Sometimes, the job of a drinks writer is harder than others. Selecting the best bars in America, for example, is no small task. There are so, so many choices and so many of them have a lot of positives going for them.
But the very best of the bunch are great because they provide a little bit of everything. The space is inviting, the cocktails are incredible, the wine and beer selection is often off the charts, and, quite simply, you never want to leave. Out list is a nice collection of all kinds of watering holes, from newly-devised spots with clever approaches to longstanding joints with a proven reputation.
A mix of established dives, classic watering holes, and ever-promising young lounges, these are the best bars in America.
Too many DC bars appeal to the many people who come to this town to lobby and make deals. Service Bar feels more like a local hangout where you leave politics at the door. You’re instantly at ease in the place and the fried chicken is very good. Better still, the bar specializes in attention-grabbing drinks like the Blood Orange Painkiller or the S.S.S., a mix of shochu, strawberry, Thai basil, sesame soda, and clarified citrus.
Set in a seemingly average spot in North Portland, Tulip Shop Tavern boasts all the hallmarks of a great bar. The beer list is spot-on, the cocktails are beautifully executed (and not over the top), and the food is fantastic, including a stellar burger and the best taco salad we’ve had in a long time. It’s a go-to for industry types and boasts not only one of the greatest bar names in the country, but a near-perfect outdoor patio.
Second locations don’t always work but Attaboy’s Nashville outpost is a lesson in how it’s done properly. The bar has taken its lauded NYC cocktail menu on the road and adapted seamlessly. The space is warm, the drinks are genius, and if there’s any inkling of intimidation the staff will walk you through the process, making sure you land on your new favorite beverage.
This New York sake bar has been at it since 1993. It’s a fantastic venue for a whisky highball or, if you’re feeling saucy, a pitcher of lychee martini, along with great bar snacks. It’s a true original in an ever-changing city, persisting by staying true to its niche and not trying to wow customers with the slickest tile pattern or the trendiest light fixture. In that sense, Decibel is as much a trip back in time as it is where you’ll find some amazing Japanese sakes.
Set in the Arts District of downtown Tulsa, Valkyrie boasts one of the better whiskey lists in all of the land. The bar has impressed for a decade now, having opened in 2011. Visitors and barflies alike can rely on expert service, crafty cocktails that reflect the season, and a gorgeous bar worth gawking at in between sips. If Oklahoma wasn’t on your drinking itinerary before, it should be.
Los Angeles is ripe with imbibing options, from sleek hotel bars to vintage Hollywood hangouts. It’s also home to some of the longest-standing tiki bars, like this gem. Tonga Hut checks all the boxes, from all the requisite kitsch and a sprawling lanai to timeless booths and a classic curvy bar table. With so many years under its belt, the hut has had plenty of time to master all of the classic tiki menu items, from a Mai Tai to a Navy Grog. They even make some bang-up house specialty cocktails, like the Nutty Chi Chi, a Macadamia-minded adaptation of the Piña Colada.
Another Los Angeles watering hole, Wolf & Crane has become a must-visit for anybody in Little Tokyo. It has nestled into its surroundings with a Japanese-inspired menu and a great late-night atmosphere. It’s a vintage bar not in that it’s that old but in that it draws locals who just want to unwind over some great food and drink to the intoxicating sounds of a great playlist or a talented DJ.
Most people would otherwise have little reason to visit Pioneertown, a tiny dot on the map of southern California. The small western bar draws incredible musicians and has carved out a real spot within the iconic drinks culture of the American West. It’s like a 19th-Century saloon with all of the present-day perks. Pappy and Harriet’s doesn’t stay open late but it shouldn’t, as it would be an insult to the resident starry skies of the Morongo Basin.
It would impossible not to include this New Orleans institution, the birthplace of the Sazerac. It’s the best of what hotel bars offer, oozing with class and the history of creating one of the most lionized drinks in all of cocktail land. There’s a quiet majesty to the architecture of the New Orleans bar and you’ll be treated like royalty the moment you walk in. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, it’ll feel like a four-star vacation with all of the amenities.
A few years back, Nye’s reopened, much to the relief of the Twin Cities. It had long been adored, a bizarre fusion of polka, piano bar, and Midwestern niceness. While the newer version is a shadow of its original glory, it still possesses some of the original charm, along with occupying part of the storied original space. This isn’t the place for world-class cocktails or impossible-to-find draft pours. Instead, it simply holds the spirit of a city in a way that’s hard to describe unless you go and overhear stories from those who have been frequenting it since the beginning.
This Maui bar in the sleepy surf town of Paia is also a sushi bar. Go for the various rolls and skewers but stay for the deft cocktails, like Naked & Famous (mezcal, yellow chartreuse, Aperol, lime) or the Mango Pisco Sour. The setting is perfect, as are most in Hawaii, with a dining space beneath a large hau tree, a lovely bar at which you can watch the bartenders and chefs do their thing, and an overall al fresco feels akin to being in your friend’s well-appointed backyard.
The Emerald City is chock-full of stellar bars, from Capitol Hill to Queen Anne. But we can’t quit this Wedgwood haunt, doing its thing in some form or another since the 1930s. It’s simply delightful, with warm staff, creaking floorboards, a handsome tap list, and above-average pizza. It’s the definition of a here-to-stay neighborhood pub, all the more precious as one big city after another gets gentrified and the old bars get bulldozed. It’s a little funky, full of character, and touts an original neon sign worthy of an art gallery.
Even if you haven’t been to this Austin bar you’ve likely seen it in film (most recently in Tarantino’s Death Proof). But to experience its full magic is to belly up to the bar, get a round of margaritas (some of the best we’ve tasted), and settle into some of the best Texas chili on the planet. Set downtown right near the capitol, Texas Chili Parlor has been at it since 1976 and was even a gathering spot for the Mad Dogs, a brainy group of Texan writers, politicians, artists, and more soon after the bar officially opened. Much the same today, the parlor is incredibly homey and a great spot for stiff drinks and loud conversation. It doesn’t even have a website, the sign of a true word-of-mouth gem.
Despite being in the decidedly hip Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, Gramps maintains an old south Florida persona. Its tangerine-colored facade advertises cold beer, cocktails, and air conditioning but patrons are served so much more. On top of tasty pizza and a great patio, the bar flexes its muscles via expertly-made classic cocktails like an Old Fashioned and Penicillin.
Of all the tiki bars in the land, Lost Lake is always in the running for the best. The drinks are meticulously labored over and you can taste the effort. The atmosphere is equally detailed and while the place has been hit with all kinds of strong press, it hasn’t skipped a beat since opening Many bars tout delivering an immersive experience but just as many fall short. Not the case here. It’s the kind of great bar where you’ll both enjoy yourself and come away having learned a new drink or ingredient or two.
A high-brow cocktail befitting of the big city can come in unexpected places, like this stunning college town in western Montana. Here, Plonk pours an impressive array of wines and whips up dreamy cocktails that reflect the rugged surroundings, like a Sage Margarita or an Indian Paintbrush, made with fresh raspberry puree. The happy hour is remarkable, featuring an impressive list of small plate bites and, as you’d expect from a wine bar, tremendous glass pour deals. There’s also a Bozeman outpost should you find yourself in that neck of the woods.
This Atlanta spot self-bills as a cocktail den. It’s an apt title too, as the space is incredibly cozy. The signature cocktail list is mouthwatering, with drinks like the Pretty Gin Fizz, a mix of gin, elderflower liqueur, yuzu soda, and butterfly pea-basil tea. There are man caves, and then there mindfully put-together bars that function with the welcoming nature of a fully decked-out basement. The Parlor is very much the latter.
Alicia Perry’s remarkable outpost in San Diego is a model citizen among even the shortest “best of” lists. Her drinks are always memorable and sipping one beneath the bar’s jaw-dropping atrium makes it all the better. We love a dark bar now and again but it’s also fantastic to take in the opposite. Polite Provisions is bright, drenched in natural light, and a cheery mood that’s quite contagious. Even better, the cocktails are perfect across the board, no matter what the spirit of style in question.
Set in the Valley of the Sun, this bar is an immediate lure in that it’s fashioned out of an old train car. It’s Prohibition-themed and soaked in great drinks, including some 45 vintage cocktail recipes. Oh, and about that railroad car. It’s the presidential box from an old train and it actually runs. Patrons are set up with not only drinks but a gorgeous ride through the mountains aboard this luxurious car. There’s hardly anything else out there quite like Platform 18.
Vegas has roughly infinity places to get your buzz on but sometimes the best route is a stand-up bar with crafty drinks. Velveteen Rabbit offers a bevy of house-made beverages, local artwork, and, as the name practically implies, some enchanting feels thanks to a magical pink patio. The way the staff has dialed in the drink recipes is pure math and chemistry, yielding complex sips you won’t soon forget.
Detroit’s Bad Luck Bar is a sight to behold, built around a centerpiece quartz bar with towering booze-filled shelves. The bartenders are clearly enamored by cocktail culture and eager to take it to the next level, mixing up drinks with experimental house infusions and other less-expected ingredients. Elevated with a bit of molecular gastronomy, this is the place you go for add-ons like chocolate vapor and acid-adjusted grapefruit.
Set in the horse-crazed town of Lexington, Ona used to be a holding zone for a furniture store. Today, the rather inconspicuous spot is the definition of a compelling speakeasy. The feel is very art deco and the pours are both friendly and thoughtfully curated. Better, the bar boasts some hard-to-find rums and some great punches to round out its drinks list.
The ice house is a way of life in south Texas. During pre-refrigeration times, these were necessary neighborhood joints where you could get some frozen water to keep your perishables from perishing. Today, the ones that remain have largely become brilliant barebones bars with frigid beers, open-air seating, and plenty of good times. West Alabama Ice House may just be the best, offering the best environment to cool off, unwind, and get convivial. No bands, drink specials, or fancy cocktails. Just the essentials, and maybe a sports game on the TV. AKA, minimalistic perfection.
This Cambridge bar offers food and drink that are so equally intoxicating that you have to have both. Try outstanding options like the burger, house-made pastas, even chicken-friend rabbit. Drinks-wise, there’s plenty to fall in love with, including sharp-as-a-tack beer and wine lists. But it’s in the cocktail where Alden & Harlow really shows its might, via lovely drinks like the Sunset Bolivar (Singani 63, Montenegro, lime, beet shrub, egg white) and the Papa Manzano (Cognac, papaya cordial, rhubarb).
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