What makes a bar an Esquire Best Bar?”
It’s a question I get asked a lot, and I tend to dodge it, mainly because it’s so hard to answer in a satisfying and meaningful way. My canned reply is something like: a place that you love so much you can’t wait to experience it all over again.
If I’m being honest, I found that answer cliché—like a Yelp review presented by the Hallmark Channel. I masked a cringe every time I said it. But fuck if this pandemic hasn’t made that sentiment so true.
A trade secret: While we spend most of the year going to bars to compile this list, a flurry of reporting happens in the spring, right before our deadline, because (a) it’s a great time to travel and drink and (b) writers never turn in stories early.
But this March, as the trees began to bloom and the country started to hibernate, I squeezed in one last reporting trip to Los Angeles and had one final drink at a bar before the Great Quarantine. It was at the Prince in L.A.’s Koreatown, a place that made this year’s list not only because of its horseshoe bar, red banquettes, and cocktails and Korean fried chicken—what a killer combo!—but also because I just had to share this old-school, slightly weird, still sort of under-the-radar experience with my friend Amanda. Even though she’s lived in L.A. for years, she’d never been. Best Bars are places you need your best pals to know about.
When I returned home to New York, my favorite watering holes had started to close, with messages like “Stay Safe, See You Soon!” hastily taped to their doors. Many transitioned into makeshift to-go operations, and that’s where my saccharine “What makes a bar a Best Bar?” reasoning became honest fact. Could I make a semi-decent daiquiri at home? Yes, but it wouldn’t be as transcendent as the one I picked up from the window at Brooklyn’s Leyenda (Best Bars, 2016). Do I like martinis at home? Yes, but not as much as I like martinis at home delivered by Mister Paradise (Best Bars, 2019). And I can’t come close to making the bacon-y Benton’s Old Fashioned that was handed to me in a paper bag outside of PDT (Best Bars, 2008). Even though these establishments weren’t open in the traditional, save-me-a-stool sense, I still had to experience them. I craved their effort. Their hospitality. The love they put into operating during a pandemic just to help their employees get by. (And it felt good to send a little love their way, too.)
So my canned answer to what makes a bar an Esquire Best Bar? A place you just can’t wait to experience again? It’s still my answer. Except now I really mean it. Whether they’re open or not so open, we hope you’ll fall in love with this year’s best bars, and all past (and future) places in our ever-growing hall of fame, when you can. —Kevin Sintumuang
Editor’s note: As of July 14, fifteen of the bars on this list are temporarily closed due to COVID-19. We hope they’re able to open safely in some form when the time is right. Please check directly with the bar for updates. Cheers.
There are two kinds of people: those who plan for the full moon and those who are only reminded of its existence after its arrival. Kathryn DiMenichi and Holli Medley are the former. They’re the owners of Cardinal. And it’s closed for full moons. Juxtapose the idiosyncratic operators and the “speakeasy in a food court” vibe, and for ATLiens it’s all part of the beautiful cacophony that imbues the city, a quality that’s hard to articulate but easy to feel. 1039 Grant Street SE, Suite B40 —Stephen Satterfield
Follow the music to the middle of an industrial block and you’ll find an unlikely pebbled courtyard, with metal chairs and tables, shaded by a few large trees. People are on dates, or working on laptops, sipping coffee or beer or a black manhattan, all depending on the time of day. Public Records is a bar/café, record store, and music venue, with a killer sound system in each, but it all seems like one cohesive space designed to make you feel a bit cooler and more creative than when you first walked in. 233 Butler Street —K. S.
& Sons is almost stubborn in the singularity of its vision—that American ham is every bit as worthwhile as the more globally revered prosciuttos and pata negras. Yes, it is a wine-and-American-ham bar. Co-owner André Hueston Mack is one of the best sommeliers of his generation and the first African American to win the title of Best Young Sommelier in America. The wine list is also all American and full of exquisite vintages. The result is a twenty-person cocktail hour with a seriously consummate host. 447 Rogers Avenue —S. S.
Rarely does a wine bar successfully mix casual comfort with a nerdy passion for fermented grapes and a bumping soundtrack. But Graft, the uptown Charleston wineshop-meets-bar by Femi Oyediran and Miles White, achieves that righteous blend. All the good vibes are here, inspired by Man Night, a living-room hang the buddies hosted with their friends. You can jam to Talking Heads while chatting with the co-owners about their favorite big, bad Sangiovese. 700 King Street, Suite B —Osayi Endolyn
If tiki bars are fantasy, then the Bamboo Room, tucked within Three Dots and a Dash, is the fantasy within the fantasy—a rarefied, rum-fueled fever dream presided over by barman Kevin Beary. When you order a daiquiri, a coupe filled with shaved ice arrives and in goes the cocktail, dissolving the fluff like magic. All nights should end with a meander through a rum list of funky finds. 435 North Clark Street —K. S.
To drink at Kumiko is to witness a personal journey into bartender Julia Momose’s Japanese heritage. One cocktail explores the Japanese purple sweet potato; another is a nod to curry rice. All are revelatory, but none so much as the spirit-free drinks like the umeboshi swizzle and the coconut fizz, a light take on the Piña Colada—you won’t miss the booze. 630 West Lake Street —K. S.
The very existence of a bar devoted to vodka feels like a rebuke to all the bartenders who’ve scoffed at the spirit. But this Cincy spot takes the defiance a step further, offering shots of vodka infused with (among other things) mangoes, peanut brittle, and supermarket candy. (Don’t worry, purists. There’s also beet and horseradish.) You could say the bar started as a window. Owner Sarah Dworak first made her mark selling handmade pierogies out of an actual hole in the wall, and that enterprise expanded into Wódka Bar, whose food menu abounds with comforting Eastern European drinking snacks like kielbasa and smoked herring. The vodka menu (no surprise) ventures far and wide, allowing you plenty of leeway to compare and contrast bottles from Poland and Ukraine and Ireland and Brazil. 1200 Main Street —Jeff Gordinier
That’s Elvis Costello, kid, and that’s Joe Strummer. Willie Nelson’s over there, and Johnny Cash is nearby. We’re talking about pictures of these musical renegades, mind you, but their spirits imbue every inch of the place. Happy Dog is a rock ‘n’ roll bar to its bones, with vinyl booths, Christmas lights, a no-bullshit beer list, and mics already set up for any ragged busker who’s brave or drunk enough to climb onstage. You can order hot dogs topped with craziness like peanut butter, SpaghettiOs, and Froot Loops. We’d steer you toward the “alien” relish, which glows a radioactive shade of green. 5801 Detroit Avenue —J. G.
I was staring at a paper wheel that looked like a scrap of Ouija board. The wheel had words on it: bitter, potent, fruity, tropical, etc. Instead of ordering from a cocktail menu, I was instructed to select my desired mood (I went with relax) and a range of flavors (I went with umami and ginger) from this wheel. The bartender would then conjure something for me to drink. I figured this was all some sort of gimmick until I tasted my cocktail, which had been made with gin, lime, and a pho syrup—yes, the Vietnamese soup. It was absurdly delicious, and it was then I decided the Spotted Owl is a next-wave mystic temple of cocktailing. 710 Jefferson Avenue —J. G.
The first words I saw on the menu when I took my seat at Law Bird over the winter: “Start with a $5 Mini Martini.” I instantly felt at home. But there aren’t many homes in which you’ll find a five-buck martini better than this one, deftly balanced in 50/50 style with Roku gin, two white vermouths (Comoz and Miro), and olive and lemon bitters. The cocktail list slowly reveals itself to be one of the most creative in the country, but the bartenders are modest and Midwestern about it. Home, sweet home. 740 South High Street —J. G.
For many, the first memory of a bar is likely Episode IV’s cantina scene—who didn’t want to hang out there? That would explain the constant lines outside Oga’s Cantina, a part of the Star Wars theme park, Galaxy’s Edge. But it is worth the wait to have that proto–bar fantasy fulfilled. There are smoking drinks in neon colors, a starship pilot turned DJ, and—who knows?—Han Solo might just slide in next to you. 351 South Studio Drive, Lake Buena Vista, Florida —Adrienne Westenfeld
“I loafe and invite my soul,” Walt Whitman once wrote. “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” You could describe the hazy, lazy vibe at the Spotty Dog the same way, only the customers are likely to be leaning and loafing with Whitman himself: The wooden bar runs right alongside the shelves of a bookstore. If you enjoy nursing a beer with no other company than a novel, this is your place. 440 Warren Street —J. G.
Martha Hoover is a force of nature in the Midwestern food movement, but her larkish, low-lit Bar One Fourteen feels more like a lyric poem than a mission statement. Conceived with the help of indie rocker Vess Ruhtenberg, a veteran of bands like the Lemonheads, this bar is essentially a state-of-the-art listening sanctuary. The record collection (vinyl only) is the stuff of High Fidelity fever dreams, and a recent cocktail list—from the bartending duo of Daimien Weems and Corey Ewing—took its inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Some bars help you shut off your brain, but this bar feeds it. 114 East Forty-ninth Street —J. G.
The 1946 soda fountain Brent’s Drugs radiates a cheerful Happy Days energy during the day, but those who prefer manhattans to milkshakes show up at night, when the stools are stacked and the lights low. First-timers will have to trust the rumors—that if they let themselves in the unlocked door and tiptoe back, past the booths, and push aside a heavy curtain, they’ll find a speakeasy in full swing. 655 Duling Avenue —Beth Ann Fennelly
It’s easy to lose time at this DTLA hi-fi joint. Dropping in at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday, I ordered coffee and kombucha, only to be captivated by the turntables and Line Magnetic tube amp power. What esoteric ’80s electronica album will come on next? Afternoon soon melted into evening and I downshifted into cocktails and wine and Japanese rice whiskey. Tokyo has known the potency of the combination of a hushed room, whiskey, and a killer sound system for years now. We’re thrilled the concept has finally arrived stateside with In Sheep’s Clothing. 710 East Fourth Place —K. S.
In a town that has no shortage of hidden time warps, the Prince feels like a genuinely cool secret, even though it’s been around since 1927 and has operated in its current iteration since 1991: a late-night Koreatown haunt where you can get killer Korean fried chicken and deftly made cocktails. As you sit in one of the round, red banquettes, or sip an ice-cold Hite at the horseshoe bar, you will wonder: Where have you been all of my life? 3198 West Seventh Street —K. S.
As I left Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge, which just happens to be located behind a purple adult emporium, a man said to me, “Don’t you love this place? They welcome drunks and hipsters.” Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but proprietor Amy Dee Richardson’s honky-tonk is that special kind of bar where you can get a Frito Pie and a High Life at noon, but also a damn good old-fashioned served on a big rock, and take in a stellar musical lineup at night that rivals those of spots in downtown Nashville. Yep, I love this place. 102 East Palestine Avenue —K. S.
Deep in Little Havana is chef Michelle Bernstein and barman Julio Cabrera’s homage to 1950s Santiago de Cuba. Cabrera is the keeper of the cantinero tradition, the hospitable, well-groomed style of bartending that originated in Cuba. It’s the real deal here at Cafe La Trova, with focused drinks that go beyond the mojito (although they make an excellent one). Try the Presidente; it will put in doubt your loyalty to the manhattan. 971 SW Eighth Street —K. S.
With a wrap-around bar, starlight ceiling, and mod furniture, Mama Tried is like an idealized ’70s Las Vegas bar that crash-landed in downtown Miami. While manufactured dives can drip in irony, this place gets the delightful scuzzy details just right. Bonus to the cheap beers and cigarette machine: excellent cocktails. 207 NE First Street —K. S.
The design? Luxe terrarium bunker. The location? Tucked beneath Korean steakhouse Cote. The vibe? Exotic, classy, and unabashedly fun. And the cocktails match, thanks to the creative effort of head bartender Sondre Kasin. Try the artisanal Red Bull vodka made with a homemade energy drink and Champagne. 16 West Twenty-second Street —K. S.
Sometimes you need to be discreet. In fact, sometimes you want to meet someone in a dark, plush corner of an Ian Schrager hotel bar that’s eleven floors above Times Square. That kind of discreet. You want the rendezvous to feel as dressed up and hassle-free as a Roxy Music song, so you decide on 701West, where Michelin-starred chef John Fraser is cooking the bar snacks and where sips like the Jasmine French (via beverage director Amy Racine) sound as if they could be James Bond characters. Don’t ask and we won’t tell. 701 Seventh Avenue, Eleventh Floor —J. G.
Rita Sodi and Jody Williams, the partners behind the beloved Via Carota, know that details matter, and Bar Pisellino is a veritable shrine to those details. Amber-hued and humming all day long, it is not an Italian bar as much as it is an eccentrically romantic fantasia of what you imagine a bar in Italy could be. If Sophia Loren suddenly walked in, you would not be shocked. 52 Grove Street —J. G.
If I were to design the perfect central-California wine bar, I would put it outside, so that drinkers could soak in the West Coast sunshine, swing in a hammock, order some empanadas and a platter of mezes and a bottle of Grüner Veltliner, and drink and eat at tiled picnic tables under an awning in the backyard. I don’t have to dream that up, though, because Tipple & Ramble already exists. 315 North Montgomery Street —J. G.
Upstairs from Philly’s beloved Abyssinia, an Ethiopian restaurant, Fiume feels like a studio-apartment punk-rock pop-up even though it has been in operation for two decades. Last call comes when the bartender bangs a cymbal hanging from the ceiling. (“I’ve got a mallet for it,” he’ll tell you.) Chairs are tattered and scattered. One sign warns you that “the customer is always wrong.” Another says, “Cash only, baby.” But watch how that bartender peels fresh citrus, grabs you a chilled glass, painstakingly eyeballs the ingredients in your Ortolan. This is a bar where people care—even if they act like they don’t. 229 South Forty-fifth Street —J. G.
To get an idea of the ambition of the drinks at Friday Saturday Sunday, ask bartender Paul MacDonald to explain the cocktails he makes based on the Fibonacci sequence. They are mysteriously round yet angular. And delicious. But this place is far from precious—it’s always friendly, and hopping. You’ll run into someone you know any second now. 261 South Twenty-first Street —K. S.
The dark, dim bar Martuni’s is a San Francisco institution where everyone is welcome. The green neon outline of a familiar cocktail glass draws you in for one thing: a martini—large, strong, ice-cold gin or vodka? Lemon twist or olive? Dirty or extra dirty? You won’t be judged for your preference. Stay for the piano bar in the back, which on any given night is packed with locals singing loudly, joyfully in unison. 4 Valencia Street —Omar Mamoon
If you have ever daydreamed about converting your place of habitation into a drinking establishment, consider Bottlehouse, the incarnation of your wish. It’s an actual house in the middle of the yoga-mom magnet that is Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood. Sit by the window, or out on the patio when the sun deigns to show up. The beverage list goes beyond wine and ventures knowingly into ciders, vermouths, sherries, and Pacific Northwest beers. You live here now, so you have time to try them all. 1416 Thirty-fourth Avenue —J. G.
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