Gin Tub: The bar encased in copper to block mobile phone signals and encourage customers to socialise
Is it a gimmick to simply block off technology or is this the antidote we need in a society over-reliant on social media?
It’s Saturday night in the bustling seaside city of Brighton and Hove – famed for nightlife that attracts students and stag dos – and I’m among around 50 people packed into a dimly lit bar which has imposed a prohibition. But it’s not alcohol that’s off the menu – it’s technology.
In a publicity stunt that has achieved a level of coverage that marketing executives dream of, The Gin Tub, in the upmarket Hove area of the Sussex city, has made headlines for filling the insides of its crimson and bare-brick walls with silver foil and its ceiling in copper wire to create a faraday cage, which blocks all mobile signal.
The novelty doesn’t stop there. Each table is fitted with a faux rotary dial phone which customers use to order from the bar, but also call strangers on other tables. (A landline has been installed, too, in case of an emergency.)
Steve Taylor, who owns the joint, told the BBC News that he hopes to encourage customers to “socialise with the people they are with, rather than the people they are not with”.
The Gin Tub team, and their well-stocked bar of social lubricants served in double measures at about £9 a pop, is capitalising on the debate on the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets.
The latest wave of concern followed an OfCom survey of 2,025 adults and 500 teenagers, which revealed that 59 per cent of people believe they are hooked to their devices, while four in 10 adults feel they are regularly ignored by a friend or relative who was using a smartphone or tablet.
As a millennial among the first generation to come of age with the internet, it sometimes feels like I am part of an involuntary social experiment testing how deeply technology will screw me up.
I spend almost every living moment with my phone. And I know I’m far from alone in using it as my alarm clock, map, camera, encyclopaedia, and city guide on a daily basis.
I am now so in tune with my phone that I can see notifications flash up in the corner of my eye, like a sedentary SAS agent always on guard. The only place I don’t take it is to the shower because, heaven forbid, the steam might scrabble its precious insides. How will my equally tech-addicted best friend – who I’ve spent the morning posing for selfies with – and I survive at The Gin Tub?
“NO Wifi!! NO Signal!! Just good old fashioned chit-chat” shouts the hand-written chalk sign outside the bar. The enthusiastic maitre d’ ushers us inside. Small groups are gathered around wooden tables which match the part-rustic chic part-boudoir décor, while others are perched around pairs of high tables in booths.
There is a pleasant hum of conversation. The maitre d’ explains the phone system, warns us with a wink that the servings come in doubles, and sits us on a shared high table with a group of friendly middle-aged women. Within minutes, we happily oblige as they insist that we sip from their fishbowl gin glasses before we dial ‘0’ to place our orders at the bar.
Our drinks arrive and after taking a few snaps of the table to post on Instagram later – old habits die hard – I ask my friend how she is. But the table phone rings. It’s the barman, who asks me about our order. Confused, I explain our gins have arrived and pass the phone over to the ladies on our table, but they hand back the receiver.
The barman repeats his question and, highly unprofessionally, starts to laugh at me. Of course, it’s not the bar staff at all, but a giggling drunk man hiding under the table next to me. I look at him and sarcastically shake my head with a smile. Emboldened by gulps of gin I call a table across the room and ask the woman who picks up how her night is going. “Fabulicious!” she replies with a belly laugh, and waves from across the room.
But not everyone is so friendly. I shove the phone receiver into my friend’s hand and coax her into calling a table across the room. She asks whether the man is drinking gin. “No, some of us aren’t,” he responds curtly and puts the phone down.
The novelty wearing off, and having noted the irony of visiting a bar without signal only to be distracted by the device in front of us, my friend and I get lost in a conversation. Is it more enjoyable than usual? No. But our usual interaction is certainly less centred around our phones. We don’t show each other our favourite Instagram accounts, or share memes that have tickled us that week, or look up facts mid-conversation. And that, admittedly, is rather pleasant. But the same can’t be said for the new group of women across us. Regardless of faraday cage, they merely sit in silence, staring into their enormous drinks. I wonder, in the months to come, how many groups of friends will realise they have very little to say to each other without their social crutches.
With a fuzzy head, I return to the bar the next evening to chat to some customers.
“It’s a novelty, but a novelty with a purpose,” says Juliet Stephens, a 39-year-old drama therapist based in Kent who is visiting The Gin Tub with her sister who lives nearby.
“We thought the set-up has the potential to be wanky or quite cool,” says Caroline Stephens, a 35-year-old recruitment consultant. “It’s brilliant. We are shackled to our phones and it’s refreshing to go somewhere where you don’t have that.”
Dismissing my suggestion that the bar has simply replaced a smartphone with a rotary-dial as a distraction, Juliet adds: “There is a physical opportunity to connect to someone here. It's the antithesis of what you find in super trendy bars where people are restricted from communicating if they don’t look a certain way.”
“When my sister visits the bathroom I’m not checking my emails, I'm thinking who am I going to prank call,” adds Caroline, laughing.
Recalling how they both would plan nights out with little trouble before mobile phones were inescapable, Juliet adds: “People don’t have any patience and it’s such an important thing to have. If someone is late and they can’t contact you or you have no signal in a bar, is it more likely that something terrible has happened or is it just that they're a bit late?”
Such a set-up would be perfect in a bar full of singles, suggests Tristan Hoffman, a 34-year-old operations manager in the events industry who laments the rise of Tinder.
“I think the signal block is a nice idea because I believe in the ancient art of conversation,” he says, adding that he and his wife Heather Hoffman have enforced a ban on phones when they socialise together.
Heather, a 34-year-old pilates instructor, is similarly impressed. “Not being connected is a freeing feeling. We’re screaming for more of this sort of thing.”
The bar’s success – at least since it opened in late July – is down to the fact that customers are like-minded and go to the bar seeking a refuge from technology, says George Worthington the assistant manager at The Gin Tub.
“Bars are about choice,” he says, explaining that his clients can simply put the phone down if they are being bothered by another customer, and can spend more time chatting with their friends as they do not have to queue for drinks.
Admitting that the faraday cage is a bit gimmicky, he adds: “It creates a lovely atmosphere. It's about people being people and having fun.”
Of course, The Gin Tub has hardly invented the wheel. I’ve spent plenty of nights in basement bars and clubs cut off from my friends and have hardly noticed. But the bar, and others who have adopted similar policies, highlights the idea that there is a time and a place for technology. At a time when a work-life balance is hard to strike, and our attention is constantly occupied, it is refreshing to be reminded to live in the moment.
Dying to try the bar but don’t live in Brighton? Here’s an idea: just leave your phone at home.
Independent News Service