Sliema – the Promised Land of Pubs
The small (1.3 km² in size) town of Sliema in Malta is a lovely spot; I have always been fascinated by this town. I get a strong feeling when I’m walking down the narrow streets and admire aloud: ”Oh, what an atmosphere”, ”Look at that detail”, ”How lovely the sea is when its just peeking out there!” The ochre yellowish appearance, the declining uneven streets, the cockroaches crawling in the shadows of garbage bags, birds singing loud and beautifully and countless amount of flower potting and colourful wooden balconies creating some contrast – all this enchants me day after day. The craziest part, though, is that all these years I have been seduced by the pubs of Sliema the most!
The unique characteristic of Sliema is that there are an unexpected amount of charismatic small pubs. According to the locals, Sliema is home to around 40 pubs, and they all got that something. They are only a stone’s throw away from each other. There isn’t a better feeling than to walk down the silent streets at night and just randomly step in a charming pub you happened to find. I have always felt kind of ashamed that I don’t visit these pubs enough.
After having talked for so many years that I should write an article about the pubs in Sliema, I finally pulled myself together and took off for a beer – my main purpose being to interview the lovely pub owners. I have always loved to hear people’s stories and once again it was rewarding. Ladies and gentlemen, let me present the pubs of Sliema.
Plough & Anchor Pub
From all the pubs Plough & Anchor is probably the dearest to me. I have a strong bond with it because it’s my so-called “Ally McBeal type downstairs pub”. I have come to Anchor after a frustrating day at work, for a casual drink in the middle of the week and to have a beer before the weekend celebrations. The owner, Mr. George Taliana and the red shirted “bar mascot” Popeye Edward Poland, have been familiar faces to me since 2007 when I arrived in Malta for the first time and was living on the street just behind the Anchor. I feel cosy here.
George, 58, tells me that Plough & Anchor is 38 years old now. The pub has a significant history. George’s father Mr. Gaetano Taliana bought the place in June -78. It was called Bayview Bar back then. Gaetano first kept the place open for half a year until December when he shut down for six months to renovate the place from the floor up. The marine theme of Anchor is designed by Taliana himself, and everything has remained pretty much the same. These influences and probably the whole idea of setting up a bar arose from the fact that he had been working as a steward for many years. Few of them in the merchant navy, which made two-month trips from England to Australia. So when the renovation was finally completed, the new episode by the name of Plough & Anchor started on the 23rd of June -79 – exactly 37 years ago today.
George was 21 when he started working for his father, and he took over 18 years ago when the father passed away. It was natural for George to continue his legacy. Anchor has been anchored with a lot of memories and of course, new ones are created every day. Thousands of signatures from the customers are written down on the faded pages of guest books that date back to the very first days. The men of this place have grown old together; the dark beards have slowly turned grey by the force of time and nature. We laugh when I don’t recognise George in one of the pictures.
Anchor also holds together tight and long friendships. Popeye is not only a regular customer but also a friend that has stayed around since the opening. Sometimes he helps behind the bar when things get busy. George’s sons help too if they can make it from their University studies. A sociologist and a psychologist are not necessary the most likely to carry on the family business, even though I’m sure there would be a lot of human interaction to analyse in the pub world. I can see that George’s personality is very calm and suitable for a place that sells alcohol. When I ask if there ever has been any problems and how to solve them, he tells me that of course there will be some commotion from time to time, but you shouldn’t make it an issue. It’s better to ask the customer to kindly finish the drink and go to sleep. How about, can barkeepers drink behind the bar themselves? “I don’t drink much; you have to be quite sensible and keep a clear head,” George says.
When it’s mainly one man at the helm, there is a lot of work to do – but Monday is a well-deserved day off for George. Once or twice a year he also takes a week-long holiday and heads abroad either with his wife or his Moto Guzzi. Never with both, though; his wife doesn’t like riding the bike. Usually, George travels within Europe, but he has also been to America once. Many times he meets people – in Germany or Poland or wherever – that he has got to know through Anchor. You surely meet interesting people here, and it’s easy to come along when the atmosphere is so relaxed and easy.
Last time I met a Finnish 50-year-old entrepreneur who looked exactly like Jack Nicholson (when he was laughing). We had very inspiring, challenging and fruitful discussions about life and entrepreneurship and about trying so hard get by. At some point his wife got frustrated and left to the nearby hotel because Nicholson kept drinking with us local youngsters – we even continued the evening for another hour or so at Nappa Bar when Anchor closed for the night. Sometimes alcohol surely brings great minds together. And that’s when the hangover doesn’t even bother you that much the day after. These kind of random pub meetings are the salt of life! But no tequila for me (I haven’t drunk that since my Erasmus exchange – Malta, 2007, never forget)!
Opening hours of the Plough & Anchor: Tuesday to Sunday 11:00-14:00 & 18:00-01:00
I open the door to Willie Nelson’s City of New Orleans. Behind the bar desk the owner of Sneaker’s Pub, Mr. Pio, sings along. Whenever I have been to this pub, he is playing country music and singing along. It doesn’t matter; fortunately, the man knows how to sing. There’s not much audience, though, only a few regular customers. Sneaker’s is a hidden gem. You either have to know it or stumble across it by pure chance. The pub indeed seems like one of the most silent ones in Sliema. This is the place to be if you want to calm down and have a drink. At Sneaker’s you can see a cliché movie scene in your mind: when someone comes to an empty bar, sits down and starts pouring their sorrows in the pint. The melancholic country music doubles this effect – except in real life the feeling of this pub is actually warm, calm and life appreciative.
The old school cash register blings like there was money raining down like in the online casinos of the island, but this is unfortunately misleading. The times have changed. Mr. Pio tells that his best memories date back to the time when there was the Galaxy hotel on the other side of the street. Those were the busy days: “That’s when a lot of customers came in, I made friends and on Tuesdays, we went to eat rabbit to Naxxar.” Sneaker’s has been here for fifty years and for thirty years Mr. Pio has called it his job – first as a bartender and since -91 as the owner. Sneaker’s is the official name of the pub, but it’s also known as Peppi’s – because people call him Peppi. I don’t reveal to Mr. Pio that Peppi is also the name of my female dog and a ginger-haired Swedish cartoon character, a girl brat!
Mr. Pio’s appearance is butler-like. He seems like a friendly gentleman but very precise. There are all kinds of bottles on the shelf – some with herbs and insects inside the booze – but I don’t think Mr. Pio is after the wild nights. At least not anymore. “We used to have live music and parties that would continue until three or four in the morning. The license is until one o’clock, but you could always pull down the curtains,” Pio reveals. The British have always been the biggest group of customers, and you can see it from the decorations. There are few giant flags. Of course, the whole Sliema pub culture is influenced by the fact that Malta was a British colony and under the British administration until -64. Sometimes you can hear the pigs…Brits. When I ask Mr. Pio what should be done with hooligans, he jokes that he is already sleeping by then. Maybe he just thinks that the life will sort itself out eventually. Just like country music does. With that same attitude, he’s not really worried about the small amount of customers: “I just don’t bother about it. I don’t believe in advertising. Who ever passes by and walks in, they are more than welcome.”
Mr. Pio seems like he has accepted his part, but his principles are strong: he tells me he will be running this pub until his last breath: ”I love this place. It has so much character.” True that. I warmly wish newcomers to Sneaker’s. Like a symbol for our end conversation, Johnny Paycheck’s Take this job and shove it, I ain’t working here no more starts playing in the background. The dust has already fallen on the bottles. When I leave an old couple that I have seen before comes in. Mr. Pio greets them individually: ”Frida, good evening! Freddy, good evening!”
Opening hours of the Sneaker’s: Wednesday to Monday, from early evening to midnight
When you step into Cork’s Bar located on the Balluta Bay’s steep hill it feels like you step into another time. “Time travelling, that’s what we were after. If someone from the 30s, 40s, 50s would walk in he would feel comfortable,” smiles the owner, the English man Peter while the better half, his Chinese wife Yang Yang is making some drink magic behind the bar. Peter and Yang Yang set up Cork’s Bar a bit over two years ago. First, they came to Malta to do some research – setting up a bar had been in mind as a “semi-retirement plan.” On the last day of the holiday, hands were shaken in the small property.
“They say that since the 30s there has been some sort of bar here. It makes me smile that my granddad might have come here and taken fish and chips to go.” Peter’s British grandfather was in the Navy, the submarine unit. Between the First and the Second World War, he was on an assignment in Malta. We are looking at the old framed pictures on the walls – in a photo taken at some photo studio in Sliema in -34, I notice a soldier in all-white uniform. What a fascinating history. Peter’s grandmother and grandfather met on the island of Saint Helena far in the South Atlantic ocean before moving to England. How on earth was grandma born in Saint Helena then, that is interesting too. “My great grandfather was a Norwegian sailor, he sailed to Saint Helena, got my great grandmother pregnant and left, she never saw him again. So that’s him,” Peter points one of the pictures.
On the other wall, there are Yang Yang’s roots. I notice a torn photo – a person cut out – in one of the family pictures. Peter explains that during the Chinese civil war, Yang Yang’s grandfather was a big enemy of the communists because he was an educated man, a doctor who had set up three hospitals. The communists did control visits to people’s homes, and thus all the pictures of him had to be removed. Yang Yang’s grandfather was jailed for ten years; his crime being a doctor. How crazy is that!
Well, how did all this history end up on the same wall – how did Peter and Yang Yang meet? ”There is something about China, already three generations of mine have gone there. So did I, I went there for work, and we met in Shanghai six months after.” I’m wondering how life is so great and full amazing stories – you definitely hear them at the small pubs. ”The funny thing is, I never planned to go to China, I never planned to get married again, I never planned to live in Malta, I never planned to have a bar. But all these things are wonderful. So is life. Happy days,” Peter concludes.
Peter says beautiful words about his wife. When I ask how has the beginning of the journey been for Cork’s Bar he is satisfied: ”People find here because their friends have told about the place and they keep coming here because of Yang Yang’s great personality, she’s dynamite.” That’s good; there’s no need for promotion when there is the mighty word of mouth. Cork’s is often filled with foreigners that live in Malta (a lot of people work in iGaming), some young Maltese and a lot of couples like the place as well because it’s sort of nice and quiet. It also happens that people get lost and walk in. ”One of our best friends in Malta just wandered in here; they said they had no idea such an amazing place even exists,” Peter tells. I myself as well just found Cork’s on my new route to gym after I had moved. I heard the swing playing, had to go and take a look inside – and my soul was sold.
A lot of jazz, blues, and the 60s/70s music is played at Cork’s – chilled out music in general. This is the music that Peter enjoys, he used to run a jazz club in London. One of the specialities of Cork’s is the live music on Tuesdays when a talented jazz band creates even more intimate atmosphere to a very intimate place. One Tuesday I passed by, and Cork’s was jammed, people were even out on the streets. Peter and Yang Yang actually met the members of the jazz band when they visited Cork’s as customers – Malta is small. That’s why also the bar business is tough, and you got to know what to offer. ”People do come here for the cocktails and they come for the live music. We have a fantastic cocktail menu. We don’t sell any canned beer or really cheap stuff – glasses are cold. We have no TV, so this is for the people who enjoy being here. One of my favourite pubs in London used to have a no mobile phones policy, and I nearly did the same thing here.”
A former investment manager (who still does that little bit on the side), Peter is telling the winning formula to a small bar: ”A nice atmosphere, quality drinks, and then the most interesting ones: whose behind the bar, what kind of customers visit the bar and the toilet – people like a nice toilet.” Peter read a lot in advance because neither him nor Yang Yang had been running a pub before. ”In the end, all those factors seemed quite easy really. And we thought we got them right.” As a concept planner, I can see that Cork’s has a clear profile brand, and it’s good. The only tiny pity is that there is an Irish pub carrying the same name in busy St. Julian’s so please note, I wasn’t talking about the ”live music” (read: out of tune karaoke) there!
Like its owners, Cork’s Bar keeps flexible opening hours. If people have fun, the show must go on! The doors are open at least until one o’clock even if it’s a slower night. ”If people walk here, and it’s closed, it’s not nice.” When I ask what does the couple do during the days when they are off, the everyday life sounds very relaxed: ”We wake up and have a cup of tea on the balcony. If I feel energetic, I walk down to the sea and have a swim. Then we have an afternoon nap and eat.” Peter tells me they haven’t had an alarm waking them up ever since they came to Malta: ”It’s amazing how less stressful the life is when you’re not following the clock. Well, I have an alarm at four o’clock in the afternoon just to remind us that we eat and shower before going to work.”
Opening hours of the Cork’s Bar: Every night from 19:30 until 01:00 at least
Simon’s Pub, Lady Di and past the Strand pubs home
I pop by at Simon’s just quickly because the place is empty during the day and Simon is working on something with his handyman. There are a lot of things and decorations on the pub walls – even something familiar, logos of the piss-flavoured beer of my dear home country Finland hang on the wall. Simon tells me ”People bring them over.” I didn’t know that people actually give fan gifts to pubs. Well, Simon is like a rock star: he hands me over some newspaper articles written about him and lets me know there are plenty more. He’s been interviewed a lot. Simon seems like a badass: a person who is first a bit cool but warms up fast, though. Soon we are already taking selfies, because Simon says and suggests so, ”It’s much nicer and more fun together.” Wow; my first impression was wrong. After all, Simon is a very nice guy and soon I realise that we actually have a lot in common: we have this similar rebel spirit that we don’t bow to the regulations of the world if they suck. ”When I was young I studied hotel management in England. As soon as I came back to Malta, I realised that no one would give me a proper job where I would be respected. So I set up this pub in -82 when I was 21 years old.” Simon explains. Respect! Simon’s Pub is an accomplishment of the hungry young Simon who wanted to be his own boss – it’s his calling.
One other thing we have in common is the charity projects and spirit. In early May it was the 18th edition of Simon’s Music Festival, which is an annual event and its profits go to Inspire Foundation. This foundation supports the kids with learning disabilities in its centers both in Malta and Gozo. The whole street is shut down during the festival with many bands, some even from abroad, performing. The summer season is opened with great music. Like I said, Simon himself is a rockstar, back in the days he used to play some gigs. Before getting back to work Simon quickly stuffs a t-shirt in my bag; he says there’s only a few of these left. This must be some kind of groupie shirt because it’s such a secret. I gulp down my Cisk and leave. Once I get around the corner, I check my new shirt. It’s cool and even the right size! There is a big Cisk logo in front. This shirt I will wear for sure, thank you Simon!
Opening hours of the Simon’s Pub: from 20:30 till 01:00 and at lunchtime
One last place and that’s it! I’m heading to Lady Di only because of my curiosity. I have heard that this pub is full of the pictures of Lady Diana, and I must witness that. Local Maltese are having an after-work and they quickly offer me a seat amongst them. There is one “crazy” guy in the group; that’s how the others describe him. He starts interviewing me instead while the pub owner Frank is busy serving beer and rabbit. This place serves some traditional Maltese food too. I talk briefly with the locals and finish my drink. They tell me that beside them, the igaming people come to the pub often. When I ask their opinion about the fact that so many foreigners have come to Malta, gladly I get a heart warming answer: ”It’s good that Malta becomes more international.” Everyone is happy about it and agrees it’s great that Malta has developed fast and business is booming. It’s always nice to feel that you’re welcome.
Opening hours of the Lady Di: Everyday from 10:00 AM until 01:00
When I say my goodbyes and prepare to leave the “crazy” guy shouts after me: ”Next time you come with the high heels and we go ziggy ziggy.” Whatever it means I start laughing so bad that I just ‘live, love and laugh’ the whole way down the strand boulevard. On a way, I pass the noisy pubs by the Sliema Strand and think how I absolutely love the golden ones – the ones inner city on the narrow streets. But there are pubs for everyone. It’s a pity I have even lost some; RIP Hole in the Wall Pub that closed down its hole lately, and unfortunately the abandoned Z-Bar I pass every day says nothing but ZZZZZZZZZ. If I could add one more pub to Sliema, I would create a concept for a Maltese cat cafe even if I’m a dog person. Is there someone more business minded – how about co-operation, the Pussycat Pub with me?
Some more pub pictures of charismatic Sliema: