TALLINN - The pub is dead, long live the lounge! Okay, it's probably a bit too soon to administer last rites to the pub scene that dominated Tallinn in the 1990s. A couple of them are still going strong, mostly thanks to tourists and expat regulars. But over the last few years there has been a definite shift toward the laid-back, lounge format that seems all the rage with the young, beautiful set.
The latest in this line is Stereo Lounge, which opened last November on the site of what used to be George Brownes (yet another dark, wood-lined pub finally put out of its misery).
A word of warning for those who haven't been here yet: bring a pair of sunglasses... or better still, a welding mask if you've got one handy. This place is bright. I mean blindingly so.
From floor to ceiling, nearly everything is white. The tables, the upholstered seats, the bar, the whole ensemble radiates a retina-scalding glow, further amplified by a number of bare light bulbs hanging down on crooked, red wires.
During the evenings, at about 8 or 9, the overhead lamps are mercifully turned down and replaced by colored lights under the bar, creating a moody ambience just in time for the DJ to start playing down-tempo soul or hip-hop or R'n'B.
On a recent visit, I managed to corner Kuno Tehva, the lounge's owner, to ask what this ice-cream interior was about. I learned that the intent was to create a look that's both original and the exact opposite of his black-lined Club Prive, upstairs.
Then Tehva pointed out something I'd completely missed, namely that Stereo is supposed to look like... surprise... a stereo. The bar is the speaker. The green lamp above the DJ booth is the "on" light. Sometimes an illuminated, green tube moves back and forth behind the bar in the fashion of a radio tuner.
But without question, it's the brightness that draws the strongest reactions, both positive and negative, from the clientele. Katlin, a sporty woman sitting nearby at the bar, said it was the perfect antidote to Estonia's winter gloom. "Every morning is dark, every day is dark, so this is good," she told me between sips of her mojito. Others were less enthusiastic, complaining that the music was too loud and that clinical minimalism is less than cozy. With its white, padded walls, the lounge has even been likened to the rubber room of a psychiatric clinic.
But Stereo has managed to become an instant hotspot. There were precious few free tables on the Tuesday evening when I dropped by, and this is no small feat for a good-sized venue. During the day, the crowd seems to be an eclectic mix of office workers, tourists and a few laptop-toting, wireless Internet addicts dropping in for breakfast or lunch. (I've eaten here twice and have to say that the food is excellent and cheap.)
During the evening, of course, it's chiefly trendy young things that make Stereo their own. Four young women I spotted, all stylishly dressed and drinking identical orange cocktails out of martini glasses, seemed a perfect case in point.
One of them, Britta Hainevool told me why she liked the place. "On the whole it's really groovy... wicked," she said. Then she pointed out something that seemed odd to her - namely that most of the Estonians here were in their early 20s, while the foreigners, for the most part, were in their 30s. Maybe it was my imagination, but as she made this remark, I felt several sets of eyes looking me up and down with an air of disapproval that seemed to say, "Shouldn't you be in a dingy pub somewhere, drinking a Guinness?"