There are bars, then there are bars. Like the world’s best restaurants, the top bars push boundaries in innovation, historical accuracy, spirits selection, service, design and magical environment, unusual glassware or techniques, or sometimes all of the above. As this renaissance of cocktails has been the single greatest aid to craft distilling’s rise in popularity, bars the world over are now in dire straits, especially in the U.S. where government aid is hardly available for independent restaurants, much less bars.
In these dire days, surviving and reinvention are urgent. Here, I dive into merely 10 (out of literally thousands of) bars I have loved and visited globally to explore their approaches in this ongoing pandemic.
San Rafael, CA
Suburban Marin finally got a destination-worthy bar and city-worthy cocktails when Isaac and Rhia Shumway opened California Gold late 2019. Then pandemic hit. But San Rafael is the county’s biggest city with a walkable downtown, ideal for their recently built parklet. They initially partnered with neighboring Revel & Roost for food as they rolled out 25% indoor seating (CG’s transporting indoor space is the most beautiful bar in Marin Co., with detailed antique design by Shumway and Ignacio “Notch” Gonzalez, who designed SF’s Smugglers Cove and Whitechapel). But Isaac, whose decades in the bar world also include cooking at SF greats like Quince and Gary Danko and a culinary degree from CIA Hyde Park, launched his own gourmet hot dog menu utilizing his Kamado ceramic grill. Crafting buns from scratch, his hot dog menu includes the likes of Zorba the Greek, laden with tzatziki sauce, tomato, cucumber, garlic, feta, pickled onions, lemon zest). During and since months of closure, Isaac bottles to-go cocktails (per law, every order must include a hot food item, an onerous ABC law), which are shaken to order, alongside cocktail kits for DIY at home.
Housed in a 1732 building with a fireplace-sporting basement for those dark Scandinavian winters, owner Geoffrey Canilao hails from the Bay Area but has been running this gem of a Copenhagen (CPH) bar for years. A rare spirits collection and intimate, familial vibe defined his bar, as did swoon-worthy drinks like a Banana & Tonic or Mushroom Alexander (Brandy Alexander twist). In pandemic, he’s partnering with CPH burger legend Gasoline Grill (GG). Food orders are placed via the GG app, delivered to and paired with Balderdash’s cocktails, including a new lineup of boozy milkshakes. Canilao is also working private home parties, restaurant consulting and doing all he can to keep his team together (even though the latest round of government aid would actually give him more for closing than staying open). Canilao says, “We are fighting, trying to be proactive and positive but sometimes I cannot hide the bleak future of our industry… We are all suffering from this one way or the other.”
Just reopening in August 2020, I visited Circu — in Sicily’s second biggest city, Catania — in November 2019, when it had only been open five months. The circus theme and decor are whimsical (think striped wallpaper, stuffed tiger), but not over the top, while in pandemic, they focus on art, cocktails and food with gourmet bites to pair with drinks and live DJs. Their artful cocktail book/menu is collaborative, featuring rarities for Europe like Mexican sotol. In a city and region that falls behind mainland Italy in cocktails, Circus’ friendly staff push Sicily’s boundaries with drinks like Madame Geneva (St. George Dry Rye Gin, matcha tea, lemon curd, orange sugar, foam of zuppa inglese) or Crusty (blanco tequila, “salsa guacamole” of avocado and chilies, grapefruit, salted honey, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur).
Williams & Graham/Occidental/American Bonded
Since Williams & Graham (W&G) opened in 2012 (I first visited three weeks post-opening), Sean Kenyon was key in putting Denver on the bar map and jumpstarting Denver’s cocktail renaissance. As this speakeasy housed in a corner bookstore sparked waiting lists for its transporting space, cocktails and service, Kenyon opened glorified dive bar Occidental in 2015, and in 2018, whiskey-centric American Bonded. As partner in each, he normally managed a team of over 50 employees, most of which he had to lay off in March 2020 while he raised money for a staff emergency fund by doing drink deliveries himself around the region. He launched Nitecap TakeOut, a joint takeout/delivery menu between W&G and Occidental, offering comfort food (green chile mac ‘n cheese, kimchi fries), alongside classic cocktails like a Last Word, a Paloma kit or house drinks like Mind Yo Nanners (whiskey, passionfruit, lemon, banana, coconut). American Bonded is serving on outdoor picnic tables, partnering with Kitsune Bento for food, paired with highballs and frozen slushie cocktails.
Thunderbolt was a 2019 newcomer in Echo Park, a neighborhood just north of Downtown LA (DLTA) on the rise the past couple years. The spacious bar was immediately an industry favorite, walking that fine line between party vibe and relaxed hangout. Easy drinking cocktails and fried green tomato sandwiches sealed the deal, especially good time drinks like their Tropipop sparkling pina colada. In pandemic, they launched an outdoor patio, delivery and takeout with dishes like a $15 platter packed with pulled pork, candy-coated chicken, veggies, smoked gouda mac & cheese and cornbread bibingka. Besides highballs of the month and cocktails to-go or drink in, their canned cocktails exemplify Thunderbolt’s breezy spirit. Think the Spritzicle — gin, Aperol, clarified orange, juice, vanilla, bubbles — conveniently available in mini-cans.
Pinxtos/tapas bars with sherry/fortified wine-forward cocktails have long trended in cities like SF, London or NYC, but few have a Spanish bar as pretty as Toronto’s Bar Ravel. Its elaborate wood curves and bottle lined ceiling set a striking backdrop to rounds of boquerones (fresh anchovies) and sherry and tonics. Though freezing winters are going to get tricky, Ravel is ideally equipped for pandemic with its patio and interior that opens wide to the outdoors. They have amped up takeout with a “retail” offering of bottles of Spanish wines, sherry and vermouth, as well as tapas to-go. House drinks are worth lingering over in-house, whether the Jacques Fresco (fino sherry, blanco vermouth, lime, frankincense, cava) or Under the Bridge (red pepper-infused mezcal, sherry, cucumber, makrut lime).
The Bamboo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental
Bangkok’s gorgeous, soothing escape, The Bamboo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, has been a Bangkok icon since 1953. Live jazz, blues, bamboo and palms feel at home in the tropical heat of Thailand. But the bar, deep spirits selections and cocktails are sheer elegance. This historic institution took on pandemic with #TheBambooBarAtHome, a program to bring the Bamboo experience to locals at home. They reopened summer 2020 with live jazz daily, cocktail classics and Thai twists on classics, and their adjoining shop for rare whiskies and spirits. The highlight is bar manager Jamie Rhind’s “Compass Thailand” menu, which showcases flavors and ingredients from around Thailand. Look for Thai craft spirits like Chalong Bay rum in Phuket-inspired drink, Cashew Down South, mixed with cashews, basil, spiced pineapple and cucumber. Note: Bamboo Bar adheres to a “smart” dress code.
Opened in 2017, Rosalia’s Menagerie is the kind of bar that honors local heritage and is so well-appointed, it feels like being whisked away to another era. Candlelit and cozy, Rosalia’s genever/jenever focus keeps it Dutch-centric, while their celebration of local, small batch spirits and beautifully-crafted cocktails makes it a cocktail destination. Co-founders Rachel Bonnewell and Pepijn van Beusekom exude a warm welcome, launching their own bottled cocktails delivery service during closure months (they still offer bottled cocktails to-go or for delivery even as they’ve reopened indoors with reservations and socially distanced seating). They also offered canal-side outdoor tables when reopening summer 2020, while experimenting with projects like collecting and aging fortified wines in a barrel, then creating drinks from the blend, like a genever and fortified wine “Scrap-hattan.”
The Old Man
Opening in 2019, Singapore’s The Old Man is the Hemingway tribute sister bar to the original in Hong Kong. Though larger, it’s still intimate, seductive and soothing in tropical greens and golds with a game-changing L-shaped bar sporting a bronze cooling strip down the middle to keep drinks cold as you sip. Follow the pineapple lamp above an unmarked Chinatown door into a bar that turns out crushable goodness like Death in the Afternoon #1932: absinthe, sparkling wine, coco-pandan yogurt, nutmeg. They also pay with creative drinks on their rotovap and centrifuge machines, like Garden of Eden #1985: rotovap-ed honeydew melon, rye whiskey, bourbon, caramelised sauterne cordial, orange-phosphate bitters. Their social media feeds cheer on the industry and locals even since reopening in June 2020 with restrictions. They share uplifting Hemingway (and beyond) quotes like “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is,” from The Old Man and the Sea.
Casual and small, Como feels like an escape to Spain in Vancouver since opening in 2018. In May 2020, they shifted to Como Chico, a temporary tapas, drink and shop pop-up. Prepared tapas, conservas, wine and cocktails accompanied Spanish groceries, while a paella patio ‘party’ series pushed them through the summer. In September, they began morphing back into restaurant mode but kept the mercado/market portion and patio. Alongside their Spain-worthy dishes, sip Spanish vermut (vermouth), sherry on draft, gin and tonics done in proper Spanish fashion and gin cocktails like ¿Como? (gin, Lustau Vermut Blanco, olive oil and a Gilda, skewer of a guindilla Spanish chile, anchovy and olive).