Despite being a daughter of Connecticut — a state where people do basically nothing besides drink and commute — up until a few years ago, I had never set foot inside a train station bar.
I had always been a bit mystified by the drinking establishments that sprout alongside commuter rail stations. Why wouldn’t you head to some other bar a few blocks away, where the beer is just as cold, but your conversations aren’t interrupted by the sounds of the 7:20 to Old Saybrook? Do you only have 15 minutes to drink, yet crave something more elegant than squatting in an alleyway clutching a Bud Lite?
What eventually brought me to a train station bar was a triple crown of bad circumstances: I was in a place I didn’t really know, I didn’t have a car, and I had just come from a family function so unpleasant, I could not possibly spend another minute sober. So when a taxi deposited me at the train station a few minutes early, I walked into a bar where the lights were turned up bright enough to perform basic surgery, a TV that no one was watching was turned to golf, depressed-looking goldfish swam listlessly in a dank fish tank, and, thankfully, none of the other patrons tried to talk to me.
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I wondered how my fellow patrons had ended up there — were all their mothers also insane? — but got on my train without finding out; everyone had been polite enough to stay out of my business, so I thought I should return the favor.
I never stopped thinking about them, though. What draws people to train station bars? In a world of endless and increasingly personalized options, what’s the enduring appeal of a bar whose entire existence seems predicated on the fact that it’s just… there?
In the years since, I have learned that there are two kinds of people: people who also wonder about the mysterious draw of train station bars, and people who go to train station bars regularly and think I’m a jackass for using the word “mysterious” to describe a place that serves jalapeño poppers. Both groups have solid points.
That’s why, two years after my inaugural train station bar experience, I still had questions. And there was only one way to answer them — by investigating.
I began by reaching out to the owners of a number of train station bars to ask their thoughts about being part of a proud tradition of transit-related drinking. I did not get a single reply, which I do understand — as a business owner, you want to emphasize the products or the service, not that your bar is conveniently located next to the station restrooms.
This stonewalling speaks to a larger theme of train station bars: They are among the only businesses not fervently branding themselves. Most modern bars and restaurants seem aware that people now have near-endless leisure options, such as ordering Seamless or googling “sinkhole photos” until 2:00 a.m., and thus engage in some fairly rabid branding. Few of the train station bars I researched had dedicated websites, let alone Instagram accounts; and yet their businesses thrive.
Take Kabooz. Located in New York’s Penn Station, Kabooz has the benefit of being located in a hub that serves over half a million travelers every day, many of whom have to be looking for a stiff drink seeing as how they’re spending their time in Penn Station. If you want to hang your hat at Kabooz on a weekday, you need to arrive around 4:00 p.m., because by 4:45 there’s a line out the door and a waiting list.
If you do arrive early enough to nab a seat, as I recently did in the name of research, you’ll notice this is the type of train station populated primarily by people leaving a destination. Most of Kabooz’s patrons have just gotten off work and are killing time until their trains arrive to take them home.
They’re quietly looking at their phones, calling their spouses, watching golf on TV (why is it always golf?), or, in a handful of cases, taking a round of shots with other folks in business casual (“I don’t think all managers should yell at people, but I do think all managers operating as associates should yell at people,” one said immediately after swallowing).
While Kabooz does keep the lights extraordinarily bright, when I visited, it didn’t undermine the ambiance, which was warm and vaguely Chili’s-esque. You know, Barenaked Ladies on the stereo, multiple quesadilla options on the menu.
“Why’d you come here?” I asked the man seated next to me at a Wednesday happy hour.
“What?” he replied. He was, like the majority of folks in the bar, quietly looking at his phone.
“Uh, nothing,” I said.
Ten minutes later, he strode out and toward the tracks, presumably answering my question.
The Station House in Stratford, Conn., is another kind of train station bar. Located at the town’s Metro North commuter train station, Station House seems designed for people nearing the end of their nightly journey. A sign in the bar’s entryway boasts that “Italian, sushi, and American” food are available at the bar; another sign reminds you that Thursday nights feature a local Sinatra impersonator (who, one patron tells me, is totally down to take photos).
Tuesday, the day I visited, was karaoke night, which I only realized after I paid for my beer and was asked if I was here to do karaoke. If Kabooz is the platonic ideal of a quiet commuter bar where no one talks because no one wants to, Station House is, as an aeronautics engineer named Brad who was enthusiastically drinking there told me, “very local.”
In fact, very little of the crowd that night appeared to have anything to do with the trains coming and going. Rather, a group of diehard regulars gathered to do karaoke, passing the mic and passionately singing the hits of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and today from the comfort of their bar seats.
Brad hadn’t ridden the train that day, either; his employer was putting him up for a few weeks at a nearby hotel. So, why this bar? Why not any of the countless others located literally feet away?
“Well, the people are nice,” said Brad, which seemed to be true, given how easily all the staff and patrons — including a 60-something man wearing a vinyl catsuit and one of those leather biker caps that Madonna used to wear — chatted with each other. “And the sushi is really good.”
I had started by wondering how train station bars kept on chugging along, in an era when so few things are still just purely functional. But maybe that pure functionality is the draw of a train station bar. It doesn’t need to dress up its purpose, which is the same as any bar’s — it’s a place to stand around, alone or with friends, and wash the day away.
Justin, a childhood friend who once drank so robustly at a train station bar that he fell asleep on the train and only woke up when it was en route to the train yard, says, “I absolutely went to that bar because it was cheap, a bit of a dive, and I could pound a beer or two and then run IMMEDIATELY to my train.”
So convenience is a factor. But so is ambiance.
“Honestly, it was the ideal Train Bar,” he adds. “I don’t want a fancy $20 cocktail at Grand Central. I want someone to sell me a $5 PBR tall boy and a shot of the absolute worst whiskey on the planet and to fall asleep and wake up in the train yard.”
Train station bars provide a service similar to the locomotive itself — a place where we’re neither our work selves or home selves, and where we can just exist with ourselves, whether that self wants to sing a Three Doors Down song, or quietly watch golf on ESPN 8. Or maybe, sometimes, you just really need a drink.