What Makes a Great Cocktail Bar?
We started by compiling a list of the best cocktail bars as chosen by a select group of expert sources including the annual Tales of the Cocktail and James Beard Awards. We then turned to regional sources such as Thrillist, Zagat, Eater.com and others. All combined we had just over a hundred bars vying for top honors. Then, the real research started. Each bar was scored according to several sets of metrics:
Drink Density: It goes without saying that a cocktail bar should be known for great drinks. So we came up with the Drink Density score, a way of measuring the buzz factor of a location as it relates to cocktails. We scoured reviews from Yelp and tips from Foursquare for terms like “cocktail” and “mixology.” We balanced the number of total reviews and tips against the number of drink-related terms found. The final score is expressed as a percentage — e.g.,: 50 percent of reviews or tips mention the drinks.
Place Score: Next, we asked the question “What distinguishes a bar from a cocktail bar?” Using data from Yelp, we considered several variables including whether the location offered a full bar, the terms used to describe it’s ambience (classy, trendy, hipster, etc), whether it offered happy hour or accepted reservations, and the category listing — bar, cocktail bar, lounge, etc. We awarded points for each item to reach a final score that measures how well a cocktail bar met our criteria.
Awards Score: The simplest part of our scoring process, this measures the number of sources that list a cocktail bar as being among the best — one point for each award.
Combined, these three grades gave us the Big Score, which we used to determine the best cocktail bars on the West Coast. Our 25 top bars are listed here, for a longer list of our top 100 winners check out the table.
25. Bergerac in San Francisco, Calif.
Photo via Bergerac, Facebook.
This “party mixology” bar gets its inspiration from the legendary French mansion where the Rolling Stones partied while recording their 1972 album “Exile on Main Street.” Like The Stones, the bar invites patrons to escape from the routine while savoring whimsical cocktails and international pub food in a bohemian setting. Bartender Russell Davis experiments with techniques like carbonation and barrel aging to create food-friendly cocktails perfect for a long night at the bar.
24. Sycamore Den in San Diego, Calif.
Photo via Sycamore Den, Facebook.
If you were too young to drink in the 1970s, Sycamore Den is your chance to step back in time to enjoy the style, if not the flavors, of the decade. The menu is decidedly more modern with signature drinks like the Hardly Wallbanger (an updated riff on the Harvey Wallbanger) and the Pirate Roast (jalapeno-infused spiced rum with lemon, cinnamon syrup, coffee stout and mole bitters).
Photo via Natalia T., Foursquare.
Just upstairs from Portland’s fabulous Raven & Rose restaurant, waits the Rookery Bar where the only thing more impressive than the furnishings at Rookery is the liquor selection. The cocktails are inspired by the history and craftsmanship of the 1833 historic carriage house which the bar and restaurant share. One of bar manager David Shenaut’s specials is the St. Croix Sling, a soothing riff on a hot toddy that combines St. Croix rum, sugar, lemon and ginger.
Photo via Catrina R., Foursquare.
The atmosphere at Blackbird is quite welcoming with its Mahogany bar and large booths. For entertainment, a pool table and photo booth add to the ambiance. Locals enjoy the wide selection of wine by the glass, oak-aged cocktails and artisanal beers. The signature drink, the Blackbird Royale, is one of the sexiest specialty drinks around. There is no better place to meet with friends and socialize. Bring your wallet, since it is a cash only establishment.
Photo via Thomas W., Foursquare.
As the name implies, this bar’s decor is reminiscent of a fishing wharf near the San Francisco bay. Rum takes center stage at Smuggler’s Cove where visitors enjoy exotic tropical concoctions, traditional Caribbean libations and classic cocktails from Prohibition-era Havana. The menu features 75 different cocktails, most made with rum. Like other bars from the golden age of Tiki, Smuggler’s Cove is about having fun and enjoying a cocktail without pretension.
Photo via Onur K., Foursquare.
An apothecary-inspired bar, Percy’s and Co. creates inventive cocktails using infused spirits, fresh purees and beneficial tinctures said to boost brain power, immunity and energy. Despite it’s fanciful ingredients, the bar manages to maintain its street cred as a neighborhood bar where everyone is welcome. Not sure what to order? No problem! Tell the bartender how you’re feeling and let them come up with a custom cocktail just for you.
Photo via Expatiat, Facebook.
Expatriate is built to be a place of social interaction. Even the height of the backrest was determined in such a way as to encourage conversation among guests. The exceptional cocktails are expertly crafted by Kyle Linden Webster, while renowned chef Naomi Pomeroy designs seasonal bar snacks to match whatever’s on the drink menu.
Photo via Kevin H., Foursquare.
Detail Magazine named Seattle’s Rumba as one of the best new bars in the country. Seattle’s first rum bar, Rumba offers a menu full of delicious rum-based drinks like punches, daiquiris, swizzles and more to satisfy palates of all varieties. In addition to rum specialties, bite into flavorful fare like Camarones con Coco, Tacos a la Rumba and baked empanadas. Rumba offers one-of-a-kind enjoyment for everyone from rum enthusiasts to those who have yet to give this spirit a try.
Photo via Kristin M., Foursquare.
After a day of shopping at Pike Place Market make your way to the Pike Street Hill Climb and head down the stairs to Zig Zag, a welcoming watering hole serving up very fine cocktails. The menu is a collection of speakeasy-inspired concoctions that are heady with bitters and tinctures. The vibe here is laid-back and friendly, a place where locals and out-of-towners can easily mix for an evening of innovative drinks.
Photo via Consortium Holdings, Consortium Holdings.
Like The Varnish in Los Angeles, Noble Experiment is a well-hidden local wonder. Finding this speakeasy style bar is just slightly less difficult than getting a reservation — available only via text message. Those who make the effort are rewarded with entrance to the intimate 32-seat venue where every detail has been taken into consideration. The menu is a short list of the best drinks in the house, each made with top shelf spirits, fresh juices and quality infusions.
Photo via Hale Pele, Google Plus.
Hale Pele offers a full-service bar with drinks that play to the establishment’s Polynesian theme. Rum fans in particular will find the selection of drinks to be pleasing. Decorated with the islands in mind, they also serve a small dish menu that includes Hawaiian bread, pupu platters and Pele Rangoon.
Photo via Joey C., Foursquare.
This popular North Beach destination serves small plates and impeccably executed pre-Prohibition cocktails. Prior to its current incarnation as a purveyor of artisan drinks, the building was home to the second oldest bar in San Francisco. Experience The City by the Bay by choosing one of the “local” cocktails like Pisco Punch, created in the mid-1800s at a bar on Montgomery Street.
Photo via Sterling E., Foursquare.
In a town where chasing celebrities can be a full-time business, the cocktails are the real stars at West Hollywood’s Roger Room where bartenders serve up 20 classic drinks reinterpreted for the modern drinker. Penicillin is the cure for everything at this speakeasy-style bar. It’s not a pill, but a smooth scotch cocktail made with honey, lemon and ginger. Those yearning for a more exotic libation can sip on a Green Fairy, named after it’s main liquor — absinthe. If you want a guaranteed spot at the bar, it’s best to call ahead or arrive early.
Photo via Eben H., Foursquare.
Specializing in fresh, made-to-order cocktails and spirits from around the globe, Liberty aims to be the go-to spot in the neighborhood where people can come to relax and enjoy good times with friends. Liberty offers drinks made with spirits from all over the world, including Japan, India, Ireland and Canada. Patrons can take the edge off their hunger as they enjoy their drinks with a variety of sushi and vegetarian selections on Liberty’s menu.
Photo via Multnomah Whiskey Library, Multnomah Whiskey Library.
With its premier menu and exclusive selection of spirits, Multnomah Whiskey Library beckons those who want to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience with fellow devotees of fine food and drink. The 1500-bottle library lines the 12-foot walls of this elegant bar, filled with cozy leather chairs, dark wood paneling and vintage accessories. Reservations for members are available on a first-come, first-serve basis only; non-members can purchase a one-time Hall Pass to secure a reservation.
Photo via Mezcal El Silencio, Foursquare.
Never mind the fact that the inside of Harvard & Stone at 5221 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Feliz looks very much like a Colorado ski lodge. Behind the bar, you will meet some of the most gifted mixologists in all the Southland. If you’re up for a rollicking good time where the tunes are live and the locals love to dance, head on over to Harvard & Stone on any Saturday night.
Photo via Natalie T., Foursquare.
Start searching for the best drinks in Portland and you’ll quickly find that all roads lead to Teardrop Cocktail Lounge. Regardless of where they work now, many of the city’s best bartenders go their start here. This is a showcase bar, where watching the process is as enjoyable as imbibing. The sleek modern decor is impressive, even among its ultra-hip Pearl District neighbors. Arrive early in the evening for casual conversation or stop by for a nightcap if you prefer to see and be seen.
Photo via Eater, Foursquare.
International cuisine meets domestic flavors at Clyde Common. This European-style tavern offers flavorful dishes, desserts and wines in a relaxing, yet energizing atmosphere. Although a full-service restaurant with a fine dining menu, Bar Manager Jeffery Morgenthaler’s creations have achieved international acclaim. As such, Clyde Common has made a name for itself with barrel-aged cocktails, house-made mixers and quality ingredients.
Photo via Jeff W., Foursquare.
With a carefully curated menu split evenly between signature drinks and classic cocktails, this Belltown bar is a must-visit for those in search of something special to drink. The atmosphere — vintage 1960s with dim lighting, exposed stone and black leather — is the perfect place to indulge in the bar’s namesake scotch cocktail or an outstanding Old Fashioned.
Photo via Lara H. and Sandy L., Yelp.
At 118 Sixth Street, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, there is a restaurant called Cole’s. If you think of Cole’s as a typical L.A. eatery, you’re mistaken. At the back of the restaurant, there is a rather nondescript-looking door. It could lead to a kitchen or storeroom, but it doesn’t: Behind that unobtrusive door lies one of the coolest speakeasy-style bars on the West Coast. For those who know about this secret gem of a club, nothing but a taste of The Varnish will do.
Photo via Katie S., Foursquare.
Serving the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Sun Liquor Bar & Distillery offers their own brand of small-batch booze like hedge trimmer gin and unxld vodka as well as specialty liquors from local sources. The atmosphere is artsy and comfortable, encouraging guests can linger at the long wood bar and watch through the glass as spirits are distilled in the next room.
Photo via Pour Vous, Facebook.
In the mood for fancy French cocktails served up Parisian style? Point your GPS to 5574 Melrose Avenue and head on over to Pour Vous. Despite being one of the smallest clubs on the West Coast, Pour Vous is a highly sought-after venue known as much for its spectacle as its cocktails. Depending on the night, you can sip your drink while watching an aerial display or a burlesque show.
Photo via Juan P., Foursquare.
In February 2013, Polite Provisions announced the hire of veteran San Francisco mixologist Erick Castro to an already-amazing team. Since that auspicious addition to the crew at Polite Provisions, the unique apothecary-themed bar and atrium at 30th Street and Adams Avenue in San Diego’s University Park neighborhood has served up thousands of cultured cocktails for discerning patrons.
Photo via Daryn N., Foursquare.
With its small and intimate atmosphere, Seattle’s Canon offers an extensive collection of spirits that belie its size. Take your time browsing the menu of barrel-aged drinks and carbonated cocktails served in glass flasks. Or if you’re daring pull out the Captain’s List, more than 100 pages of specialty drinks and rare finds for connoisseurs of fine spirits. It doesn’t take long to see whyCanon was awarded the “World’s Best Drink Selection” from Tales of the Cocktail in 2013.
Photo via Genevieve P., Foursquare.
With a fresh menu of new drinks, the Trick Dog is a must-visit location for any serious cocktail enthusiast. The venue is known for it’s rotating menu, each with a new theme. Past themes have included drinks named after songs displayed on a “menu” of 45s and a Pantone swatch book menu with drinks of various colors. Seats fill up quickly, so arrive early.