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Another drink in the wall: Sliema’s oldest bar

Hole in the Wall becomes cool watering hole

Photos: Lara SierraPhotos: Lara Sierra

You’ve walked past it a thousand times. You might have even gone in once, though you don’t really remember. But in the last year, something has changed. Despite its blink-and-you-miss-it exterior, the Hole In The Wall – the oldest pub and bar in Sliema – is now a revelatory Diagon Alley inside.

Rustic, mismatched tables and chairs sit outside, while homely plants and piles of board games perch by the windowsill.

Hung on one wall is an impressive selection of British Naval plaques, while another wall is mortared with doodle-esque graphic portraits and another is covered in a mosaic of the owner’s favourite posters.

A quick glance to the side of the extensive bar reveals a ladder leading to an upstairs music space, complete with drum kit and fairy lights.

The shaken and stirred Hole In The Wall has truly become an eclectic mix of effortless cool, with a dash of tech-geek charm and a 1990s indie vibe. A vintage arcade game is tucked behind the door and a sign by the till explains they accept bitcoin. The best part, though, is that effortless and cool are the antithesis of what they are aiming for, yet like the rebel kid at school, that just makes it cooler still.

The menu also is a surprise.

What food would a place like this serve? Cheese toasties, soup and cupcakes, of course, to name a few. The menu is as eclectic as the place itself, but again, it all works seamlessly together and tastes delicious, served by exceptionally polite and friendly bar staff who make you feel right at home.

Despite the obvious temptation, he realised this place had a story and a history worth keeping

With so much to take in, I almost miss the owner.

Ian Schranz bought the Hole In The Wall after a part-joke with his brother turned into reality. His advisers warned him against buying a bar in such financial disrepair and the previous owners were almost begging him to take it off their hands, but against all odds, he still bought it.

A coffee franchise then offered to swoop in to the rescue and take over the whole place – yet despite the obvious temptation, he realised this place had a story and a history worth keeping.

“I almost let the franchise have it, as I had no experience and no idea what I was doing. But after talking to a local historian, there was no way I could kill it. I really didn’t think that it could even be saved, but suddenly I felt like a custodian of its history,” he says.

And what a history this place has, I discover as Schranz reels off the extensive list of owners this building has acquired over the years. It has been a bar since 1922, but originally it was a stable.

The building then became a store for two huge vats of wine, which sat in a hole in the wall. The Bartolos, the well-known catering family, became the next owners who also acquired the house next door and turned it into a successful restaurant.

With a British Army link, the Hole In The Wall started to become popular among passing soldiers, pilots and seamen too.

The Bartolos ran the business successfully for many years, but once sold, its decline was painfully rapid. The next owner died within two years and the following family made significant financial errors.

Despite all its baggage, Schranz found he became increasingly passionate about his new project.

Having no catering experience, he ran the business in the state he acquired it for six months to learn the trade and come up with new ideas. He describes those months as “horrible.”

“The customers were large groups of men, who would come to watch football and get wasted. They would shout at any woman who walked past.”

Schranz quickly decided that he didn’t want to screen any major events to avoid that drunk, mob mentality that so often come hand in hand.

“I wanted women to feel welcome here, too, and not out of place. Likewise, I didn’t want a 60-year-old man on his own to feel uncomfortable. I wanted that mix of genders and ages.”

He changed the background music and started supporting homegrown bands by allowing them to play upstairs. He hosted film nights and pub quizzes and watched the bar community grow.

“I want more culture and less binge drinking, especially as I try so hard to keep the noise down for my neighbours. But when I do film and music nights I actually end up making a loss.”

Despite all this, he says that the project has worked.

He said: “The people are the most important factor, and that includes the staff, too. They’re my friends and the hardest working guys I know, and that atmosphere defines the place. We do everything the way we like to do things.

“We don’t try to be anything else. It’s our philosophy.”

There is no doubt that he pulls it off. With a subtle nod to everything you’d ever want in a bar, this little nugget of Maltese history has inadvertently become the trendiest place on the island.

Just don’t tell the owner.

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