By David Wondrich
It's a tricky time for bars: are they places to escape reality, or are they places to marvel at how a drink gets made? So, as well as adding to our ever-growing list, we assess the state of things: the bars, the bartenders, the drinkers. Drinking itself.
1. The Woodsman Tavern
You're having: a pint of cask ale, a half dozen raw
The Woodsman Tavern is like a rich man's hunting lodge: rustic but not too rustic and conspicuously well stocked with the good things in life: numerous Belgian beers on tap, cask ales, well-made cocktails, raw oysters and clams, a selection of country hams, carefully chosen wines and spirits. It would almost make you tired-if it weren't all so damn good.
4537 Southeast Division Street; 971-373-8264
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2. Smuggler's Cove
You're having: an Expedition (in the take-home mug)
On the outside, there's nothing-a bland, unmarked storefront on a quiet side street. Inside, there's a wooden pirate ship contorted in such a way that it fits into a concrete cube, with a bar as cockpit, another belowdecks, and a little seating area aloft. The bartender is flailing about like a heavy-metal drummer, desperately beating eight, ten, fourteen ingredients into towering, elaborately garnished concoctions. Strange words fly about-hogo, agricole, solera,orgeat-and the heady perfume of distilled sugarcane fills the air. Tiki. But, of course, you can't wander into Smuggler's Cove by accident. As San Francisco's and perhaps the nation's reigning Tiki bar, it draws a crowd almost every night, and you've got to wait outside until there's space. It's worth the wait. (Tip: If the drinks are too sweet-even the best Tiki drinks, and these are the best, tend to lay on the sugar-it's got one of the world's great sipping-rum collections.)
650 Gough Street; 415-869-1900
3. Noble Experiment
You're having: a Fashionably Late
Should you find yourself in San Diego, as one does from time to time, you could do far worse for dinner than the chefy comfort food at Neighborhood. As you're working your way through your pasilla steak frites or smoked porter-braised short ribs, you might notice that small knots of people are going into a little hallway and not coming out. If you get curious and wander over, all you'll find is a storage area with a wall of beer kegs and not much else. Yet somewhere in there lies the entrance to Noble Experiment. Sure, secret entrances are a bit corny these days, but the bar itself is a square deal. You'll no longer feel like you're in San Diego, but it'll be there when you come out.
777 G Street; 619-888-4713 (Text for a reservation.)
PLUS: THE 15 BEST WHISKEY DRINKS EVER
4. Ship Tavern
You're having: a Johnny Walker Black manhattan. (Order it thus.)
Ship Tavern, tucked away in the historic heap of bricks that is the Brown Palace Hotel, is at that peculiar stage in a fancy joint's life when it wants to be a dive. It's not decrepit per se, but you can feel the gravitational pull of decrepitude. Somehow that's alluring. Maybe it's because that same black hole is pulling on us every single day. In any case, it is very pleasant to drink your (large) cocktails here (stick to the basics) amid the head-scratching, comprehensive nautical decor (in Denver?), which dates back at least to the 1930s.
321 Seventeenth Street; 303-297-3111
Plus: SEX QUESTIONS EVERY MAN HAS
5. Williams & Graham
You're having: an Unrefined Ruffian
Sure, you enter through the bookcase in the little stage-set bookstore out front. That's bound to give the serious drinker pause. But nothing else at this very dark, clubby bar is even remotely whimsical. Williams & Graham is a love letter to the old saloon, but one conceived by a third-generation bartender who knows the difference between playing bartender and really tending bar. Once past the bookcase, there is no pretension here. Just serious cocktails and a way of making time slip away. In other words, a bar.
3160 Tejon Street; 303-997-8886 (Call for a reservation.)
6. The Esquire Tavern
You're having: a tequila old-fashioned
It's the same sad old story: An ancient local dive goes along for decades, a place for us drinking, talking, eating, dancing, cursing, hooking, brawling, spitting, kicking, and suffering humans to forget our old troubles and sometimes get into new ones. It ain't fancy-it ain't even clean. But it's cheap, and it's always, always there. Then some sharpshooter comes along, buys the building, scrubs the place within an inch of its life-"restoring" it-and puts in a chef and a squad of sleeve-gartered mixologists in place of the tamale lady and the crusty old shot-pourers and beer-slingers, and then everything costs double what it did before and the place is full of douchebags. Well, not quite. When Chris Hill, the sharpshooter in question, bought the Esquire Tavern in 2008, it had been shuttered for two years, dragged down by time. Rather than gut it, he restored it, giving it a second shot. There's still the little terrace out on the River Walk, the funky wallpaper (it had to be re-created), the dark wooden booths (mostly rebuilt), and the 100-foot stand-up bar. You can still get a bottle of beer for four dollars, a pint for five, and an impeccably made classic cocktail for nine: more than anything cost at the old Esquire but hardly extortionate. What's more, despite the scrubbing and the painting and the modernization, the Esquire still feels old-still feels like a place where life has been lived. And while I'll concede that everyone's perception of douchebaggery is different, I didn't find many examples at the Esquire.
155 East Commerce Street; 210-222-2521
7. The Cloak Room
You're having: a dry martini
In politics, the cloakroom is the back room congressmen retire to when they want to pick their teeth, put their feet up, check their e-mail, occasionally cut a deal, and sometimes take the edge off. Austin's Cloak Room, a dark, determinedly unfancy cellar full of booze across the street from the Texas Capitol, is mostly about the last one.
1300 Colorado Street; 512-472-9808Esquire
8. Windmill Lounge
You're having: a cheap
Cuba Libre or three
Punk on the jukebox. All-day three-dollar highball specials. Crusty regulars. A "patio" that's basically some picnic tables in a parking lot. Bar snacks. But those snacks-try the chili-are way better than they have to be, as are the drinks. And if a comfortable, friendly dive with a jukebox and serious cocktails doesn't appeal to you, then you have our profoundest sympathies.
5320 Maple Avenue; 214-443-7818
9. Harry's Country Club
Kansas City, Missouri
You're having: a Thomas H. Handy rye on the rocks
It's a busy place, unpretentious but not divey (for that, tell your cabdriver to take you to Davey's Uptown Ramblers Club at 3402 Main Street), with good food (the usual stuff, with a Mexican bent), hand-burned country CDs on the jukebox, an ungodly number of whiskeys, and bartenders who can explain what's in every bottle. They will make you cocktails. They won't, however, make you cocktails with house-infused apple gin, carrot bitters, and mulch. Manhattans and martinis, sure. Probably even a margarita if you ask nice. We talked one of them into making a round of emeralds (an Irish-whiskey manhattan; try it with Paddy's). But that's only because he, like the rest of the bartenders there, is good-humored, game, and patient. Who needs carrot bitters, anyway?
112 East Missouri Avenue; 816-421-3505
Kansas City, Missouri
You're having: a Jackson Co. Democratic Club Cocktail
For a place with all the modern cocktail-bar trappings-back-alley entrance, basement digs, posted rules of deportment, drinks with abundant house-made trimmings, and lots of sherry, mezcal, and obscure Italian amari-Manifesto isn't a place that makes drinkers feel trapped by its trappings. It's lively. Jolly, even. (The entrance is around back in the alley; reservations are recommended.)
1924 Main Street; 816-536-1325
You're having: a sherry cobbler
If you go by the bar that bears his name, E. J. Bellocq, the turn-of-the-last-century New Orleans whorehouse photographer, spent his days as a gentleman of elegant leisure, sipping well-iced sherry cobblers while focusing his camera on lithe, dark-eyed young beauties posed in surroundings as tasteful as they were luxurious. The reality of Mr. Bellocq's existence-well, let's stick with the fantasy. Bellocq the bar makes it all too easy.
936 St. Charles Avenue; 504-962-0911
12. The Aviary
You're having: an In the Rocks
First of all, the Aviary-the bar attached to Next, one of the restaurants of superchef Grant Achatz-isn't a bar per se. There's a bar here of sorts, but a steel cage falls between you and it, and the people working behind the bar have other things to do besides talk to you. Like inject bourbon, sugar, and bitters inside hollow balls of ice or percolate gin through various fresh-picked botanicals. Of course, many of the joys of a normal bar are the lunch-counter pleasures of camaraderie, repartee, and familiarity; for some people, Achatz's bar will have sacrificed too much. But if you're willing to put aside your "This ain't a bar" instincts, an evening at the Aviary can be a blast. The drinks are fascinating and delicious. At the end of the evening, you feel as if you've had a fun night at a top restaurant, only to get this buzzed at one of them would cost you ten times more.
955 West Fulton Market; 312-226-0868
13. The Barrelhouse Flat
You're having: a Boothby Cocktail
Tucked into the no-man's-land between Lincoln Park and Lake View in the vast brick prairie of Chicago's North Side, the Barrelhouse Flat is a new bar that tries very hard to look old, or at least like what a new bar would have looked like in the old days. In that, the bar's not unique, although it does it quite well. Unlike most such places, however, this one specializes not in new drinks with a farm-to-table ethos or in updates on the classics wherein the update consists mostly of replacing tried-and-true ingredients with hit-or-miss ones made in the basement, but in simply making the many classic drinks on its enticing list as good as possible, with minimal ego. As you sip your Holland's Pride (William Schmidt, New York, 1891), Hotel Nacional (Wil P. Taylor, Havana, 1933), or pisco sour (Victor Morris, Lima, 1915), you will thank them for that.
2624 North Lincoln Avenue; 773-857-0421
14. The Libertine
You're having: an Odd Deuteronomy, trotter cakes
Downtown Indianapolis is a strange place: It's clean and safe, and it's got all the things that draw people into a city: stadia, monuments, parks, convention centers, river walks, museums. What it doesn't have is much of anything dark. Or weird. Or off-putting. For that, there's the Libertine, a cocktail bar/restaurant. Whiskey, amari, oysters, rabbit, bone marrow-the bitter, the dark, the strong, the funky.
38 East Washington Street; 317-631-3333
You're having: a pint of Arnold's 1861 Porter
If Arnold's were in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or Boston-somewhere, in short, that people actually visit-it would be world famous. Founded, as it claims, by Simon Arnold in 1861, it's one of the flat-out oldest bars in America (even if, as a session with old Cincinnati city directories suggests, that story might not be 100 percent accurate, the bar is still more than 130 years old). It's also beautiful, with unique woodwork and lots of historical stuff on the walls. But it's in Cincinnati, which means that despite its history and tradition of intelligent, respectful ownership, Arnold's is still primarily a no-bullshit local bar. It's got regulars, traditions, and customs, but at the same time the bartenders are friendly and the regulars are-well, they're not hostile. In other words, thank God it's in Cincinnati.
210 East Eighth Street; 513-421-6234
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