I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that last week, Esquire magazine published its list of the best bars in America. Among the top-ranked establishments are fine-cocktail havens such as Pegu Club, in New York; No. 9 Park, in Boston; The Matchbox, in Chicago; and, of course, Seattle’s Zig Zag Cafe. Credit where credit is due.
It should also be noted that, of the dozens of places listed, only a few are, quote-unquote, “cocktail bars.” Despite the whole concept behind this cocktail site, some of the best bars, in my estimation, that have given me the best memories (or washed away those memories, as the case may be) are the bars where I wouldn’t dare order anything more complicated than a pint and a shot. Fortunately, the Esquire list includes many of these, from El Chapultepec in Denver to The Office Bar in Hoonah, Alaska, to Freddy’s Bar & Backroom, in Brooklyn. (But not, unfortunately, Milano’s, at 51 E. Houston St., NYC, where I spent a good chunk of the early & mid-90s swilling Bass at the bar and listening to the same circuit of songs from Sinatra and the Pogues until they kicked you out at 4 a.m., and where — on a Thursday evening in July during Fleet Week, when my friend, Julie, and I had come in around 9:00 for “just one round” — Paul, the bartender, let an obnoxious sailor with a paycheck in his pocket buy three rounds for the bar before tossing him out, and then proceeded to keep filling our glasses until closing time, when he simply locked up and drew the blinds while a half-dozen other regulars were propped up in the smoky haze, and Paul turned off the jukebox so his girlfriend, who’d recently immigrated from Cardiff, could sing a few songs in Welsh — one of those odd yet touching, only-in-New-York kind of scenes — then he wrote a “please excuse Julie from work today” note and handed it to me — I was also her boss at the time — before unlocking the door and sending us out into a hot summer dawn, almost nine hours after we’d first entered. She had an excuse note (I still have it somewhere); I still had to stagger to the office a few hours later, reeking of beer and cigarettes and just barely alive. That’s what makes a great bar.)