You hear Saturday night at Reykjavik’s Lebowski Bar before you see it. It’s a theme bar in honor of the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult film The Big Lebowski, so being tasteful wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate. The bar leaks a steady stream of 1960s pop-rock onto the sidewalk; then you hone in on the neon sign, the black awning spotted with bowling pins. It’s either shameless pandering to Reykjavik’s burgeoning tourism industry or a shrine beckoning Dudeists worldwide to come in and abide.
This is about the most unhip bar in one of the hippest cities on its hippest street.
Church of the Latter-Day Dude
To begin to understand why someone would create a Lebowski Bar, it’s important to understand the depth of this film’s following. It was not an immediate hit, and the cult devotion built like a slow clap. It was six years after the film’s debut that Oliver Benjamin, a journalist based in Thailand, created the official Church of the Latter-Day Dude.
The religion of Dudeism grew into an organization of Dudeist priests and followers that publish books and manifestos based on Dudeist philosophies of being so pacifist you just pass out, man. It’s lax-Taoism written on hemp paper. I approached the Lebowski Bar as a religious temple, stale bar nuts and White Russians as the Eucharist.
The occasional acid flashback
The inside of Reykjavik’s Lebowski Bar is decorated as a mock 1950s diner / bowling alley / back porch / lounge with still shots of the film adorning the walls and retro kitsch that harks back to a period the movie did not actually take place in. It’s dark inside save for the neon lighting. The walls around the actual bar area are covered with what looks like a mock version of the famous rug from the film. I begin to think this is what one of the Dude’s “occasional acid flashbacks” must be like.
The White Russian menu is 15 drinks long and I toy between the “Tree Hugger” — a White Russian with soymilk instead of cream and a shot of hazelnut syrup — and the “Special Lady Friend” — a White Russian with an added bit of raw sugar. Then I flash back to the first time I saw the film in college. In what was one of many signs of my impending maturity, I had agreed to a drinking game that involved slugging White Russians every time the Dude (Jeff Bridges) said, “dude.” My taste for White Russians died that day, but the movie endured. I tell the bartender I’ll take his favorite version.
Shabbat and the Walter Burger
There’s something that feels so shameful about being at an Americana bar in a foreign country when you’re from the United States. I try to lay low, I try to understand the heartbeat of the Lebowski Bar. No one is telling their friend not named Donny to “Shut the fuck up Donny!” People are ordering the Walter Burger and raising glasses to him on a day that would have been his Shabbat. If there are any disciples of the Dude, they’re in the guise of well-dressed Western Europeans who look employed and mostly just drink beer.
When the bar opened in 2012, a few Lebowski enthusiasts paid a visit clad in robes and slippers. That doesn’t happen so much anymore. No one is allowed to “do a J” inside the establishment, and rotation of any Eagles song on the digital jukebox is frowned upon. There are projection screens on the walls for films, but tonight someone has chosen to play “Dirty Dancing.”
Lebowski Bar is the Margaritaville of a Coen brother’s nightmare, and by the time I leave I feel as numb as a nihilist.
I told a Scottish friend living in Reykjavik about my first Lebowski Bar experience as if I’d discovered some black hole in the universe. He’d also been to a Lebowski bar in Edinburgh and knew of one in Glasgow. I couldn’t believe it. I’m from the very metro-area of Minnesota where the Coen Brothers grew up, and there isn’t even a Lebowski-themed bar in the state, yet there are two in Scotland alone? I later came to find there are Lebowski-themed bars in Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Belgrade in addition to the two in Scotland and the one in Reykjavik. They’re not a part of any large franchise, and while the two in Scotland are cohorts the rest are related solely by the religious enigma of the film.
Given that The Big Lebowski takes place in LA and is a nod to West Coast US slacker culture, I was surprised to see a devotion to the Dude so wildly represented across Europe. The other bars have created hybrid menus to suit the cultural tastes of their region. In Belgrade, you can order snacks like bread with lard and pickled cheese off of the “Dude’s Domestic Kitchen” menu. In Scotland you can order beans on toast and haggis with buttered mash and a whiskey cream sauce to go with drinks named “The Toe” and “The Jackie Treehorn.”
I wouldn’t consider myself a Dudeist, but if you ask me how many times I’ve seen The Big Lebowski I’ll probably feel ashamed, lie to you, and throw out a low number. The morning after I visited the Lebowski Bar, I vegged out and watched the movie for the nth time. In doing this, I realized that my love of The Big Lebowski must come down to the way in which it has become analogous to the acceptance of my ideal self: a pajama-wearing rascal lying around on a Sunday morning, laughing, lighthearted, and putting off all responsibility for Monday.