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Friday September 25, 2020 Article

The Best Bars in America, 2020

Twenty-seven drinking experiences to be had when we’ll really need them.

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

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