My Year in Bars
Our columnist looks back on the previous year and the top spots where he drank around the globe.
Between 2006 and 2016, I was largely responsible for picking Esquire magazine’s annual crop of best bars—not the best new bars, but rather each year’s inductees for their list of the best drinking places in America, no matter what kind, from a brand-new cocktail temple to a decrepit old dive. As far as jobs go, it was fun, I suppose, but it did involve an awful lot of hanging around in bars; of awkward-tasting “craft cocktails,” shots of mediocre bar whiskey and pints of corn-sweet American lager; of wandering the darkling streets of strange cities, seeking out pools of light and congenial company wherever they might lie.
I’m not fooling anybody, am I? You’re right. There was no downside to the job.
But I parted ways with Esquire in 2016 and Best Bars is no longer my beat. And yet I still pick them. Every time I belly up to a new bar—and thumbing through my calendar for the recently-expired and justly unloved 2018, that seems to happen with remarkable frequency—I run it through a little checklist I keep in my brain. Am I comfortable here? Do the bartenders seem to hate their lives? (Looking for a “no” on that one.) If I send my friends here will they think I’m losing it? (Another “no.”) A few other simple questions. Nothing technical or too arcane: I don’t care if they can’t make a French Mystique or how hazy their IPA is; I can mix drinks and buy beer. What I can’t do is turn my house into a time-out from my day-to-day worries.
If the bar checks all the right boxes, it goes into my little black book. Seriously—I keep a notebook of these things. Here, then, are the bars I added to the book in the past year. Every one of them made the world, or at least the tiny bit of it that goes with me wherever I go, a friendlier, warmer, and far more pleasant place. I’ll start in California and work my way East.
Before the tech takeover, San Francisco used to be known for the eccentricity of its cocktail lounges. At this dive in the Mission, that still holds true. Instead of a sink and a rack or two of bottles, behind the last station at the end of the bar there is a built-in Hammond B-3 electric organ, the kind that will, with the right player, lay down a seabed of bubbling funk. The Royal Cuckoo has got the right player. Plus, there’s often a tenor sax to wash over the organ. When the musicians are off, the bartenders pull vinyl from the racks behind the bar. House cocktails ping-pong between the interesting and the odd, but there’s plenty of other stuff to drink.
And while you’re there, Taqueria Can Cún, across the street, is damn serious, and cheap. Los Panchos, the Salvadorian pupuseria next door, is fine as well.
Los Angeles has always been weird country for bars. There are lots of prominent, well-publicized destination joints, lavishly designed and packed with the well-dressed and good-looking, but where the bartenders will fuck up something so simple as a Manhattan and, unless your name is Emma Stone or Donald Glover, are always looking past you to the next customer, in hope that it’ll be someone you’re not. Then there are the screenwriters’ joints, carefully curated pseudo-dives where the less well-presenting can get their Bukowski on, without actually going full Bukowski.
But Los Angeles is big—ungodly so—and tucked in on side streets and out-of-the-way mini-malls there are lots of places for real people; places without pretension, where they follow their oddball enthusiasms and welcome anyone who’s curious. One of those is the cozy, low-key 1642 Bar, on a nondescript street on the edge of the nondescript neighborhood of Westlake, just south of the very descript Silverlake. 1642 doesn’t serve drinks with mezcal, obscure amaros or house-made nut milks. In fact, it doesn’t serve cocktails at all: beer and wine only. Both are well-chosen, but not to the point of geekiness. Where that comes in is the music. Many bars have live music, but live ragtime cutting contests, where machinegun-fingered young ragtime prodigies try to top each other at fiending out on the piano, are as uncommon as they are a gas to watch. Ragtime began as saloon music, and it’s nice to see it back.
I don’t usually hang out in wine bars. I think I might be too coarse to fully appreciate them. And to be honest, my first drink in this one, clean and elegant and sort of 1950s-modern, was a New York Sour, a drink that only has a little wine in it, floating on top where you can keep an eye on it. The rest is mostly good rye whiskey and fresh lemon juice. But I did get to the wine, which they make easy here. While the wine list is as boutiquey and interesting a one as you’ll find in a similar place in New York or San Francisco, the staff are so friendly and unpretentious that you feel like you’re getting away with something. I hope the Guild of Master Sommeliers doesn’t find out about them.
The Homy Inn has wine, too—and it’s got bubbles! On tap! They call it “champagne,” but it comes in four flavors—sweet, dry, peach, strawberry—and I suspect the closest it got to France was someone once said “oui, oui” to it. But it comes out of the taps next to the beer and, if you’re not a pinky-lifter, is kinda fun to drink. Have a whiskey on the side, of course. The bar is a classic 1950s-vintage neighborhood joint and, despite its quirky taste in tap beverages, is as down to earth as they come. When I was in it was with Dale DeGroff, the godfather of modern American bartenders, within ten minutes the lady behind the bar had him back there serving himself. Not because his name was Dale DeGroff—it might as well have been Rushworth Plushington III as far as anyone there knew, or cared—but because he was Dale DeGroff. She took one look at him and knew he belonged there.
Most modern “speakeasies” are dark, murky places. But go up the stairs at the back of the perfectly pleasant Solera and you’ll find the exception. With windows on three sides of its old brick commercial building, including behind the bar, the Cheshire is wide open to the gorgeous light that characterizes the long, lovely summer evenings Rochester hands you in return for all those cataclysmic lake-effect snows in winter. The room is spare and unfussy, the cocktails are according to Hoyle, and you’re not drinking in a basement. Nicely done.
There used to be a pack of excellent, low-key dive bars within a five-minute walk of Sweet Polly, including such legendary haunts as Freddy’s, O’Connor’s, and Hank’s. Freddy’s was torn down and replaced by a basketball arena (a version reopened a mile and a half away, which in neighborhood terms might as well be in Hamburg).
O’Connor’s was gutted and replaced by a sports bar to serve the arena customers. Hank’s closed just a few days ago (it opened in 1903, under a different name) and its tumbledown old building is going to be replaced by condos. None of that is good.
On the other hand, the same general part of Brooklyn is packed with excellent new cocktail bars. Stacking yourself up against such bar-world legends as Clover Club, Long Island Bar and Grand Army isn’t easy, but Sweet Polly manages to do its own thing without making that thing too weird, and the result is a small, intimate bar with excellent drinks and good music. I wonder if Hank’s started off that way.
Before Hurricane Maria, Old San Juan was perhaps the most picturesque town in America or its territories, and it normally gets a hell of a lot of tourists. And—guess what—it still is: back in the 1500s, the Spanish built their cities to last. It’s also a fine place to drink, if you know where. Most of the bars there cater to the cruise-ship trade, which means air conditioning and Bud Light and widescreen sports TV, just like in Dubuque, with the occasional Piña Colada or blender Strawberry Daiquiri to give a sense of place. Fortunately, that sort of pandering enables La Factoria to hide in plain sight, right there on Calle San Sebastian, where all the bars are. A beat-up old café, long windows open to the street, it doesn’t look like much and tourists tend to pass it by. But the relaxed young crew of bartenders who took over this old neighborhood joint know everything about making cocktails, and if you go through the door behind the bar there is a string of other bars, one after the other, taking you deep into the bowels of the ancient stone building: live Afro-Latin music, dark, secluded rooms to chat in, an old bodega, who knows. You might never find your way out—nor will you want to.
Back in my Esquire days, they rather insisted that I confine my best-barsing to the United States. But such things as airplanes exist and a significant number of the bars that stick with me at the end of each year lie across our borders.
By rights, Scarfe’s Bar shouldn’t be on this list, since it’s just the sort of place I normally avoid: glossy and expensive, even luxurious. I’m not a banker and I don’t know how to comport myself in their presence. And yet Scarfe’s, named after the caricaturist Gerald Scarfe, whose work oversees the large, busy room and decorates and inspires the drinks list, manages to be all of those things, plus warm and pleasant and abuzz with lively talk, at least when the jazz combo isn’t doing its thing. As a place to experience that old London-is-the-center-of-the-known-universe feeling, it’s tough to beat.
It is one of the quirks of cocktail history that Spain, not a country most Americans think of as a haven of cocktail-guzzlers, boasts of (or at least can boast of) an impressive array of cocktail bars, including quite a number of historic “American bars”—that is, the Yanqui-style cocktail bars that spread around the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, on one block in Madrid there are three: the legendary, if now a bit unfocused, Museo Chicote (opened 1931), the unfortunately-named but gorgeous Bar Cock (1921) and Del Diego. (There’s also the new Gin Club, which is not bad.)
Del Diego actually opened only in 1992, but Fernando Del Diego, its owner, was one of Madrid’s veteran barmen with a career stretching back to the 1960s, when he worked at the Museo Chicote. The bar he built recalls New York’s Soho in the 1970s—open, airy, lots of blonde wood, while the service and mixology are entirely classic (this is far better than the reverse; classic design with Long Island Iced Teas and Kamikazes, which is what you get in all too many old bars elsewhere). Since Fernando’s death in 2016, his sons have carried on, in the same classic style. This is one of those bars that are difficult to leave.
Sicily used to be rather rough country for the bar-obsessed traveler. Outside of the big tourist spots such as Taormina, bars and cafes mostly catered strictly to the locals and didn’t extend themselves much in the way of hospitality. The last few years, however, seem to have brought a new energy to Palermo and Catania, the island’s major cities, and a raft of good new bars, from the state-of-the-art modern craft-cocktail joints such as Bocum Mixology in Palermo to more rough-and-ready hipster joints such as Vermut, in Catania. Needless to say, this being Sicily, setting aside the drinks, these places will also feed you, and feed you exceedingly well (the various salumi made from the local Nebrodi pigs at Vermut are worth the cost of the flight alone).
That said, the tiny, lovely old Piccadilly Bar, in the pedestrian zone that occupies the most beautiful parts of the old town in Trapani, at the island’s western point, is the bar that really sticks with me. Opened in the early 1900s, it’s a genuine survivor of the first wave of American bars. But it’s difficult to imagine a less fruitful environment for American-style serious cocktail drinking than a small city in Western Sicily. Sicilians aren’t big on standing at the bar and slugging down cocktails for an evening. And yet the bar survived, its décor intact. It’s probably best experienced as most people do, by having your evening aperitivo at one of the tables out front, but if you do, make sure to poke around inside.