“When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.”
— Charles Bukowski, Factotum
Bars are wonderful places to visit, particularly when traveling around the world. It’s where I’ve made friends and tasted the local flavors while enjoying the atmosphere of a destination.
But what makes a bar special? Why would I recommend a place? I go to bars for different reasons — it depends on whether I’m staying in an area long term or there on a vacation.
There’s now a list of the World’s 50 Best Bars, compiled in a survey of drinks writers, bartenders, and “cocktail aficionados.” You could replace all three categories with “pretentious drinkers.”
I have not been to a single bar on the list. I haven’t even been to any of the top 50 in Asia (granted all the ones in Taipei opened after I left). But judging from photos and descriptions, I wouldn’t be overly enthusiastic about any of these bars. I might, however, put them on a travel list as I stop in for one drink. They may have great cocktails and interesting decor, but that’s not what attracts me to bars so often (alright, sometimes it does).
A Bar with History
I enjoy having a drink with a story. Historic sites make the drink more interesting, so I’m willing to check out places that have a good story. It’s the only reason to have a Singapore sling at the Raffles Hotel bar — the drink isn’t great and it’s overpriced, but you get to tell people you had the cocktail at its birthplace while littering the floor with peanut shells.
It’s a similar reason for enjoying a beer or two at McSorley’s in Manhattan — it’s a dingy bar with limited choices for beer, but it’s got a lot of history on the walls. It’s filthy too. It’s practically a tourist attraction.
The best experience I had at a bar with a history was Off the Record in Washington, DC. It’s an elegant hotel bar a block away from the White House that has been a destination for journalists and politicians (though not so much anymore). They have wonderful drinks, but it’s a bit too pricey for me to go back, though I enjoyed the Trumpy Sour.
A Bar with Eclectic Taste
I love design. It doesn’t have to be beautiful modern or classical design — it should be something that stands out. The KFC speakeasy in Tokyo would fit the bill here. There’s nothing better than telling people that you got drunk at a KFC.
Eclectic taste might also come from the music of choice, which is why I ended up at a friendly punk rock bar in Mexico City on my way back to my hotel. I was curious about punk music in Mexico and they were playing The Misfits as I walked in; How could I not order a beer when cheesy New Jersey punk is playing?
There was also Druggists in Singapore. I ended up there for three reasons: it was near my hostel, it had a large beer selection, and it was set in what used to be a Chinese pharmacy. It’s a cool little space with interesting decor, and there were friendly locals and staff, which convinced me to go back for a second night.
And then there was my local bar in suburban Tokyo. It was billed as an American bar, but there was little American about it — it did have a wide selection of bourbon that no one seemed to order though. And they played some of the worst music from the ’70s and ’80s (I mean that the songs were never popular but sounded vaguely like more popular songs from the era). But it was a comfortable bar where I could meet regular patrons and have a conversation.
A Bar with Great Bartenders
A great bartender isn’t just someone who has the technical know-how to make an amazing drink. A great bartender is personable and makes customers feel welcome (or oddly unwelcome as the case may be).
When I studied in London, there was a little Kiwi pub down the street from my flat — it was so small that if there were 10 people all the seats were taken. The bartenders (and owner) were rude, but it was all in jest. If a customer could put up with the jokes and rude remarks, they became friendly. There were even two other American expats who frequented the pub — we all put up with a lot of comments about the presidential election in 2000.
In Jersey City I’ve grown accustomed to Barcade — it was a novelty to have the old school arcade games along with a great selection of beer, but the arcade games don’t attract me anymore. I still go to Barcade because I’ve gotten to know the bartenders, just as I had when they first opened, which means I’m treated better than the people who come in once and likely don’t return for months. I also know which bartenders to ask for recommendations.
Despite not staying an extended time in Perugia, I found the local bar Dempsey’s to be the best in town. Other options were more club like or just restaurants. Dempsey’s, owned by an American guy, was a tiny space covered in bad graffiti with a nice selection of drinks right on the public square. It allowed customers to take their drinks into the street to sit with all the other evening drinkers around the fountain (I preferred to stay in the bar to enjoy my drinks in a glass rather than a plastic cup). You can also find my name on the wall (actually, I swear I did not write on the wall, but someone named Matt from New Jersey was apparently there at the same time).
It’s the reason I kept going to There Bistro in New Taipei; not only was it the nearest bar to home, but it was beyond friendly. When they first opened, the drink selection was lacking and Vito didn’t know much about making cocktails. He became a terrific bartender by the time I left Taiwan — he began inventing some signature cocktails to improve the selection.
More than anything, I want comfort in a bar, particularly if it’s one I would like to return to. Secondary is the choice of drinks — I’d be more likely to return if I knew the place had a great selection of beer or whiskey. But it’s that welcoming aspect that attracts me most. And what I consider a welcoming bar may not fit the definition for someone else.
My suggestion is to put little faith in a list of “best” bars or restaurants because it’s all subjective anyway.