The Daily Meal walks into a bar and - we peruse the menu, the clientele, and the drinks list; we scrutinize the drink, the place, the vibe; we take mental notes. Then, we decide to grab a wad of cocktail napkins and start scribbling notes for a list like this.
Choosing a bar is a personal matter, and, just as each person is unique, so is each bar. Sure, there are plenty of cookie-cutter Irish pubs, tacky tourist joints with sticky-sweet frozen drinks, and lackluster lounges with watered-down booze, but there are also many thousands of wonderful drinking places across the United States, too.
From simple beach bars and swanky cocktail lounges to innovative houses of “molecular” mixology to dusty dive bars and other dens of iniquity, there’s a bar for every taste. Bars are ubiquitous and unifying. They are the great socioeconomic equalizer: Nearly anyone of legal age can enter a bar, pull up a stool, and buy him- or herself a refreshing glass of liquid luxury in its many forms, from a budget ice-cold brew to a fine wine to a potent shot to a classic cocktail to a spectacular modernist creation. Bars are relatable and welcoming; they are a comfort to many in good times and bad.
The Daily Meal set out to find the most iconic bars, famous pubs, and legendary cocktail lounges in America. The last time we did this was three years ago, so needless to say, a lot has changed since then.
This year’s ranked list includes 150 bars from 42 states and the District of Columbia. New York state dominated the list with 28 establishments, all but one of which are in New York City (counting nine in Brooklyn and one in Queens). California ended up with 18 bars on the list, with Los Angeles and San Francisco each having six make the cut. Texas placed third with eleven bars, while Illinois came in fourth with eight bars, all of them in Chicago. Not far behind was Oregon; six of its seven bars on the list come from Portland’s prolific drinking scene. Washington, DC also made a notable contribution; the nation’s capital has drinking establishments on the list.
Despite the number of bars from New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and LA, this list should not be dismissed as big-city-centric. We offer choices in some 66 municipalities, including such smaller places as Jacksonville, Oregon, and Jupiter, Florida.
The Daily Meal’s list pays homage to bars that have become influencers, whether for their hoppy brews, kitschy drinks and décor, commitment to crafting classic cocktails, or penchant for pushing the bartending boundaries with ambitious ice programs and avant-garde mixology - and also to bars that are just, well, bars. We recognize places that specialize in one variety of liquor, as well as those that have encyclopedic back bars. We include beer bars, and establishments with world-class wine lists.
Our list was chosen by The Daily Meal’s well-traveled, bar-hopping editorial staff, with help from our readers, our far-flung city editors, our network of freelancers, and such food and drink luminaries as Daily Meal Council members Lidia Bastianich, television personality, cookbook author, and restaurateur; Rick Bayless, chef, restaurateur, and television personality; and Robb Walsh, award-winning food writer and restaurateur - as well as award-winning whisky blogger and author Gregg Dillon, cocktail blogger Stacie Grissom, and Kurtis Bosley, a Sydney-based but internationally conscious bartender and Group Bars Manager at Public House Management Group.
We judged - and asked our panelists to judge - bars on these criteria:
1. DRINKS: From innovative cocktails and traditional offerings to regional and house specialties, we evaluated each bar’s drink menu according to 1) selection; 2) presentation; and 3) fidelity to tradition and/or innovative excellence.
2. MIXOLOGY: The quality of 1) drink preparation and “pour"; 2) presentation; and 3) adherence to hand-crafted excellence.
3. BARTENDER: 1) Professionalism; 2) skills; and 3) personality and style of the bar staff and how they contribute to the drink preparation and the bar’s ambiance.
4. DECOR/EXPERIENCE: From the bar’s interior to the ambiance to the service of all staff, we evaluated the bar for the overall experience it provides. (For very casual places, where ambiance and service are beside the point, panelists judged how appropriate the surroundings were for the drinks being served.)
5. CUISINE: While not a requirement to make the list, The Daily Meal wishes to recognize bars that offer an exceptional food menu in addition to drink menu. From innovative menu options and traditional regional cooking to modern international fare to plating/presentation to quality and taste, panelists evaluated the bar’s cuisine according to 1) freshness; 2) flavor; 3) presentation; and 4) either fidelity to tradition or innovative excellence.
6. ESSENTIALS: Panelists voted for the bars considered “don’t miss” establishments, definitive of their city or region. (Think in these terms: You can’t leave [given city/region] without drinking at...)
So if you’re looking for a new watering hole or trying to find the best bar in town on your next trip, check out our 150 Best Bars in America for 2018.
More of America’s Best