“THE TOUGHEST BAR IN THE WORLD” by Randolph Wolfe – May 1968

Quinn’s Bar, on the waterfront in Papeete, Tahiti, is said by those having authority in such fields to be the worst bar in the world, and I think this is very likely true. There may be worse bars in certain respects elsewhere, but for overall lack of refinement Quinn’s has a distinction that is pretty nearly unique. I’ve met travelers who have ventured into dives on the waterfront of Marseilles, in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong and on the back streets of Juarez, but who acknowledge that they had never tasted the full extravagance of descent until they entered Quinn’s.

I encountered Quinn’s early in life because my fictional tastes ran heavily to South Seas literature, and Quinn’s was a part of the standard background against which these stories moved. It was here, for example, that the drunken Scottish captain of the rusting copra freighter went noisily to hell after being betrayed by the Polynesian girl. It was to the florid literature of the area what Sidi-bel-Abbés was to the French Foreign Legion stories or what Utah was to Zane Grey. When a good man fell from grace, he fell in Quinn’s.

On the first night of my arrival in Papeete a few weeks ago, I made my way promptly to Quinn’s. It was easy to find, in the center of town and facing the long quay, and at first glance I felt a measure of disappointment. It was a flat, totally unpretentious building, open in front, with QUINN’S BAR spelled out in bamboo letters across the entrance. A mountain of beer crates stood on the sidewalk in front of the place, and across the street 1 could see the out­lines of a cluster of rusty Korean fishing boats tied to the dock. I was standing beside the entrance, transfixed in the way a young priest might be when standing outside of Saint Peter’s on his first trip to Rome, when there was a momentary explosion of shouts and curses in front of me and a dark body sailed through the air and landed with a brutal crash in the pile of beer crates. The body pulled itself up and shuffled out of sight across the street. I entered.

There is nothing faint-hearted about Quinn’s rosy version of life. In the center, near the entrance, is a horseshoe-shaped bar, and behind the bar­tenders was as energetic and feverish a rock-’n’-roll combo as it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. The noise was painful, the air was compounded of smoke and liquor fumes, and the lights were mercifully low. Around the wall was a row of booths, many with curtains drawn to conceal whatever adventures the occupants did not care to share with the general public. In the first booth, as I entered, a mountainous woman in a flowered sarong smiled at me. She must have weighed 350 pounds, and the smile revealed that, al­though she had only one upper and one lower tooth, she somehow achieved a malocclusion. “Wanna live a little?” she whispered huskily. I shuddered, and took a seat at the bar.

I don’t know how many fights occur during an average evening in Quinn’s, but I’ve heard that many Tahitians will fight nowhere else. At one point, shortly after my drink arrived, two fights broke out simultaneously on the dance floor. One fight was of such high quality that the combatants in the lesser engagement gave up quickly and joined the spectators watching the main event. Bouncers moved in quickly and carried the fighters off the floor, though they all reappeared a few minutes later at the bar, dusting themselves of and buying drinks for their supporters.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to say a few words about the toilet at Quinn’s Bar, since this seems to be the feature that is most earnestly dis­cussed by American tourists. There is only one toilet, separated from the dance floor by a tattered cloth curtain, and this accommodates both men and women and, from what I could gather, accommodated them simultaneously. Whether the shrieks of outrage that I heard were good-natured or genuine, I have no way of knowing.

The bartender gave me a look of dark reproach when, after the fourth set of fighters had been carried out over the heads of the bouncers, I asked for my check. It was still early in the evening, but the noise and tension in the place created a prickly atmosphere. As I passed the fat lady in the front booth she suggested that I wouldn’t be leav­ing so early if I had possessed a little sporting blood. l saw that she also had a rather handsome mustache.

I walked for several blocks along the waterfront before the noise from Quinn’s receded behind me. It was warm and humid, as South Seas nights so often are, and the stars were brilliant. Some­where out in the harbor I heard the rattling of a ship’s anchor chain. It was a pleasant sound, and I decided that it was electronic music more than any­thing else that had intoned for me the death of the literary Quinn’s and the birth of the modern one. ◊

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11 responses

  1. I particularly was interested in your description of the toilet facilities. I visited Quinns in 1965 and found the facilities as described. It certainly came as a shock to a wandering Canadian.

  2. I was in merchant in the 60s,i read about quinns being hardest pub in the world ,I went into shiping federation in Southampton they were looking for crew on the southern cross and one of the ports it called into was Tahiti signed on straight away weeks later I was standing in quinns wow 17yrs old. French leginers were there some of there noses were bigger than me.i rember reading about two of them fighting for two hrs there was one toilet, mesh over over tiles with water running underneath,its one pub I will never forget went there 2 more times really had good time.
    billy tonks

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  4. I had the bounty of visiting Tahiti and its wonderful people in 1964 and 1961. In 1961 an Italian film maker was filming a documentary titled “Women of the World.” They documented the goings on in Quinns. Google it for yourselves. I’m sure there was lots of action but after all these years I remember only the comradeship of my shipmates and the friendship and toleration of the Tahitian people towards we grossly misbehaving strangers. I wish the best of progress and prosperity for those noble islanders.

  5. I was in Quinn’s in early 1967. I was a e/r rating aboard the MV Rangitane, New Zealand Shipping Co. emigrant ship. I was with my mate Dave Chapman, also from Leeds. I ordered two beers and when I offered to pay the barman said they were paid for. This happened again so I asked the barman who was paying for them. He pointed to a little Tahitian with a flower behind his ear who gave me a suggestive smile. Dave & I moved to the other side of the bar where the episode was repeated. When we looked around half the guys in there had flowers behind their ears.

  6. I visited Quinn’s in August 1962 when the Coast Guard Cutter I was stationed on made a 5 day stop in Papeete. I remember that when Quinn’s closed late at night that everone went to another bar that opened around midnight. Does anyone recall the name of that bar?

  7. I have the dubious distinction of having visited the two most disreputable bars in the world, both (sob!), of happy memory. Quinn’s of course, and on a later trip, the Banana Court in Rarotonga. They sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore. They were deliciously disreputable.

  8. Visited Quinn’s in September 1967 with my brother jack and friend bob mc broom on route from Sydney to Southampton. On entering we were surrounded by girls with flowers in their hair asking for drinks, the atmosphere was very menacing. Most of the customers were french sailors in a very drunken state along with lots of 20 stone male Tahitians also with flowers in their hair. At midnight several french military vehicles pulled up, mp’s came dashing in hitting the sailors about the head and body, dragging them to the vehicles and throwing them in the back and speeding off into the night. Spent most of the night on the waterfront. Departed on mv castel Felice (sitmar line)

  9. Was in Quinn’s in 1970. The loo curtain was on the top part of the entrance, hid the face but not the bottom. Massive cockroaches on the wall in the booths. was a most amazing experience. Never to be forgotten.

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