Let’s just get to the questions you want answered in life: what’s the difference between a bar, a tavern, a pub, and a saloon?
A lot of these words are interchangeable, especially in the United States, so it will likely surprise none of you intellectuals who suspect there’s obviously some difference to warrant different words for what is degenerating into the same thing: a dark, noisy place jammed full of skanky IPAs, mis-sized flat-screen televisions showing college basketball, and some annoying group trivia game not asking sensible questions like “What’s the difference between a bar, a tavern, a pub, and a saloon?”
Here we go.
Bar—’Puter’s bar exam is the only bar he’s ever passed, and interestingly, the words are related: they’re both short for “barrier,” or a railing over which things (drinks or legal documents) can be served. In court rooms, it became the gate that separates the audience from the court proper, but in drinking joints, it became the long table on which you put your drinks. But, metonymy being metonymy, the piece of furniture became the name of the place. Technically, a bar can exist inside a restaurant, a catering hall, a night club, or dance hall; it’s a thing, not a place…unless you simply call the building it’s in a bar as well.
Tavern—This is the oldest business listed herein: the word itself is a mispronunciation of the Latin taberna, which in Italia was any kind of a store or retail shop, but was also the word for a place go get intoxicatus/a.
Pub—As most of you probably know, “pub” is a shortening of the phrase “public house,” which meant a licensed drinking establishment open to the public. Indeed, there is an oppositive to this: “private house,” or a bar open only to private members. If you run a pub in the United States, you are expected to serve food as well; while this is common in the United Kingdom or Ireland as well, it’s not assumed to be the case. Frankly, the number of exceptions either way is about the same: there’s a bunch of “pubs” that don’t serve food.
Saloon—Okay, this is an interesting one. Remember up there, a few seconds ago, when the Czar explained that a bar is the counter where you set your drinks? A saloon is the rest of the place: the booths and tables where you can sit and converse, maybe eat and play cards…while, you know, drinking. The word comes from the French salon, obviously, which was a sitting room. So, if you think about it, a tavern can have a bar and a saloon in it. But just as “bar” became the name of the place, “saloon” also became the name of the place. Only a pedantic snob like the Czar would say “Shall we sit at the bar, or in the saloon?”
Gin Mill—obviously, this is slang, but it’s good slang because a person first hearing it can figure out its meaning immediately: a mill is a place where stuff is made, and gin is a spirit.
Beer Hall—Finally, something the Germans can contribute: the Bierstube! The great thing about this phrase is that it means how it sounds: a really big room dedicated to beer. Picture a real Oktoberfest (and not a fake), and that’s a beer hall.
Inn—Well, there’s no doubt about this. An inn is a place where you can stay the night. Maybe you can get food. Maybe, if they have food, you can get a drink, as well. In olden days, inns basically provided you a bed and that was about it; however, as the concept of the motel popped up during the pilgrimages to the Holy Land, inn owners needed to compete. Rather than let you and that precious denarii slip out the door, imagine if your inn sold not just a bed, but food and booze? The more your guests ate and drank, the greater the likelihood they’d want to stay the night. Modern inns rarely offer beds and drink. But both types of modern inns honor this tradition by (a) serving liquor or (b) stealing your money out of your pants pocket while you sleep in your room.
Lounge—Does anything sound worse than a lounge? Picture carpeting, worn furniture, and a guy hopped up on Viagra trying to convince some bar fly that he can still drive his ’78 Corvette. But in reality, “lounge” is a word that serves multiple functions: when the saloon became the name of the business, lounge replaced it for the area with the tables. In a public or private house, the lounge is where the tables and comfy chairs were to be found. And, in hotels and motels (and inns!), the lounge was the seating area adjacent to the bar. It’s a really useful word; one supposes that since “lounge” has become the name for an establishment, we’re going to need another word to replace it for the section of a tavern with the tables and chairs. “Parlor” is our pick. What’s yours?
Tap—Ah, more metonymy. Many of your around the country are unfamiliar with the use of “tap” to describe a tavern, but it’s been around a long time. And not just in the States. In the Chicago area, the Czar remembers fondly the Hilltop Tap, which sat on the apex of one of Chicago’s rare hills. He never drank there, but recalls the Lorchowicz brothers stumbling out of there and their many misadventures, including one (true) story of one brother falling into his car and snapping off the radio antenna. Rather than properly fix it, he widened the hole and stuck in a doorknob as a replacement. Evidently it worked, as he continued for some time to drive his beige 1972 Dodge Aspen with a doorknob jutting up from the passenger side front fender.