The Best Bars in America 2012

Did your neighborhood watering hole make this year's list of best bars? Find out about America's best drinking spots, from East Coast to West Coast and everywhere in-between (with a special shout-out to Milwaukee, the best town to head to when you're feeling thirsty). As always, the project is guided by David Wondrich: Esquire's drinks correspondent, the world's foremost cocktail historian, and the best drinking partner anyone has ever had.

Koz's Mini Bowl,
What to order: A mini-pitcher of PBR, sack of Porkie's

The bar: Koz's ticks off every box on the neighborhood-bar checklist. Friendly, draws a mixed crowd - by age, race, drinking capacity, music choice - pool table, jukebox, crap on the walls. Pork rinds. All that's just in the front room, though. The back room holds a bowling alley with four half-length lanes. When I walked in, a perfect stranger, the bartender asked me if I wanted to join the league. I did.

2078 South Seventh Street; 414-383-0560

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Bryant's Cocktail LoungeBryant's Cocktail Lounge

Bryant's Cocktail Lounge, Milwaukee

What to order: A brandy old-fashioned, not too sweet

The bar: Bryant's may be the darkest bar in America: Your check comes on a little lighted tray. But if you stay long enough in this 1938-vintage cocktail lounge, drinking its Saint Paddy's Day punch (a secret recipe) or old-fashioneds (made in the traditional Wisconsin style: with brandy, not whiskey) and listening to the 1960s R&B playing on the McIntosh Hi-Fi system, which cost a princely $21,000 in 1971, the last time Bryant's was redecorated, the place will keep getting lighter and lighter until you've got no trouble seeing at all.

1579 South Ninth Street; 414-383-2620

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Swift Hibernation LoungeSwift Hibernation Lounge

Swift Hibernian Lounge, New York City

What to order: A pint of Guiness, a shot of Paddy's
The bar: A few shelves of Irish whiskeys, one of the better pints of Guinness in the city, friendly but not naive bartenders, addictive sliders, various dark, churchy seating areas, and a good crowd - a bit old East Village, a bit college. In other words, it's a minor paradise. Should you go there, try to avoid Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights unless you like your bars rowdy. And if, some quiet afternoon, you happen to find us there - as there's a good chance you will, particularly if it's Tuesday and Swift is running its oyster special (a half dozen raw and a pint of Guinness for $12) - we'll gladly buy you a pint.
34 East Fourth Street; 212-227-9438

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NoMad Hotel BarNoMad Hotel Bar

The Bar at the NoMad Hotel, New York City

What to order: An old Alhambra
The Bar: New York hotels used to be famous for their bars - elegant places where the chemists behind the stick took pride in their mastery. That changed. In recent decades, they've become overdecorated spaces where the bartenders roll their eyes at every order for a mojito yet are incapable of making anything better. Well, that's over. Stand for a second at the entrance to the NoMad's bar and take in all the dark mahogany and leather, the carved elephants that support the shelves of bottles, and the bartenders, backlit like priests at a pagan ritual. There's something wicked about the place, which is as it should be - its neighborhood, back when it hosted most of the city's best hotels, earned the sobriquet "Satan's Circus" for the gambling halls, dance halls, and brothels surrounding the hotels. Then have a drink at the bar. The bartenders are real bartenders, and they turn out the kind of potent classic drink that reminds you which side of the good-and-evil ledger the cocktail belongs on.
[Forewarning: If the bar is at capacity, you will be turned away so as not to make things uncomfortable for the people already drinking there. Go early.]
1170 Broadway; 212-796-1500

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Rob RoyRob Roy

Rob Roy, Seattle

What to order: A rob roy, obviously.
The bar: Rob Roy makes a convincing argument for the 1960s bachelor pad as an alternative to the current model for modern American cocktail bars: the dimly lit, wood-paneled, brass-and-mahogany pre-Prohibition saloon. If there's no wood paneling per se, there's plenty of exposed stone, black leather, and period art, not to mention a turntable with a couple of shelves of vinyl and a working reel-to-reel tape player - every audiophile's dream back in 1969. Add lots of comfortable lounging space, a solid crowd, excellent drinks, and free Goldfish during happy hour, and - well, you'll have a hard time getting us out of there.

2332 Second Avenue; 206-956-8423

Lou's Beer GardenLou's Beer Garden

Lou's Beer Garden, Miami Beach

What to order: A caipirinha
The bar: It's a trick in this town - in a lot of towns, I guess - to get upscale/downscale right.

But a few miles north of the turgid Ocean Drive Lamborghini Parade, where blocks of lonely, crumbling art-deco waterfront wait out the economy, is a place called Lou's.

Tucked behind the three-year-old New Hotel, Lou's has - in no particular order of impressiveness - a towering list of three dozen craft beers, a swimming pool, comfortable white couches, a patio lined with fishtail-palm and pigeon-plum trees, and a shepherd mix named Sammie. The overall vibe is tropical Williamsburg, a depiction sure to piss off both Lou and Brooklyn.

Order a caipirinha and the bartender will suggest something better. Maybe it's getting late; maybe you're supposed to be downtown. You're not going anywhere.
7337 Harding Avenue; 305-704-7879

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Fred's LoungeFred's Lounge

Fred's Lounge, Mamou, Louisiana

What to order: A double crown and seven
The bar: Location: an isolated town of not quite 3,500 people where the median income hovers around the poverty line. Hours: Saturday: 8:00 A.M. to noon. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: closed. In fact, if you don't show up by 8:15 A.M., you won't get a seat. After about 8:45, you'll be lucky to find standing room. If you do manage to get in, odds are you'll be four drinks in by 10:30 or so. That's partly because the drinks are dirt cheap, partly because everybody around you is pounding 'em down as though Saturday morning were Saturday night, and partly because the music just makes you want to drink.

About the music: It's live, it's rowdy, and it's all in French. Fred's, you see, has been hosting its Saturday-morning Cajun-music broadcast since 1962. Back then, that was just another thing the bar did. Now it's all that's left. Fred, who bought the place just after the war, died 20 years back. His ex-wife, Tante Sue, as everyone calls her, still shows up every week, although when we were there she wasn't working her way through the dancing, drinking, hooting and hollering crowd - farmers, LSU boys, oil workers, professors, sorority girls - dispensing shots of cinnamon schnapps, as was her wont, and she didn't sing with the band. She did, however, bring a big cardboard box full of hot boudin (Cajun sausage), which she passed around while wearing her Mardi Gras cape, stitched together with purple Crown Royal bags.
420 Sixth Street; 337-468-541

The Velvet Tango RoomThe Velvet Tango Room

The Velvet Tango Room, Cleveland

What to order: A Negroni
The bar: Perplexed whispers followed the Velvet Tango Room for years after the cocktail bar opened in 1996. For starters, it was hard to find, tucked in an unassuming building in an inner-ring nib of Cleveland between two trendy neighborhoods, a tiny neon sign the only hint that anything was happening inside. Co-owner Paulius Nasvytis waited tables at the city's finest restaurants before purchasing the building for just $35,000 to execute his vision with uncompromising accuracy: a sanctuary of cocktails priced in the mid-teens. It was an incongruous idea in a city that prizes its shot-and-a-beer corner joints. (For the best of those, see Mitzi Jerman's or the Harbor Inn.) He gutted the building and restored an ornate mahogany bar and a beautiful tin ceiling. A baby grand piano provides the background to the low din of conversation. A tiny black-and-white TV plays old movies on mute. The lighting is like looking through the amber haze of a whiskey bottle. The meticulously created scene is meant to bring the focus back to the booze, which is why decorum is as important to Nasvytis as the homemade bitters are. A set of rules are in place: No hats for men, no admittance after 1:00 A.M. (it stays open until 2:30), no T-shirts. A frequently repeated plea: "Only bring friends that you would be comfortable leaving alone in your own home. Or your mother's home."

2095 Columbus Road; 216-241-8869

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Kask, Portland, Oregon
What to order: A glass of the punch of the day
The bar: Kask is an odd little bar with an offbeat, nerdy charm. You can't really call its style contemporary, not with the many odd implements and other tchotchkes lurking on the shelves. But if it's retro, the thing Kask most recalls with its tiny chairs, little low tables, and multiple blackboards isn't so much an old bar as it is your old seventh-grade science classroom. There are worse things to recall. But if middle-school science were as pleasant as squatting at one of the little tables here, sipping one of the slightly offbeat yet moreish cocktails or a five-dollar glass of the punch of the day and picking apart a plate of the charcuterie, much of it made in-house, maybe we'd all be driving moon-rock-powered cars.
1215 SW Alder Street; 503-241-7163

Cat & FiddleCat & Fiddle

Cat & Fiddle, Hollywood

What to order: A pint of Boddington's, Glenlivet Black
The bar: It's been the Cat & Fiddle only since the 1980s, but the building that houses this casual Hollywood pub, with its characteristic broad stucco archway and spacious semi-secluded patio, has been there since 1929, when it opened as the "Spanish Shopping Court" - in other words, a mini-mall. Amusing. In a city that lacks public spaces, a place where you can sit outside under the trees and enjoy the climate with a pint in front of you is precious whatever its provenance.
6530 Sunset Boulevard; 323-468-3800

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Ball & Biscuit Ball & Biscuit

The Ball & Biscuit, Indianapolis

What to order: A sicilian
The bar: It is anachronistically functional: Two square rooms. No television. A co-owner who tends the place himself. The bar is tall and broad. The lounge is populated with club chairs and couches.

The menu features drinks such as a silver gin fizz, though nothing in the Ball & Biscuit gives in to the kitsch of that overhyped fascination with pre-Prohibition drinking. Yes, the bartender will talk cocktails, but he'll also talk Colts. Then he'll rework your drink so that the next round suits you better.

The Ball & Biscuit gives what any great bar can: the sense, illusory or not, of a well-run joint, sweetly lit and smooth-functioning, that has always been there and always will be.

There's nothing new about that.

331 Massachusetts Avenue; 317-636-0539

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The AnvilThe Anvil

Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston

What to order: A black betty

The bar: Craft-cocktail bars tend to form in clusters around a single point of nucleation: one bar that can train the local bartenders how to make real drinks and the local barflies how to appreciate them. In Texas, it's Anvil. Cofounded in 2009 by Bobby Heugel, a young bartender who hadn't so much as visited another craft-cocktail bar, Anvil had the advantage of having to figure everything out for itself. Sure, that's harder at first, but it means you'll end up with a place tailored to its surroundings rather than one based on what somebody else is doing somewhere else.

Anvil is adapted to Houston's no-zoning hodgepodge - it's spare, light, airy, friendly, and it caters to people who like to drink but don't consider the cocktail some sort of emblem. It's got serious beer on tap, too, and a Long Island iced tea on the menu - a monkeyed-with one, to be sure (and far tastier as a result), but still. You won't find a better drink anywhere in America.

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