On November 10, 2022, just over a year before, I left Lisbon for the winter. The next day, by sheer coincidence, a singalong piano bar named Downstairs at Betty’s opened a few blocks from Avenida da Liberdade. An American expat in Lisbon named Matt Colagiuri had spent 4.5 years from initially conceiving the idea to watching the first customers stand around the piano while a photo of his whimsical grandmother Betty smiled from across the room.
Who was Betty?
“Growing up,” Matt explained, “our family celebrated Christmas Day at my grandparents’ house. Cousins, aunts, uncles—everyone. After dinner, we would retire to the den (which was downstairs…) and sit around the piano and sing holiday songs. Downstairs at Betty’s is an homage to my childhood Christmas memories. As the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son—as far back as anyone can trace—in an Italian family, I grew up with a mountain of expectations heaped on me. Betty (my mom’s mom), was the only one who seemed interested in learning what it was that made MY heart sing, rather than THEIRS. My grandfather was a successful business man. People knew and recognized his name. But there were no memorials to my grandmother Betty. And it was past time.”
A singalong piano bar
The idea of Downstairs at Betty’s was simple. The bar would open from 6:00 PM to 12:00 AM every night. One pianist would play from 7:00 PM to 9:30 PM and a second from 9:30 PM to 11:00 PM. Matt would often greet customers at the bar and staff members Daniel, Jessica, and later Lucas would serve drinks and sometimes sing along with the customers.
Once the music started, customers could request any song they liked as long as the pianist could play it. Betty’s from the beginning was about singing together, not watching the pianist perform. This was the key difference from a typical piano bar and what gave Downstairs at Betty’s a particular kind of magic.
I first discovered Betty’s through an Instagram post from fellow Lisbon expats Dan and Michelle @honeymoonalways, and I immediately recognized it as a place that I would love. It wasn’t like the perfect private karaoke boxes I had grown used to when I lived in Japan, with their endless ice cream buffets and drinks ordered by phone. But perhaps it would be something even better – the chance to meet strangers and instantly connect through the shared love of music.
On April 21, 2023, I finally made it Betty’s. I walked in alone and within 10 minutes was singing Alicia Keys with Jessica the bartender and chatting to an elderly British couple like I’d known them for half of my life. Getting to meet the other bartender Daniel and the owner Matt was the cherry balanced on top of the cherry that night. They immediately felt like musical family.
Where strangers became fast friends
Over the next seven months, whenever I was in the neighborhood and in the mood for a song, or had friends in town, I would go to Betty’s. I didn’t know anywhere else like it—at least outside of the USA—a place where music became a tool for instant connection.
This wasn’t like karaoke—where you patiently wait your turn and perform solo or with a group and, if you’re lucky, get some applause at the end. This was, on the best of days, and any weekend night really, a chance to get close to the stranger beside you and chat in the language of music, a reunion with other music nerds, and a chance to get all of your energy out for the price of a couple of drinks.
At Betty’s, you didn’t just hear the music, you could feel it, rumbling right beneath you as the pianist took their next request. You could see it—in the face of someone across the room waiting for the first note. After months of going there, I started to recognize the regulars, mixed in with the streams of tourists who often discovered Betty’s as they passed by. Betty’s had become one of my locals just as private karaoke had in Japan.
One of the things that united the customers in song was the lack of a screen with scrolling lyrics that you find at a typical karaoke joint. Someone had to know the song, find the lyrics on their phone, and then share the lyrics with others around the piano. This necessitated getting close to others and relying on them if you wanted to add your musical contribution. Throughout my many visits there, I would watch, transfixed, as the most different-looking people would find common ground in music encouraged by the engaging pianists.
Downstairs at Betty’s plays its final song (for now)
Two days after Thanksgiving, and two weeks after they celebrated their first anniversary, Betty’s opened its doors for their final night. A series of unfortunate events over the previous several months including but not limited to plumbing, maintenance, and endless noise complaints would be all too much for Betty’s to remain open.
It is difficult, these days, to find places where you can truly be as loud as you want to be in big cities. Wild, unhinged expression is supposed to take place, apparently, far away, behind closed doors, and with the proper permits. Betty’s, for those precious months of 2023, became a place where you could be as loud as you wanted to be with strangers who felt exactly the same way and staff who did their best to make you feel like part of the Betty’s family.
Many of the people I brought to Betty’s told me that it was their favorite thing that they did when they visited the city. While I’m sad that Betty’s is no longer right down the street, I am happy to know that it has just moved on to another place and will open again in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, hopefully in 2024.