There seems to be smething inherently sad attached to piano bars. They make me think of cocktail lounges and lonely hearts, resigned but ever hopeful, nursing drinks, and always asking to hear “just one more time” that song that reminds them of an unrepeatable happier time; of hotel lobbies and salesmen in limbo not wanting to admit the music stopped for them long ago; of cruise liners and the ennui of middle-aged couples after the romance has faded.
But most of all, I feel for the artists. There will be the occasional applause, the tip in the jar, the free drink, the pleasure tinged with melancholy of playing a request that gratifies another’s poignant memory.
Piano bar performers are either youngsters making a name, or stars past their prime making ends meet, as appreciative of little acknow-ledgements as their audience is that somebody still recalls an old tune as fondly as they do, and plays it with enough bravado to save the brave faces they’re both putting on.
How these artists are treated depends largely on the audience. Jimmy Hardwick at Joe Allen’s in London, for instance, whom I’ve watched as great stars such as Elaine Stritch acknowledge him and loiter, chatting at the piano where he is a highly appreciated West End institution.
But then there is the habit these days of treating the piano player with about as much consideration as one extends to an iPod.
I was appalled the first time I ventured into the Piano Bar in Green Point to find a great cabaret artist doing a consummate job despite the guffawing of drunken parties, waiters standing over tables going through the specials or belting out orders — “who asked for the burger?” — and the deeply embarrassed silence of overshadowed parties such as myself and the handful of others who longed to actually hear the talented performer.
The Piano Bar is the first venue to brand itself as such in Cape Town. The inspiration is New York and the hope is to create “a strong platform for Cape Town’s great musical talents to be seen and heard”.
Not exactly what I experienced the night I was there. There was less appreciation on display than for a keyboard-guitar live music act in your average pub.
Piano bars can take many forms — from a sort of live karaoke show and singalong to a full-fledged spectacle of duelling pianos. But the interaction with the patrons, whether understated or overt, from the song request scribbled on a napkin to a duet with a member of the audience, is crucial.
I’m quite sure it all works out some nights at the Piano Bar, but I suggest it shouldn’t be left entirely to chance. The absence of a cover charge coupled with the lack of familiarity with the concept, as well as the poor example set by the staff only encourages rude behaviour.
One might add a general observation that, where once people made phone calls from telephone booths after firmly shutting the soundproof glass door behind them, people these days have business discussions and lovers’ quarrels loudly over mobile devices in such publicly audible spaces as train carriages and elevators. I’ve also lately noticed audiences chatting in theatres as if they were in front of the television set at home.
Despite my somewhat peremptory introduction, let me not create the wrong impression. There is much to recommend the Piano Bar and the valiant entrepreneurship of owners Richard Butt and Pierre de Wit.
The location couldn’t be more apt, situated as it is in the gay ghetto of De Waterkant Village.
There is a strong gay element in the lineage of piano bars going back to Greenwich Village. With its baby grand piano, cozy bar with Victorian fireplace and a wraparound terrace, it has a persuasive late-night atmosphere. It opened in December and has been rocking ever since with live music every night.
There is an excellently curated wine list, a selection of craft beers —Darling brews and Birkenhead on tap — traditional cocktails, and a small yet versatile menu with an emphasis on tapas-style dishes with an Asian influence.
I can recommend the moreish duck fat chips; the sweet miso chili chicken wings with sesame, pickled ginger and quite briny cucumber; the crispy prawns in batter deep-fried with “dirty roasted chilli oil”; and the pulled pork taco (the pork in slices like bacon but not smoked) with Asian slaw, crispy onion and chilli jam.
They also do burgers, mini pizzas, pies and bowls of soup. For dessert, a simple crème brûlée.
And for the artists, there are weekly auditions and an annual bursary awarded to a young talent to further their musical studies.
The Piano Bar, 47 Napier Street, De Waterkant. Tel: 081 851 6000. Open Sunday to Friday 4.30pm to late, and Saturday from noon to late
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 26 July 2013.