I have a deep and abiding love of bars of all stripes, in all of their grit and glory. My enthusiasm is equally robust for low-rent bars (Specs' in San Francisco, The Pacific Inn Pub in Seattle) as it is for posh hotel bars (Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, The Sazerac Bar in New Orleans' Roosevelt Hotel) and everything in between.
One type is not "better" than another; to get the full experience, you have to commit to taking advantage of what each place has to offer. I drink an Old Fashioned at Clover Club in Brooklyn, and drink Coronas while eating $1 tacos on the porch at The Sire in Riverside, California. I love both places for very different reasons; the only thing they have in common is that they have successfully crossed the boundary that separates places that merely sell drinks from what can generally be termed a good bar.
So how can you recognize if you are in one of these magical places? Here are a few things I look for in a bar that makes me think, "This is a great joint," and some examples of places that I've found in my travels.
Who goes there, and why? How do people interact with the bartender? With each other? If the bar is full of people who clearly know the place well, chances are it is the center of a strong community. This usually means that the people are loyal to the bar, and the bar is loyal to its people, which is a very good sign. The sadly defunct Liquor Store Bar in Tribeca was a perfect example of this. The Old Brogue in Northern Virginia is another.
Anyone can sign a lease, apply for a liquor license, and open their doors. What distinguishes really good places from those that are drab and ordinary is often a passion on the part of the owners or staff for something very specific. Maybe there are 40 beers on tap. Maybe the jukebox is stocked with every British Guitar Pop band from 1960 to 1980. Maybe they offer every expression from every distillery on Islay.
It takes real bravery and an honest love to tie the success of your bar to the public's interest in whatever your passion happens to be, which can make the experience of going to these places special for regulars and strangers alike. I was once in a bar called La Boheme Tavern in Seattle where they would immediately turn off the music if someone, anyone, pulled out a harmonica. I was told, "You can always rock a harp at The Bo." Brilliant.
Historic places like The Blue Bar in the Algonquin Hotel in New York feel special because of the people, like Dorothy Parker, who used to frequent them. Unique places like The Bigfoot Lodge in Glendale, CA (with its "Smokey the Bear" theme) or The Chart Room in New Orleans (which is so dark you can't read the bottles behind the bar) are just bizarre enough to feel like a blacksmith's puzzle that needs to be figured out.
Visionary spots like Preux & Proper in Los Angeles and Macao Trading Company in New York will humble you with their scope, beauty, and attention to detail. Atmosphere can come from something as simple as a really cool lamp or something as grandiose as a thirty-foot mural of the Absinthe Fairy.
4. OVERALL EXECUTION
My favorite bars are distinguished by the fact that they do a lot of things very well. Great music, good vibe, delicious cocktails, friendly service, cool room, great graphics. These multifaceted spots are places I think of as the rock stars of the bar world—they are able to be many things to many people.
Employees Only in New York is a gorgeous room with great spirits, but most importantly, they know how to show people a really good time. Rye in San Francisco, Royal in Hollywood, and Cure in New Orleans are places that get almost everything right. Sometimes you walk out of a bar at the end of the night and think nothing more than, "That was really cool." Cherish these joints, if you find one.
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