Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

From car bombs to cranky customers, Bittles Bar legend has seen it all in 30 years


Owner John Bittle of Bittles Bar, Church Street Belfast. (picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 30-05-2019)
Owner John Bittle of Bittles Bar, Church Street Belfast. (picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 30-05-2019)
The £15,000 broken whiskey that was never opened. (picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 30-05-2019)
Owner John Bittle of Bittles Bar, Church Street Belfast. (picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 30-05-2019)

By Christopher Woodhouse

It's been burned out, has received some of the worst Trip Advisor reviews ever in Belfast and raised thousands for charity over the last 30 years - it's all in a day's work for Bittles Bar.

The renowned watering hole is celebrating a big birthday this year and landlord John Bittles took the occasion to remember the people he's barred, celebrities served and how he puts up with a rag-tag band of regulars.

"We've had Carl Frampton, Ricky Hatton, Ryan Burnett, Neil Lennon, Conan O'Brien - who bought all the customers a drink - and back in the day, Van Morrison would have been in," John told Sunday Life.

"With the regulars it can be a case of familiarity breeds contempt but then you could ask how do they put up with me? I can be hard work."

The bar has changed little over the last three decades after being fitted out by the same firm which renovated the Crawfordsburn Inn.

On the walls hang the now famous Joe O'Kane paintings of literary and political figures in which Martin McGuinness can be seen sharing a laugh with teetotal Ian Paisley.

Also dotted around the bar are the infamous hand-painted signs which warn punters the management "doesn't care who your da is" and that the use of e-cigs will get you "f****d out".

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Owner John Bittle of Bittles Bar, Church Street Belfast. (picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 30-05-2019)
Owner John Bittle of Bittles Bar, Church Street Belfast. (picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 30-05-2019)

John's attitude to customer service has earned the bar some scathing reviews on Trip Advisor - but it must be noted the praise far outweighs the criticism.

"I have worked here half my life and you do take it all a bit personal but there's always a bit of a story behind it," said John.

"You could say there's three sides to the story, there was one review when a woman came in at 12 noon and asked if the Guinness was any good.

"I said it probably isn't as good as it normally is as we haven't sold any for 12 hours, them oul lads would drink it but I wouldn't advise you to drink it.

"She did this big write-up, slated me and called me a desperate rude owner and then at the end of it said it was a beautiful bar.

"Some people come in with a coffee and I say, 'You can't get served' or 'Get your pint where you got your coffee' and they say, 'That barman was an ignorant f****r'."

Bittles Review
Bittles Review
Bittles Review

A more modern gripe for John is the rise of e-cigarettes which has led to a sign being put up stating it will "lead to you being "f****d out".

"That sign is a bit ironic because the person who caused the sign to be put up in the first place is the only person who is allowed to sit in the place vaping," explained John.

His son Fergal chips in: "He's blind so he can't read the sign, so any time we tell him not to vape in here, he says he doesn't see any sign."

John adds: "He says until such time as he can read the sign he'll be vaping away."

John's also known for being quick to bar people but the policy has ironically made the pub one of the safest and most welcoming in the city.

"Sometimes you see people and you think, 'F***, I wouldn't want you becoming a regular' so you just bar them," explained John.

"I've said to people in the past, 'Me and you are not getting on and one of us is going to have to go'.

"Some people you can tell them diplomatically, others you have to say 'What part of f*** off do you not understand?'."

Despite this, John's regulars are fiercely loyal to the bar which was best demonstrated this year when Fergal raised over £3,000 from punters and friends for Crohn's and Colitis UK by running the Belfast marathon.

Another milestone has also just passed for John himself who has not had a drink in more than 30 years.

"When you're young and working in this trade, acting the big lad and taking too much drink and not being able to handle it, you find yourself, too often, over in Musgrave Street," he explained.

"I was getting done for all these stupid things but they were going to get more serious. I was up before the judge and he said if he found me in front of him again, he would have no choice but to give me a custodial sentence.

"I said, 'You'll never see me again', I was heading for Maghaberry and I wouldn't have had the balls to go to Maghaberry, so that was it.

"I stand here every day surrounded by drink but it doesn't bother me in the least."

His unique style of bar service was forged working in the bar trade since he was a teenager, first at the Slieve Donard Hotel before ending up at Belfast's Morning Star pub. John was just 29 years old when he took on what was the derelict Shakespeare Bar in the striking, Victorian Flat Iron-style building next to Victoria Square.

Bittles Bar
Bittles Bar

"At the time I would have been the youngest publican in Northern Ireland but you know when you're young, I thought it was a bit of a challenge," explained John.

"It was dismal, it was sort of semi-derelict, I went to the guy who owned the building - didn't know him from Adam - and he said I'll give you a go."

It was an instant hit, thanks in part to the people who knew John from his days at the Morning Star who wanted to see how the young man would do flying solo.

Bittles is now rarely quiet and John has the help of his sons Fergal and Ciaran and partner Rosie to keep the pints flowing.

Just four days after it opened, the bar was damaged by a car bomb left near the nearby law courts.

"The police came to me and said the bar was under threat, for serving policemen, and advised me to get a personal protection weapon," recalled John.

"My wife at the time said you're more likely to shoot the customers, back then customers gave me more grief than anyone else."

But it was sadness rather than joy that got John interested in the hospitality industry at the age of 14.

"The thing that got me interested in the bar trade was my granny's wake," recalled John.

"Back in those days wakes were all drink, drink, drink and they put the lid back on the coffin and put a load of beer and whiskey on it.

"I was told anyone who comes in is to get a drink, I got a few quid for doing it and I thought I could do this for a living."

Bittles now has a reputation as one of the best whiskey bars in the city and offers measures from £4 up to well into three figures.

It also boasts the most expensive broken bottle in Ireland, a 30th anniversary edition of Midleton Very Rare, one of just 117 ever released and worth around £13,000, which fell off a shelf during building work.

The £15,000 broken whiskey that was never opened. (picture Colm O'Reilly Sunday Life 30-05-2019)

When asked if he's getting fed up running a bar after so long, John brushes off the idea of giving it up.

"I've never woke up any morning and thought I couldn't go in, I'm 58 so I'll see how far I can go," he said.

Belfast Telegraph


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