This weekend marks a special birthday in Chamonix - on Saturday night we’ll be celebrating 20 years of The Pub! We got together with owner Jonas Smart to find out how he has handled two decades at the helm of one of Chamonix’s most legendary bars.
When and why did you come to Chamonix?
During the eighties I met Rolly, my wife-to-be, and we did a number of ski seasons together in places like Aspen, Alpe d’Huez and Val Thorens. In the early nineties Vietnam opened up its borders to travellers and she wanted to go there, whereas I had planned a bike trip to the States, and so we went our separate ways.
When we returned we met up in Heathrow and decided that we should make some decisions about where we wanted to be together. It turned out that we’d both been thinking about the same town and about starting the same business and that’s how we came to be here in Chamonix.
We arrived in 1991 and took over what is now known as Bar’d Up on Rue des Moulins; it was called Café de la Plage at the time but we renamed it Mill Street. We ran Mill Street until about 1993 or 94, then we took on The Pub and opened it in 1995.
What was The Pub before you opened it?
Back in the 1950’s it was actually a cinema, right up until 1981 or 82. Then a guy called Nando took it over in the early 80’s and converted it into what was The Pub on the Mall - he ran it for about 8 or 9 years and then unfortunately it ended up in liquidation.
It stayed closed for a few years until we decided to buy it but it was a very complicated purchase; liquidation wasn’t as straightforward then as it was now and we had a few problems!
The Pub was already established as a British-style bar when we bought it but we had to make some changes; for example, it still had the sloping cinema floor which was a fire risk waiting to happen! We took the interior right back to the concrete but we kept a lot of the materials and mahogany woodwork and recycled them to retain some of the original features. Partly to keep within a certain budget but at the same time we didn’t want to waste a lot of mahogany, it’s obviously a wood that you should never throw away. The facade was different as well, it used to feature a large pelican advertising Pelforth beer!
We used to have a lot of photos of how it was back then but unfortunately we had a lot of items stolen from a garage and boxes of photos were amongst the stuff that was taken.
You’re very well integrated into the French community now but was there opposition at first to a Brit opening a pub on Chamonix high street?
To a certain degree people were already open to the idea of foreign business because we weren’t the first; there was Johan Beckman who had the Avalanche Ranch which is now Le Vagabond, there was Elizabeth who had the Jekyll, a guy called Frederic who started Chambre Neuf and there was already a Brit called Dave Sharrock who had started his own businesses in Chamonix, so the concept of foreign business was already alive.
Some years ago you created a video urging expats to vote in local elections - why is this important to you?
I’m not into people complaining but not doing anything to change things! Sometimes that happens in communities where people have adopted a place as their home but don’t make any effort to integrate. They often waste a lot of time making comparisons but not actually living that culture and obviously cultures are different. We all get annoyed by things that are negative or inefficient, and the political system here seems to me to leave a lot to be desired at times, but you can pass a vote so put yourself on the electoral role and have a voice.
What role do you play in local politics?
I don’t have an involvement in local politics anymore - I still get asked my opinion from time to time about nightlife and that sort of thing - but I’ve stepped away from being directly involved. It was something we had a stab at a few years ago, putting a team into the mayor’s office, there has to be 29 of you to propose an opposition party and I was put forward as a councillor. I was part of a team that reached out to the Anglophone community, which is becoming percentage-wise quite large but doesn’t have much representation. So instead of people complaining they could get active and get involved.
Do you think Chamonix is ready for a non-French mayor?
No, I think we’re a long way from that! It is technically possible and has happened in other parts of France but I don’t think Chamonix is ready yet.
If you were mayor of Chamonix what changes would you make?
Oooh, that’s a massive one! I think I’d want to shut down heavy goods vehicles coming through the valley to get to the Mont Blanc tunnel; it just doesn’t make sense to climb that much in altitude and put engines under such strain that they kick out huge amounts of fumes when there are alternatives. The Mont Blanc tunnel is a big contributing factor to our pollution problem and I think it’s a shame to have that kind of traffic coming up through this beautiful valley. The fire was obviously tragic but afterwards when the tunnel closed you could really feel the difference, especially living in Les Bossons.
Would you be tempted to run for mayor?
Me? No! I don’t think you can be good at everything, you have to put a team together full of people who are good at individual things but can move towards a common goal - to work towards putting us at the top of the tourism game whilst also considering the needs of the local population. Too many people have their own agendas and I wouldn’t want to try and herd those cats together!
What changes have you seen in Chamonix over the years?
There’s an inevitability to the evolution of ski resorts that I’ve seen before in other places. Chamonix is what I’d term quite a “reasonable” town in that it has held back from being spoilt like some other towns have been, some end up being quite dead communities that are more about wealth and less about sport.
I’m a massive fan of the whole ski bum culture but it can disappear if we’re not careful; I think we have a bit of a responsibility to be available to the youth that want to come through and not just the “year-outers” but also the people who are into their sport and mountaineering rather than living a conventional lifestyle.
I saw it happen in Aspen when between the immigration laws and the rise in real estate, they killed the town and they killed the atmosphere, it’s not the same on the hill anymore. Here in Chamonix you still get a massive amount of really good skiers per square metre.
Chamonix is evolving in what I might term as a slightly negative way but we’re all part of that so I can’t really complain about it. Funnily enough I think things like Cham Sud actually keep the town’s feet on the ground a little bit, which is a good thing in many ways.
I love to see kids out on their skateboards and people being keen to get out there and do stuff, and people come here from all over the world to do that. That, to me, is important and is what creates a different, vibrant, dynamic feel in this town.
Do you have any favourite memories of the last 20 years at The Pub?
Too many to mention! Having Giles Peterson to play was a good night, sometime in the late nineties we did a live broadcast for Couleur 3 (French radio station) and Giles played for us. Actually there’s lots of special moments and I think it would be unfair to name any in particular because there’s been so many good times and good people over the years who’ve made this place what it is - and there’ll be many more to come!
I’m not much into famous people; we’ve had a few come in over the years but "whoopie-doo", that doesn’t really impress me too much. I love the fact that we’ve have some really nice folk in here and it’s always a pleasure to get the doors open at the start of the season and welcome them back. People who started out as customers or bar staff have become good friends over the years and that’s more important to me.
You’re less involved in the daily running of the bar now - do you prefer to be on the other side of it these days?
I enjoy what we do here but I’m less involved now, I don’t want to be behind the bar any more! I’ve only got a certain tolerance - I’ve seen it all, I’ve lived it all and I think it would be easy to get a bit too cynical. I’ve also got a family now and other commitments, I don’t have time to do everything, so now when I’m at The Pub I prefer to be the host and stay in front of the bar!
Apaprently Jonas is not your real name… what’s the story behind your alias?!
Haha, that started back in my first season in the early 80’s! I was living in Les Arcs 1800 and there was a bunch of us who became good friends; I had a ginger beard at the time and always wore a Guernsey jumper and there was a Scottish guy who decided that I looked like a Scandinavian fisherman so he nicknamed me Jonas. I tried to reclaim my own name once I left Les Arcs but by that time it had stuck, in fact my wife has only ever known me as Jonas so even she still calls me it!
What would be your perfect day in Chamonix?
I guess I get to live my perfect day quite regularly! Get up to a really nice breakfast, spend time with my family… I love my golf, I get enjoyment out of quite a few of the sports you can do here, I love a really good ski day or a really good cycle ride… You can eat very well in Chamonix; I like the Auberge du Bois Prin for a special occasion - it’s small and friendly and just below that pretentious level that ruins so many places, I always leave there with a smile on my face! I also like to eat at the golf course club house; I eat a lot at Neapolis, I love the atmosphere there and they’re really good at what they do; likewise Casa Valerio is a family-run restaurant that does very well, I like it there too; I’m not a fan of any of the too cliquey places!
Chamonet - thank you Jonas! The Pub’s 20th birthday party kicks off on Saturday evening with special drinks, nibbles, tunes and the usual good times so come along and join in the celebrations!