What Makes a Great Bar?
There’s something special about the term “bar.” It’s something originally American. It’s not a tavern, inn, pub, club, winebar, café, juke, tiki bar, saloon, casino, drafthouse or experimental cocktail lab.
It’s one of the USA’s cultural contributions to the world, like jazz and barbecue.
When the curtain of temperance descended in 1919, America exported not just the concept of the cocktail bar, but some of its best bartenders. In Europe, bars serving cocktails were simply known as American Bars, like Harry’s in Paris and the cocktail bar at the Savoy in London.
The old world sent the beer, wine and spirits and the colonials sent them back shaken, stirred and blended. A combination of shots heard ‘round the world.
With so many great bars across the globe it’s hard to distill why people still flock to some and not others. Why when one famous bar reopens after a hiatus there’s a two-hour line or when a new bar opens it can immediately draw devotees from around the world.
But it’s clear that now is one of the best times in recent memory for the cocktail bar. And with so many choices we offer a few tips on answering the most important of all questions: where are we drinking?
An Alligator Wearing Sunglasses?
Your first steps into the bar should transport you out of the city streets, hotel lobby or hot dog place (in one particular instance).
With our without a greeter, the place should be welcoming and there should be an obvious path to the bar. We prefer to have someone at the door or a friendly welcome from the bar staff. Usually they will ask you where you would like to sit and in most cases sitting at a bar – the longer the better -- is best. (The earlier you arrive, the more choice of seating you’ll have. Drinking at lunch is acceptable in most of the world.)
If you’re on a first date or breaking up with someone, the booths should offer adequate privacy. The best bars will have the innate ability to know exactly when you need that next drink.
As you sit in the bar you’ll get a feel of its character. The character of a bar builds over time, and many great bars have lots of history. The history is reflected in the art, photos of patrons past and present, memorabilia of sports stars, pennants, the architectural style, or simply what the bartender likes to collect. It should feel authentic, not “a whole bunch of crazy crap on the walls,” like Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag.
Drinks and Mortar
Like any business, the vision of a great bar is dictated by the owner. If he or she has a consistent vision, hires the right people and cultivates the right crowd there should be an instant sense of rapport.
Dress codes work for some bars, and music works for others. But the vision should not be based on a gimmick. A bar made entirely of ice is fun for about 10 minutes. A bar that refuses to use anything but ice shards chipped off a glacier is just as tedious. Happy hours are to be avoided, but drinks on the house should be at the bartenders’ discretion.
Bars are social, so it’s important that you can have a conversation. You should never have to shout, nor hear every detail of the life of the person next to you. The staff has a lot more discretion on how to manage this than people think and great bars have people who can judge the mood.
Great bars are a crossroads. Good bars have a good crowd, but in a world-class bar you should be able greet a mix of regulars, tourists, power-brokers, local workers, politicians, the famous, infamous and dedicated drinkers. And the bar should keep its vibe no matter who is there.
Bars that stop dead to fawn over celebrities will never be great. Neither will those that let regulars dictate things like who sits where (saved seats should end at lunch in elementary school). If the bar is small, by all means make a reservation. But you should never have to stand outside waiting to be picked to enter.
Cocktail bars should also be for couples. If Nick and Nora would feel uncomfortable, there’s something wrong. During Prohibition, speakeasies took the place of restaurants, where you couldn’t have a glass of wine with dinner, as where to go for a night out.
And a great customer knows what they do affects the atmosphere as well. They turn up please to be there, not angry. They resolve any problems with good humor and know when on more is too many, for them or their guest. And they leave the laptop at home (unless they are writing an article on what makes a great bar).
Why do drinks come last? In our 20-year tour of great bars, it’s pretty much a given that the drinks are of the highest quality, regardless of style. From the gunslinging molecular mixologist to the hotel bartender serving his 10,000th whiskey sour, the drinks should be consistent, well mixed and full of booze.
What we prefer beyond this is a matter of taste, but generally a small list created by the head bartender (no outside consultants), that reflects the bartenders palette, the locale, the history of the bar and seasonal ingredients is best. Bars with these usually end up with a list that changes throughout the year.
Being true to the bar with the drinks is key. Naming every drink after a famous customer can be going overboard, but ignoring a natural legacy can be worse. The bar at the rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London went with a mojito-heavy cocktail list rather than making any from mead, a MacBeth whiskey cocktail or even a punch called As You Spike It.
And as any serious imbiber knows, food is essential. A full bar menu isn’t necessary. Free canapés are our favorite, but at the very least some hard-boiled eggs will keep you from falling off your stool.
The best thing about a great bar is watching it come to life. It’s about spending time there and finding your favorite time.
"I like bars just after they open for the evening,” Raymond Chandler wrote, via Terry Lennox in “The Long Goodbye.” “I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that's wonderful."
Best Movie Watering Holes
The bar is never the star in a movie, but it’s the best supporting scenery. Much of the time you will see the main characters mixing their own drinks. But when they arrive at the bar, their mannerisms tell you more than the dialogue.
Ordering a drink sets the scene. In a saloon you order a shot with a swagger. In a swanky international bar you’re a desperate world leader that still knows what cognac to order or a suave spy who knows how to order a drink. In a dive bar, you’re a down-and-out artist with a dysfunctional love affair and a love of nameless beer and liquor (and an exceptionally clean bathroom – because this is Hollywood). If you’re at a chain bar, you’re probably getting cash for product placement.
But some bars transcend the stories and direction and make us wish we could have at least one drink there.
Bar: Rick’s Café Americain
The Draw: Everybody comes to Rick’s because a black-market economy is a lot more fun with champagne, caviar, a band, a roulette wheel and lots of white tuxedos.
The Drawbacks: The idealistic owner may suddenly rig the roulette game or sell the bar to the owner of The Blue Parrot and run off with a Frenchman.
What to Order: A French 75. Avoid Victor Laszlo’s habit of ordering a new drink every time and try not to flirt with Sasha to get a shot of the boss’ private stock.
Bar: The Raven
Movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Draw: Sanctioned drinking contests with the owner make Patan the New Orleans of Nepal. Also to acquire the headpiece of the Staff of Ra.
The Drawbacks: The owner loves you, but learned to hate you in the last 10 years and she’s your goddamn partner.
What to Order: Johnny Walker Black. Drink a shot and use the bottle to hit a Nazi.
Bar: Chalmun’s Cantina
Movie: Star Wars, A New Hope
The Draw: The band; more than just a one-hit wonder. Most of the best thugs, bounty-hunters, and pilots can be found here.
The Drawbacks: No droids, no blasters!
What to Order: Play it safe like Luke and order “one of those.” Although, anything with dry ice makes it look like it’s a galaxy far, far away.
Bar: The Midnight Star
The Draw: A bartender whose motto is “is the world don’t fit, make alterations.”
The Drawbacks: High staff turnover from Cobb’s gang shooting managers.
What to Order: The good stuff.
Bar: Nick & Nora’s suite at the Normandy Hotel.
Movie: The Thin Man
The Draw: Nick knows “such lovely people” plus a whole flock of sandwiches.
The Drawbacks: Large extras with big hearts crying and calling their mamma in San Francisco, crooks thanking your husband for putting them away, young women hitting on your better half, and baffled doormen.
What to Order: Five more martinis, drink a rye with Nora or pitch in and help Nick work on a case – of Scotch.
Bar: The Penguin
Movie: Kicking and Screaming
The Draw: A townie bar that lets you start a club called the Cougars and a bartender that drinks to you don’t feel like you’re being poisoned.
The Drawbacks: A piece of chicken wing in your beer and getting drunk before you see your therapist.
What to Order: Anything that looks grown up. Affectations that become habits.
Bar: The Jersey Lily
Movie: The Legend of Judge Roy Bean
The Draw: Lillie was one of the most famous women in the world of her time. Her iconic representation appeared in Sherlock Holmes, she was the first women to order the famous mutton chop in Keen’s in NY and she dined at Rules in secret with the Prince of Wales. A pioneer, a beauty, and apparently on the stage.
The Drawbacks: An 80 percent likelihood of getting hanged in Langtry, Texas.
What to Order: Anything, as long as you toast Ms. Langtry.
Bar: The Swamp
The Draw: The still and the doctors to deal with the effects.
The Drawbacks: Frank Burns has gone nuts! I’m wearing glasses for God’s sake.
What to Order: A very accommodating martini, quite dry, but bring your own olives.
Bar: Pennan Inn
Movie: Local Hero
The Draw: Like every other story of a journey to the old country; warm welcome, lukewarm beer, the Northern Lights and web-footed women.
The Drawbacks: They know what you are up to.
What to Order: Whiskey with a beer chaser.
Bar: Shenandoah Club
Movie: Miller’s Crossing
The Draw: Great bartender, betting tips, police protection and easy access to make a scene in the Ladies’ Room.
The Drawbacks: The cops raiding it once Caspar takes control.
What to Order: With the paint they sell at the club, anything that doesn’t make the person next to you go blind.