The English city of Sheffield is famous for its colorful pubs, breweries, and bars. But for the beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones, one place stands out: the Sheffield Tap, a pub and brewery located inside the city’s main train station.
“There’s a sense of energy and movement you don’t get in your regular haunt,” he says. Some guests are simply trying to grab a quick pint before a departure, while others are there to admire the vintage mahogany bar, mirrored bar-back, and antique carriage clock. The combination of a great atmosphere, convenient location, and stellar beer list makes the Sheffield Tap his first stop whenever he comes to town, Tierney-Jones says, though he admits that he has trouble moving on. “I always find it very difficult to have just one there, because the selection of beer is so magnanimous and ample.”
For decades, bars at train stations have had a bad reputation, often seen as unsafe, even dangerous, and widely considered the last place anyone would expect to get a great drink. But in recent years, train station bars and pubs have undergone a real renaissance. Some of the grittiest have been embraced for their status as authentic dives. Others have been completely renovated and modernized, emerging as night-out destinations in their own right, allowing customers to have a top-shelf drink or two before, during, or after a journey.
From Ohio to Lithuania
With far fewer per-capita railway journeys than other countries, the trend is understandably less pronounced in the United States, despite the arrival of hotspots like The Bar at Penn Station’s new Moynihan Hall, hailed as a candidate for “New York’s hottest club” by The New York Times last fall. When that bar opened in early 2022, it joined the far fancier Campbell at Grand Central Terminal, which originally opened in 1999 as the Campbell Apartment, before taking on its its current form in 2017. Other stateside train station bars include Denver’s Terminal Bar, which launched inside a former ticket office of the city’s historic Union Station in 2014, and the two-year-old Third Rail Saloon at the Amtrak station in Bryan, Ohio.
It might be a slightly smaller story in North America, but in the railway-prioritizing Old World, train station bars are much more common, in both upscale and dive incarnations. A resident of Leeds, England, Jack Anderton travels widely to evaluate entries for his website, “The European Bar Guide,” several of which are located inside train stations. One of his favorites is the palatial Le Royal Café, a.k.a. Brasserie Royal, in Antwerp, Belgium.
“Antwerp has the most magnificent station frontage, and this bar is built into the original layout of the building, so it’s an absolute stunner,” he says. “That’s definitely on the glamor side of train station pubs.”
Another of his picks: the artsy Peronas Travel Bar in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“That’s completely different, it’s more like a late bar, going on ‘club,’” he says. Despite a similar location at a main train station, its atmosphere is decidedly not palatial or royal. “It’s got a 20-foot-high model of Tony Soprano on the station platform.”
While those choices show the diversity of options on the Continent, Anderton says that many U.K. versions focus on railway-inspired décor and atmosphere, like Grosmont Crossing Club, a nonprofit, village-owned pub and venue that welcomes travelers arriving on the historic steam trains of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Inside, decorations include model trains, schematic station diagrams, antique signs, and other bits of railway paraphernalia.
“There are ways of creating good atmosphere that people aren’t even aware that they like, they just know that they like it, and a lot of train station pubs manage that,” he says. But then again, sometimes the appeal is the opposite of good atmosphere, service, or décor. “There’s a few train station pubs which are amusingly, charmingly bad as well,” he says.
Echt Dives in the East
Good or bad, it’s not like train station bars are found in every corner of Europe. In some places, they’ve mostly disappeared.
“I guess in northern Europe generally — Germany, Denmark, Scandinavia — you wouldn’t
tend to find them,” Anderton says. “A lot of those stations in the big cities have become shopping malls as well as stations. You do tend to find restaurants there, but not pubs.”
With the spread of the modern shopping-mall train station, or einkaufsbahnhof, throughout Germany, there seems to be a wave of nostalgia for the traditional bahnhofskneipe, or train station pub. In Berlin, Stadtklause advertises itself as “the historic pub at the Anhalter train station,” even though the Anhalter train station no longer exists, having been demolished in 1960 after being damaged during World War II.
Countries to the east and south seem to have maintained more of their train-station drinking options, with some tourists even planning vacations around them. (Naturally, there’s another German compound noun for that: bahnhofskneipentour, or “train station pub tour.”)
“The staff should also not be overly friendly right from the start. Friendliness is something the guest has to work for.”
From his home in Leipzig, Tom Streit runs Schienenstrang, which offers group tours dedicated to train station bars in countries like Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. He also hands out an award for the train station pub of the year, chosen by votes from his followers on social media, who picked the train station bar in the northern Czech city of Děčín as the winner for 2022. This year’s champion will be announced Sept. 3.
When asked about what he looks for in a train station bar, Streit says that it should be open regularly and reliably, and that it should play terrible music, ideally Europop. The bar should be filled with interesting characters, possibly even shady ones, the beer must be very cheap, and your clothes should smell like fried food after you leave.
“The staff should also not be overly friendly right from the start,” he adds. “Friendliness is something the guest has to work for.”
With his home in eastern Germany, Streit’s main focus has been on the neighboring Czech Republic, where the historic train station pub, or nádražka, is a cherished institution, from relatively upmarket examples like Masaryčka, inside Prague’s renovated Masaryk Railway Station, to Restaurace Dejvické Nádraží, a longtime punk and day-drinking hangout just across town. Germany only has a few such pubs left, he says, but they are much too clean, and the beer they serve is too expensive.
Others seem to agree: All of Schienenstrang’s upcoming tours to Eastern European train station pubs are fully booked.
The Sense of a Journey
While travel is often part of the picture, that’s not always the case. In many eastern European villages, the bar at the train station is the only place that serves drinks, making it not “a train station pub” but more like the only pub in town. In that case, Anderton notes, it often takes on a bigger role in the community.
“It has a link to the past, so when you’re there you can kind of drift off and imagine the golden age of rail, which is cool as well.”
That local connection can contribute to the atmosphere. In addition, there’s often a palpable sense of history. Some train stations and train lines are being built today, of course, like New York’s Moynihan Hall. But much of our railway infrastructure was constructed in the late 19th or early 20th century. When a café, pub, or bar is set in those environs, drinkers can feel it.
“It gives you a kind of slight sense of grandeur,” Anderton says. “It has a link to the past, so when you’re there you can kind of drift off and imagine the golden age of rail, which is cool as well.”
For Tierney-Jones, both trains and beer fuel his lyrical writing. The best train station bars, he says, function as beer palaces, railway museums, and waiting rooms all in one, with a twinned nature of being both part of the journey and the destination itself that is echoed by the dual motivations of the clientele: Some drinkers in train station bars can’t linger at all, while others are going to stay all day. It differs, he notes, from airport drinking, where none of the guests are there by choice.
“It’s always good to accompany the excitement of rail travel with a couple of graceful pints of beer,” he says. “Italo Calvino once wrote, ‘To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void.’ I’d say that you are part of the journey when traveling by train, and a good railway pub is part of that experience.”