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 dens of iniquity, there’s a bar for everyone. 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. We did this once before — back in 2011, in the early days of The Daily Meal — with a list of 150 bars, arranged by superlatives like “best dive bar,” “best gay bar,” and the like. (Some 29 bars from the 2011 150 Best Bars in America list are honored here too, this time by rank.) Two months ago, we identified The 150 Best Bars Outside the United States, ranking them in order, from one to 150, regardless of style — and now we're taking the same approach with bars within our borders.
It was extremely challenging to curate and rank this list, because there are so many exemplary bars in America. We literally had shortlists of 150 bars per city for some half the cities on this list. While our final ranking is by no means exhaustive, we trust it will serve as a conversation starter about what constitutes a “best bar” and as a starting point for bar-goers seeking to find some of the very best bars around. These bars are our favorites, the go-to bars of our editorial staff, panelists (see below), and trusted sources. What we've come up with is an admittedly subjective — but well-researched and wide-ranging — collection of great places to drink all over the country. Each one provides a great drinking experience — no two alike, guaranteed.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.
The inaugural ranked list includes 150 bars from 44 states and the District of Columbia, with New York State having the most establishments, at 25, all of them in New York City (counting six in Brooklyn and one in Queens). California followed closely behind with 22 bars — half of them in San Francisco, with eight in the Los Angeles area, two in San Diego, and one in Big Sur — and Illinois placed third with 13 bars, all in Chicago.
Despite the number of bars from New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and L.A., this list should not be dismissed as big-city-centric. We offer choices in some 68 municipalities; including such smaller places as Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Vancouver, Washington — even such remote locales as Homer Spit, Alaska, and Perdido Key, 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.
In choosing our 150 best, we called upon more than 150 experts in cities large and small across the United States: bar and restaurant critics, celebrity chefs and bartenders, food and drink writers, and bloggers with wide bar-going experience (meet the panelists here). These experts were supplemented by The Daily Meal’s well-traveled, bar-hopping editorial staff.
We started with a list of 3,000 bars and asked all the respondents to nominate places they thought were missing. We didn't include nightclubs or establishments that function predominantly as live music venues, though bars that happen to feature live music were considered. We did include a good number of restaurant bars; in some cases, the establishments are known primarily for their food, but we also found vibrant bar scenes that definitely needed including here. We whittled the nominees down to a more manageable 973 bars in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Then, we asked our panelists to evaluate the selection and vote for their favorites according to the following six criteria:
1. DRINKS: From innovative cocktails and traditional offerings to regional and house specialties, panelists evaluated the bar's drink menu according to 1) selection; 2) presentation; and 3) fidelity to tradition and/or innovative excellence.
2. MIXOLOGY: Panelists evaluated the quality of 1) drink preparation and "pour"; 2) presentation; and 3) adherence to hand-crafted excellence.
3. BARTENDER: Panelists evaluated the 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, panelists 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…)
Give Us Your Two Cents
Any list like this one is bound to stir disagreements among discerning drinkers; even our own staff was divided on which bars should make the final cut.After checking out The Daily Meal’s 150 Best Bars in America, share your compliments and critiques in the comments section below — or on Twitter using the hashtag #bestbars — and let us know what bars you think should have been included, or should have been left out.
If you have imbibed at any of these bars, pin your favorite photos on The Daily Meal’s Pinterest board. Which bar made it to the top of the list? The answer might just surprise you.
Editorial director Colman Andrews (@Colmanandrews) and The Daily Meal editorial staff contributed to 150 Best Bars in America.
150 Best Bars in America Panelists
More than 150 panelists voted for this year's 150 Best Bars in America. Some asked that their names not be used. Below are the panelists who gave permission for us to identify them.