Everyone has a fantasy of rolling into an unfamiliar city, walking into a nondescript bar, and discovering it's the coolest, chillest place within a 50-mile radius to swig beer. Unfortunately, very few ever find that bar, instead spending nights on the road posted up at the local Applebee's. So we asked three well-traveled bartenders for their tips to discovering these fantastical watering holes—or really, just any solid place to drink—wherever they may end up in the world.
Before you leave: Canvass your network.
Bartenders often have extensive social media connections: They're Facebook friends with other bartenders, chefs, sommeliers, restaurant managers, and people in pretty much every job within the hospitality industry. So when they get ready to visit an unfamiliar city, they blast out a Facebook post asking for recommendations. "The responses pour in," says Pamela Wiznitzer, creative director of Seamstress in New York. "Despite the obscurity of a location, someone we know has visited and will have a recommendation or two."
Even if you don't work in the industry yourself, you can wedge yourself into this valuable network by befriending your favorite hometown bartender on Facebook. (Facebook, if you haven't figured it out yet, is the preferred social network of bartenders.) Bobby Heugel, owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, says many bartenders are happy to send their regulars travel recommendations or connect them with bartenders at their destination.
"Most of today's cocktail-centric bartenders maintain this service for their guests as an extension of hospitality," Heugel says. "The closeness of the global bartending community never fails to let me down, and most of us are eager to send one of our regulars to say hello to a friend elsewhere—after all, the biggest compliment we can give another bartender abroad is to trust them to take our place in caring for one of our guests while they are traveling."
"The biggest compliment we can give another bartender abroad is to trust them to take our place."
Once you arrive: Avoid Yelp!
Yelp! is not your friend. Erick Castro, owner of Polite Provisions in San Diego and the filmmaker behind the documentary Bartender at Large, says he doesn't put much faith in those reviews. "Too often the people on those websites don't base their opinions on any relevant criteria," he says. "For instance, if I'm going to a dive bar, I am not worried about how great the Scotch list is. All I really care about is if the dive has cold beer, a kickass jukebox, and maybe a pool table. But a community-based review site would only give the place two stars because it doesn't have fancy soap in the bathrooms."
Heugel is extremely wary of listicles in the mainstream press, which he calls "online circle jerks." "In recent years, they've become so repetitive and pervasive that they can dramatically alter the experience of the places they shower in praise," he says. "When the same 10 places in Paris, for example, are mentioned for cocktails or food, those places become overrun with travelers and are only a shadow of the genuine experience that justified their praise in the beginning."
If he does decide to visit one of these well-regarded bars, he goes early in the week to avoid the rush times and then makes sure he talks to the bar staff about new places around them or their other favorite joints to hang out. "They're always eager to recommend places that are sanctuaries from the crowds they now have to work in," Heugel says. "Most bartenders in the world, even the shitty ones, recognize they have a civic duty to nudge out-of-towners in the right direction."
The rest is on you.
Pull up a stool. Is this your fantasy bar? Wiznitzer says it's all up to you. "I've been in bars where I am the only guest in the room and have an incredible time because of the bartender, atmosphere, and drinks," she says. "I love a bar where the hospitality is sincere and plentiful, I feel comfortable, and the space seems genuine."
"Most bartenders in the world recognize they have a civic duty to nudge out-of-towners in the right direction."
Heugel says there is only one rule: Are the people in the bar having a good time? If so, stay. "If you walk into a bar in another city with a list of expectations for what a bar should or shouldn't be, you're missing the entire purpose of traveling," he says. "Your goal should be to discover what other cultures and communities value. If you try to find the foreign version of your favorite local bar, you probably should have saved yourself the price of that ticket and hotel room."