The Best New…Brandy
THE BEST BARS IN AMERICA, 2019
Twenty-Seven Places to Grab a Mighty Beverage
Bars in America are changing, and we believe that’s a good thing. Macho posturing and mixologist preening are on the way out. Wine bars are on the rise, and so are alcohol-free options. The watering holes that we honor here, on our annual list, are the ones that we think do the best job of deepening a sense of community and making everyone feel at home . . . while also pouring exactly what you need. —Jeff Gordinier
Ludlow Liquors practically telegraphs “We don’t take ourselves too seriously”—you can order french fries with ice cream and gravy. But look more closely and you’ll see that it specializes in subtle innovations, from the option of ordering each cocktail in a $5 elfin size to the food menu full of delicious, Filipino-inspired grub. Ambitious but unpretentious—that’s the Chicago way. Drink this: Go tropical and try the Escapist. 2959 North California Avenue —J. G.
THE BEST NEW STAPLES
OLD FORESTER RYE
A luscious rice vodka from Japan ($28) and a new rye with bite ($23) represent some serious bang for buck.
We peer with skepticism at the idea that local bars can be transplanted into new cities. But the Colorado spin-off of Death & Co is a successful exception. Instead of replicating the gloom of the original D&C (which is practically a registered landmark of New York’s East Village), it occupies Denver’s Ramble Hotel, with a Mountain Time Zone mind-set of its own. Sunshine (yes, sunshine!) streams in through the long windows. The cocktails make complexity feel breezy. Drink this: The martini-like Telegraph, with its lipstick traces of pear and eucalyptus. 1280 25th Street —J. G.
MAXINE’S TAP ROOM
In 1950, 24-year-old Maxine Miller borrowed $10,000 from her parents and opened the bar she’d preside over for the next 50 years. She became a surrogate mom to generations of college students missing their own mothers though perhaps not all mothers dispense advice from a stool in reach of a wooden club in case of a bar fight. She’s gone on to that cocktail lounge in the sky, but the bar has been taken over by another business-savvy woman. Her thoughtful remodel retains a pay phone with a recording of Maxine’s last call: “May I have your attention, please! You have ten minutes to drink, then get the hell out!” Drink this: A retro cocktail. 107 North Block Avenue —Beth Ann Fennelly
BAR LEATHER APRON
When you’re done with syrupy slush in Waikiki, this place that first appears to be a tax office playing jazz music is where to set your drinking straight once again. Bartender/co-owner Justin Park and his team can conjure cocktails with ungimmicky nods to the island’s diaspora: Think a negroni with coconut-washed Campari or a matcha old-fashioned. Drink this: The E Ho‘o Pau Mai Tai, the most serious one on the island. 745 Fort Street, Suite 127A —Kevin Sintumuang
BETTER LUCK TOMORROW
Sometimes we go to a bar to nurse a drink and unwind in arcadian solitude. Better Luck Tomorrow is not that bar. A colorful, high-energy collaboration between cocktail guru Bobby Heugel and chef Justin Yu, BLT can be characterized by Yu’s remonikered version of a patty melt. Here it’s called the party melt. Devour that and some fried chicken, then buy a round of drinks for the clustered revelers who are about to become your lifelong friends. What you’re having: Battle thirst and heat with a Salty Cat, a spin on a Salty Dog with a bouquet of gin instead of vodka and a clump of gummy candy on a toothpick. 544 Yale Street —J. G.
KINGSTON NEW YORK
BRUNETTE WINE BAR
The secret to a great bar is charm, but charm in bars (as in people) can be mercurial. At Brunette, it’s undeniable—Jamie and Tracy Kennard’s @accidentallywesanderson wine sanctuary overflows with Catskills-hygge charm. Brunette’s trout-roe nachos (with orangey caviar on top of crème fraiche and kettle chips) act as a salty-creamy come-hither, beckoning you to order another round of cider or wine. Drink this: If you’ve never tried a chardonnay from the Czech Republic, now is your chance. 33 Broadway —J. G.
THE BEST NEW . . . BRANDY?
A high-quality California-made brandy ($45) that’s crafted (and priced) specifically for cocktails. A great excuse to rediscover the sidecar and the vieux carré.
HERE AND NOW
This Arts District hangout is like a bar car en route to party town—let the staffers be your stewards for a chill night. All feel welcome whether rolling solo or entourage deep, ready for a punch served in a vintage suitcase. Ultimately, everyone migrates to the patio overlooking the L. A. metro’s train yard. The end of the line is a pretty cool destination. What you’re having:The pistachio daiquiri. 300 South Santa Fe Avenue —K. S.
Walk into the Imperial Western Beer Co. in Union Station and, sure, have a cold one, but don’t ignore the noirish lounge on the left. This is the Streamliner, from the folks behind downtown’s OG cocktail den, Varnish. It opens at 4:47, to give you time to down a dirty martini before the 5:00 train. It’s only . . . $8? Catch a later train. Drink this: The slushy-like whiskey sour. 800 North Alameda Street —K. S.
Tucked inside a former Eagle Rock plumber’s shop, Walt’s Bar is that essential neighborhood hang that makes life bearable. There’s a taxidermic raccoon side-eyeing the bar and a piping-hot German pretzel roughly the size of your head. And, best of all, vintage pinball machines. What you’re having: Local beer or natural wine. 4680 Eagle Rock Boulevard —Emily Poenisch
LE SIRENUSE CHAMPAGNE BAR AT THE SURF CLUB
Le Sirenuse nails that no-expense-spared, seaside-glamour experience. Soaring vaulted ceilings, lots of brass, and brilliant white-jacketed and bow-tied bartenders amount to classiness with a soul in a place that combines the legendary histories of Miami’s Surf Club hotel and Italy’s Positano resort of the same name. What you’re having: The Mare, a dirty-martini riff. 9011 Collins Avenue —K. S.
BACK BAR AT YOUNG JONI
This back bar with a super-chill basement vibe is like the after-after party, when the host opens up his secret stash. The tunes spinning on a reel-to-reel and your deftly made drink command all of your attention. What you’re having: Their daily special. 165 13th Avenue NE —Jason Tesauro
See the way the woman behind the bar is throwing a drink from shaker to shaker, arms raised high? There’s more than snapshot-baiting spectacle behind that. At this snug shrine to all things Cuban, they make a Presidente as if Hemingway had never died. Even frozen cocktails are crafted with care by bartenders monitoring their viscosity. Drinks are strong, but the mood is mellow. What you’re having: A Hurricane, naturally. 508 Dumaine Street —J. G.
THE BEST NEW SIPPER
HAMPDEN ESTATE PURE SINGLE JAMAICAN RUM
An epic and terroir-wild bottle ($55) from a legendary distillery that finally decided to release an aged rum under its own label.
It’s self-described as a Japanese-American bar, but it’s pretty much all party here. Katana Kitten is less a precious and precise Ginza cocktail bar—although drinks like the Hinoki martini are definitely of that caliber—and more a salaryman highball joint you’d find near Tokyo Station, draped in a seedy red light. Grab some whiskey highballs, order up katsu sandos, and settle in for the night as friends come through. What you’re having: The Toki Highball—crisp, cold effervescence right from the tap. 531 Hudson Street —K. S.
The bartenders wear mechanic work shirts with faux names like Destiny. Don’t be fooled by this cheeky casualness. These are big-deal drinks with no-big-deal approachability, despite the Chef’s Table–caliber list of ingredients like fermented habanero and tomato dashi. If the Big Mac mural across the street gets you craving, Mister P.’s got you covered—a burger with bacon-infused cheese, anyone? Drink this: The Dr. Angel Face, another elevated dirty martini. 105 First Avenue —K. S.
Beyond a dark curtain in the Pod hotel, away from the tourist scrum of Times Square, is a tropical wonderland that is not so much pirate kitsch as it is lobby lounge of a South Seas resort. This is the rum-fueled vision of head bartender/co-owner Brian Miller and Major Food Group (Carbone, the Pool), whose MO is grand fantasy. There are the perfected classics, like the piña colada made with fresh pineapple and a bigger streak of rum flavor than you’d find at an all-inclusive, and tiki-genre boundary pushers, like the Martiniki, a gorgeous, martini-esque mix of rum and gin. It all adds up to island-style fun in the city. Drink this: The Derelict. 400 West 42nd Street —K. S.
Ruffian, an unfussy, equestrian-themed joint about the size of a stable on Seventh Street in the East Village, captures the spirit of the trailblazing vin vivant hubs in Europe. Which is to say it’s a laid-back place to drink some natural wine and eat some snacks with friends. There’s something post-collegiate about the atmosphere: Food is cooked on a hot plate, and bottles fall under categories like “sativa” and “indica,” presumably so stoners will know what to expect. Drink this: Orange wine. 125 East Seventh Street —J. G.
CDP—kitchenese for chef de partie, the chef’s right-hand (wo)man—has equal reverence for food and beverage, which translates to a fun and refined night out. It is the successor to chef James Syhabout’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Commis, just next door. While the cocktails are next-level, CDP has a particular affinity for grape-based spirits from France, perhaps the noblest efforts in a bottle. What you’re having: The Dudognon Reserve cognac. 3861 Piedmont Avenue —Stephen Satterfield
PALM SPRINGS CALIFORNIA
THE CASABLANCA LOUNGE AT MELVYN’S
The last time I was here, a drunk lady was heckling the piano player. I was in heaven. The joint has since been “restored,” but don’t let that scare you off. Housed in the Ingleside Inn, at what used to be the Variety-by-the-pool winter getaway for everyone from Howard Hughes to Salvador Dalí, the low-desert piano bar still comes across as a sort of classy-sleazy Botoxed cabaret where you might guzzle ice-cold Stoli and listen to Burt Bacharach chestnuts hours before an asteroid obliterates the planet. What you’re having: Don’t get fancy, buster. Avoid confusion and ask for a dirty martini. 200 West Ramon Road —J. G.
HOP SING LAUNDROMAT
Yes, the strict door protocol at Hop Sing (after you ring a buzzer by an unmarked grate in Chinatown) seems designed to annoy. But we have been inside owner Lê’s hidden palace of bibulous delights, and we can assure you that it represents a gold standard of elegant sipping. What you’re having: The Henry “Box” Brown (named after a slave who escaped to freedom by mailing himself from Virginia to Philadelphia in a crate) is a miracle of freshly pressed red grape juice and aged rum. 1029 Race Street —J. G.
When you tire of minimalism, you crave the Marie Kondo—thwarting pleasure of maximalism: an aesthetic of plush overstuffedness that you associate with record stores and the libraries of Oxford dons. Expatriate excels in that realm of scattershot provenance and bohemian luxury. What you’re having: The Kangaroo, a martini-style drink with a kick. 5424 NE 30th Avenue —J. G.
RAISED BY WOLVES
Sit by the fireplace in the mall liquor store. The wall rotates. You are now in what looks like an oil baron’s fever dream of a grand bar: fountain, thrones, velvet. It’s not all theater—the drinks have that luxe je ne sais quoi, too. Drops of Laphroaig poke through in a beet cocktail. There’s a breeze of coconut in an Irish-whiskey drink. When you leave, the blinding lights of an Apple store shock you back to reality. What was that? Can we go back? 4301 La Jolla Village Drive —K. S.
THE LINDEN ROOM
The Linden Room is a refuge. Pinched pearl-in-oyster-ishly at the back of Nightbird, where chef Kim Alter runs the kitchen, this eight-chaired cocktail pocket has the feel of a fortuitous afterthought. But Alter applies high standards to every sip, personally juicing fruit by hand in the mornings. What you’re having: Look for anything made with what’s fresh and in season. 292 Linden Street —J. G.
PACIFIC COCKTAIL HAVEN
Your negroni has a caramel undercurrent that comes from pandan cordial. Your Thrilla in Manila delivers the citrus snap of calamansi. Thanks to visionary Kevin Diedrich, who was born in the Philippines, PCH’s menu is abloom with shiso and coconut, Thai tea and lychee. What you’re having: The Leeward Negroni, in which an Italian count wanders through the tropics. 580 Sutter Street —J. G.
You are in the shadow of the Transamerica building, but it might as well be Bar Brutal in Barcelona. Verjus, from chef Michael Tusk and beverage director Matt Cirne of Quince, brings a decidedly European hybrid, the wine shop/bar concept, stateside. Decadent conservas, house-made pâté and sausages, and natural wines = the good life. What you’re having: A pét-nat, first. 528 Washington Street —K. S.
LUCINDA GRAIN BAR
“As far back as 800 B.C., the first distilled beverages were being made from grains and cereals,” says the Lucinda website. “This was the beginning of what we know of as alcoholic beverages.” Hey, when he opens a new place, Edouardo Jordan likes to go deep. The chef behind Seattle’s award-stockpiling JuneBaby has a knack for providing warm hospitality that happens to include an ameliorative dose of education. Yes, you will drink and eat very well at Lucinda Grain Bar, but you might also accidentally learn something. What you’re having: A rhubarb daiquiri. 2120 NE 65th Street —J. G.
DRINK OF THE YEAR
THE (UPGRADED) DIRTY MARTINI
To purists, it’s a martini that has been sullied by cheap olive brine. To its increasing number of bartender-admirers, it’s a canvas for boozy umami masterpieces like the Mare from Le Sirenuse or the olive-infused vodka number from the Streamliner (shown here).
WASHINGTON, D. C.
I started off at the fire pits with a sparkling wine from Brazil, and things got even more esoteric from there. More than 50 wines are available by the glass at this neighborhoody bar, all temperature-controlled in different zones, and you can have them in a half pour, so go ahead, get that Bolivian red. What you’re having: A flight. Brent Kroll and his fellow sommeliers know how to pull together some glasses that will surprise even the most jaded. 1336 Ninth Street NW —K. S.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS WEST VIRGINIA
THE GREENBRIER LOBBY BAR
Walking into the Greenbrier’s lobby is kind of like having the world’s most civilized hallucination: The iconic Dorothy Draper interior—a supersized riot of flowers, stripes, checkerboard marble, zebra, and shocking pink—is breathtaking. You’ll need a drink, and you’ll get one at the tufted, forest-green horseshoe that is the Lobby Bar. Try a perfectly mixed Signature Bloody Mary or a Greenbrier 1808 White Sulphur Julep that, like everything else about this southern institution, is deliciously classic and over-the-top all at once. 300 West Main Street —Sadie Stein
Originally published at https://classic.esquire.com/article/2019/6/1/the-best-bars-in-america-2019