Rod is at his seat at the end of the bar, his booming Scottish voice subdued by the spirited dim of a couple dozen Friday night regulars speaking mostly English in a variety of accents. We make our way to the steam table in the corner of the room to find it empty. Looks like there may have been chicken wings in there. If you want to munch free food at the weekly happy hour at Betsy’s Hotel bar, you have to get here at 6 p.m., when it starts.
As usual, the flatscreen behind the bar is tuned to the greatest music video hits of the 1980s, a clear indication of the median age of the patrons, most of whom are expat professionals; communicants to a weekly ritual presided over by the genial, gap-toothed Zura, who has been blessing us with an array of wine, spirits and beer for over two decades. Betsy’s is not just a hotel bar – it is an expat institution with a wicked view of the city.
The hotel goes back to 1994, when the smoke was starting to clear from the Georgian Civil War. Hotel Tbilisi (which would later become the Marriott) was badly damaged in the conflict, leaving Marco Polo (now the Sheraton) as the only 3-star hotel in the capital. Its owners invited a notorious paramilitary group to camp out and protect the hotel from pro-government forces, making it a dangerous place to stay.
The U.S. State Department needed a safe, comfortable place to house diplomats and aid workers during this period of chaos, crime and corruption, a time when fatigues and AK-47s were the male fashion rage and continual electricity cuts kept the country mostly in darkness. So Betsy Haskell, a local American entrepreneur, stepped up and opened the hotel.
“Honestly, I never worried about the lawlessness. It always seemed directed at bad guys, and I wasn’t one. The only problems we encountered were from government bureaucrats looking for a bribe,” Haskell says.
In 2001, she sold the hotel to Utah native Steve Johnson, co-owner of Prospero’s Books, Tbilisi’s English-language bookshop and cafe. At the time, the Tbilisi bar culture was still in its infancy. Expat party animals would frequent the few pubs on Perovskaya Street, which featured bands covering an eclectic list of songs by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton and Tracy Chapman.
Betsy’s is not just a hotel bar – it is an expat institution with a wicked view of the city.
The serious drinkers gathered at Smuggler’s Inn, an English-owned pub with dart boards, a pool table and flirty barmaids. This was in all respects the neighborhood tavern you left back home except for the few female rent-a-dates who would drop by on weekends, decorated with thick coats of red lipstick. They bumped the bar a notch off the expat respectability scale, which suited the regulars just fine.
After the Rose Revolution in 2003, the newly elected reform government “re-privatized” Smuggler’s property, shutting its doors in 2006. Betsy’s Hotel, which had always entertained people at its bar unofficially known as The Bribery, started offering a happy hour, attracting much of the Smuggler’s crowd, some of whom are still around. The bar continues to be the jumping-off point for Friday night adventures.
Although Betsy’s also hosts quiz nights, parties and more sober events, like voter information meetings during the U.S. election season, the happy hour is where the action is, even if it’s not all fun and games. One woman, a PR specialist from Serbia married to a Scandinavian, orders a glass of white wine and jests, “I get more business done here than I do at my office,” before sliding us her card.
While the idea of an “expat bar” might be loathsome to some nonnatives, we think that making it a point to avoid expats entirely is as fatuous as associating with them exclusively. Looking around the bar, we see people from perhaps a dozen countries or more chatting and laughing, and the one thing they all share besides a fondness for drink is a love of Georgia.
Tbilisi’s bar scene has come a long way since Smuggler’s closure, providing a wide choice to belly up to or lounge down in. Lucky for us Betsy’s is in our neighborhood. There’s something heartwarming about a bartender who smiles, knows your name and pours your drink before you even order it.