of squat, brick fortress where you'd expect to find a pint for pocket change. Searching for bars by drink price can be dangerous, though. Proceed with caution. It's basically typing "I want to wake up with regret" into your phone and letting technology sort out the details.
As I drank my Busch, I started to think about my next move, and turned toBarSpace (free, available for iPhone) for a little pre-screening voyeurism. They use video cameras in various bars so you can decide if it's worth stopping by. I checked in on Think Tank. The crowd was a looking a little anemic, so I ordered another $1.55 draft (why not, right?) and asked Bar Finder(free, available on Android) where to go next. It had good suggestions for pubs, but also suggested I go to the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman. He may well have had a beer in the fridge, but I wasn't about to show up uninvited. 

Then I turned to the slightly more upscale Thrillist app (free, available on iPhone and Android) for advice. A man can only drink so many $1.55 beers. It pointed me towards Eastern Standard and recommended I have a Corpse Reviver #4, which was, oddly enough, just what I was craving. While Thrillist has an icon-filled map that pinpointed spots worth visiting, I found it more helpful to scroll through its list of best new bars, most of which passed muster. 

For my next tipple I called up the Urban Daddy app (free, available on iPhone and Android). An opening screen popped up: "It's Friday. Around 9 p.m. In Back Bay." From here I could choose my parameters. I told it I'm with "myself" and I want "drinks" (as opposed to dinner or dancing) somewhere "swanky." Other options included "somewhere with history" and "in a power scene," which I think is one of Dante's circles of hell. 

It came back quickly with results that included the dark, gothic tequileria Lolita Cocina located .1 miles away. Spot on.

Further down the list some of the picks weren't as accurate. Bukowski Tavern, a craft-beer bar, isn't exactly what I'd call "swanky," on account of the high tattoo coverage, but it did serve as the perfect search result when I told the app I wanted to be "around hipsters" (also, I believe, a circle of hell). 

Occasional missteps aside, the Urban Daddy app was the most fun and intuitive to use. As I was about to head off to another of its picks a friend texted. He wanted a tequila bar. "Who are you with, and what are you looking for?" I asked, already starting to think like a machine. Unfortunately, not everyone can have a professional drinker on speed dial. For everyone else, there's an app for that. 

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