By: Dan Gentile
In theory, ANY neighborhood can be a drinking neighborhood provided you have a few bucks and a flask and/or paper bag. But what separates the truly special, worthy of capitalization Drinking Neighborhoods from the neighborhoods in which you just happen to be drinking? Sheer quantity of bars? The overall quality of said bars? The ability to waltz from a palm-draped Tiki bar to a tap-laden brewpub to an iconic dive bar while your Fitbit barely even notices that you've moved?
In the end, while taking quality, quantity, and variety into account, what really sets the best drinking 'hoods apart is that feeling that you're having an imbibing experience that you couldn't quite be having anyplace else. In 2015, you can absolutely find that feeling in these neighborhoods.
Ten years ago, the best Austin locale for drinking was clearly the stumble-friendly 6th Street, and five years ago the Eastside burned bright and hot with fresh Edison bulb gentrification, but these days, the best place to drink in Austin is undoubtedly Rainey Street.
What once was a sleeping street of bungaloos a short pedicab ride from Downtown has now been saturated with enough bars to rival its Downtown college counterpart, except instead of $2 you-call-its, you're getting classic cocktails and microbrews. The demographics are heavy on husband hunters and work-hard, play-harders, but no amount of questionable patrons can spoil such a wealth of wonderful watering holes. Two of the city's best beer bars, Banger's and Craft Pride, combine for an unbelievable 150 taps, while neighboring Half Step imported one of LA's best bartenders to create an old-fashioned cocktail experience that's refined but without pretense. The whiskey selection at The Blackheart is world-class, plus its stage is one of Austin's most underrated. If that doesn't do it for you, there are at least 10 other totally respectable bars like Clive Bar, Lucille, and Bar 96 to stop at along the way.
Credit: Flickr/H. Michael Miley
As much as we love a carefully crafted cocktail, there's also something magical about a jello shot syringe purchased from a scantily clad sidewalk vendor. Beale Street is without a doubt the most hedonistic 'hood on this list, but the liberal open container policy isn't the only reason Beale boasts a rep as the most visited strip in all of Tennessee.
Music lovers can pay tribute at B.B. King's Blues Club or at the Jerry Lee Lewis' Cafe, but at any given time you're just as likely to hear a revelatory solo at a hole-in-the-wall bar or even a makeshift alley stage. Admittedly you might end up with the same replaceable cover band, but the pours are strong enough and the history deep enough to forgive a half-baked rendition of "Ain't No Sunshine." It's the type of street you want to roll deep on, especially when confronting massive challenges like Silky O'Sullivan's rum-fueled Diver Bucket or a neon daiquiri from Wet Willie's. But since we are adults after all, we suggest ending the evening with a civilized absinthe cocktail at the King's Palace Cafe's Absinthe Room or trekking a block north to the Blind Bear.
We'd be remiss not to include our nation's capital in this here list, and the 'hood du-jour is undoubtedly Shaw. It might not have the same quantity of bars as some of the other places we've mentioned, but its inclusion is warranted thanks to a trio of drinkeries from don't-call-him-a-mixologist Derek Brown. Pick your whiskey from the massive list at Southern Efficiency, order up cocktail pitchers like the batched martini at Eat the Rich (with a side of oysters, of course), or sample any of the many 50+ sherries at Mockingbird Hill. Right Proper and Dacha are the places to go for pints, Ivy & Coney is your dive, and All Souls or A&D are also capital decisions for budget beer-and-a-shot specials.
San Francisco, CA
The elephant in the room sipping a hand-crafted cocktail might argue that the Mission is the winner in this category, what with its myriad cocktail and dive bars and places to Whip and Nae Nae. But the Mission also encompasses a wide swath of territory, so much so that it almost seems unfair. So, instead, we point you in the direction of Hayes Valley.
Although long-time stalwarts like German beer superpower Suppenkuche and classic cocktail haunt Absinthe have always made it a formidable 'hood to spend your night, the last five years have seen a serious upgrade in small concentrated space. Biergarten is SF's prize jewel of the outdoor drinking scene, but the 'hood's also got superb cocktails at Brass Tacks and newly created NOLA versions from Boxing Room. There are beers and sports-watching at Dobbs Ferry, the hidden jewel date spot Two Sisters Bar and Books, and hyper-chill Noir Lounge. And that's before you even get into the crazy-delicious drinks they're making at the choice restaurants in the area like Rich Table and Monsieur Benjamin. Oh also: Smuggler's Cove is actually a block outside of Hayes Valley, but once you're drinking in arguably the best Tiki bar in the country, you won't feel much like arguing over technicalities.
Credit: Flickr/Lars Plougmann
New Orleans, LA
As locals will tell you, New Orleans is more than Bourbon St. It's not just strip clubs, Huge Ass Beer signs, and neon lights crammed into a few-block stretch that smells of vomit and has an oddly high number of people yelling Bible verses. But the catch here is that the French Quarter is also more than Bourbon St -- it's so stacked with incredible cocktail bars, centuries-old drinking spots, and delightfully dirty dives that it's almost unfair to the rest of the city.
Corralled inside that 13x6-block square, you can order a Sazerac from Chris McMillian or a Tom and Jerry from Chris Hannah, two of the country's top bartenders who are pouring at Kingfish and Arnaud's French 75, respectively, while simultaneously upping your 'tail knowledge, since both are encyclopedias on the classics. Or you could plan a Tiki crawl to three of the country's best: Tiki Tolteca pours funky standbys above a fast-casual Mexican spot, while next door, the man who sparked the current Tiki revival has his own bar, Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29, and down the road Cane & Table offers a giant selection of summery drinks. Grab a Grasshopper at Tujague's where it was created or a Pimm's Cup at the Carousel Bar, where it's basically been perfected. Simply want a beer? No fear -- local crafts are on the rise.
When Portland's Mississippi neighborhood started transitioning into a hipster playground, the sprouting of good bars was a foregone conclusion in a city like Stumptown. But then things got intense. Basically, the main drag of this neighborhood seems to have been redesigned by a city planner who wanted to make the world's most efficient bar crawl, and new stops seemingly pop up daily.
The strip, clocking in at less than a mile, is bookended by one of the city's best breweries, Ecliptic, and perhaps its most promising new cocktail spot, Victoria Bar. In between, it's a drinker's paradise that includes experimental beers and a huge patio at StormBreaker Brewing, a full Manhattan menu at Sidecar 11 (with more traditional cocktails next door at Radar), dive bars in the form of Crow Bar, and the aquarium-filled Moloko, burgers and beer at Bar Bar, formidable cocktails paired with upscale pub food at Interurban, an incredible patio at The Rambler, and gigantic German beers at the ever-popular Prost... and that's only some of the bars that line this food cart- and retail shop-populated street. Our Portland editor, who lives in the neighborhood, often starts visitors off with a mini-crawl through Mississippi before heading to other 'hoods. They seldom make it past Prost.
Some foolish website that rhymes with Frillist actually called Cap Hill Seattle's second-best food/drink neighborhood, but A) those guys don't know what they're talking about, and B) the only reason other Seattle 'hoods even have nice things to drink is because there's literally no space left in the perpetually booming Pike/Pine corridor (fresh construction excluded, shout out to Chop Shop Cafe and Bar).
The core of the 'hood is packed with highlights, from the place where Macklemore filmed his "Thrift Shop" video (Unicorn) to one of the only places in the country to score a bottle-aged cocktail (Canon). If you like your cocktails smokey, The Old Sage does magic tricks with Scotch, or if you prefer drinking from auto garages Still Liquor is your move. Move to the outskirts and you'll find the Hemingway-inspired Ernest Love Agnes and amaro-heavy Herb & Bitter, a spot that would've been considered in the heart of the 'hood before the most recent explosion of imbibing options. For hopheads you'll also find the best damn funeral home beer bar in the world (The Pine Box), plus the original location of Elysian Brewing Company (thankfully now devoid of all the fair weather fans).
Nope, it's not just a clever name. The Bay View neighborhood bumps right up to Lake Michigan. Not that it really matters when you're plopped down at a bar. Which you very certainly will be, because in a city that takes its drinking extremely seriously, you have to be doing something spectacular to get the designation as the city's best drinking 'hood.
Having two of the nation's absolute best beer bars helps, of course, which Bay View does in the form of Sugar Maple and the firkin-sporting Burnhearts. You can score whiskey with a chaser of hipster sensibilities at The Palm Tavern, beer with no snobbery at Romans', and cutting-edge cocktails like barrel-aged Negronis at Boone & Crockett. Meanwhile, the area is also home to two of the city's best outdoor-drinking spots, which are key during the summer: Barnacle Bud's -- a semi-hidden, Key West-esque shack -- and The Backyard, which doubles as a saunter-in movie theater/BYO meat BBQ when the weather's right. And if you're looking to make some bad decisions, you can skip jumping in the lake and head to Baby Boomers, where a sign with a cigar-smoking baby, cold beers, and fried fish round out the night in hazy style.
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