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Creativity Is the Name of the Game at These Destination-Worthy Specialty Bars

By Liza Weisstuch
July 26, 2018
Bartender making a drink
Courtesy @espitadc/Instagram
From gin to mezcal and even sour beer, you can find a bar that specializes in your favorite drink.

Most bars are known for a signature cocktail, an extensive beer selection, or an impressive wine cellar. But every so often, you come across a spot that has a laser-focused specialty all of its own. Take, for instance, whiskey. Bourbon bars have opened around the United States at a fast clip, thanks to a boom in the spirit's popularity in recent years, but there are a number of watering holes known for a vast menu of perhaps a more unlikely spirit. Or beer style. Or wine. The sheer volume of options at each will astound you. 

AN ELEGANT, WELCOMING GIN PALACE 

Whitechapel (whitechapelsf.com) is every Anglophile’s fantasy. And every gin-lover’s too. And anyone who likes cocktails with a botanical zip, actually. And history. Co-owner Martin Cate knows a thing about specializing, as his rum bar Smuggler's Cove quickly became an institution in San Francisco's bar scene when it debuted in 2009. Whitechapel, which opened in the Tenderloin in fall 2015, is designed to look like a bombed-out distillery in a London Underground station, and it shows fierce attention to Victorian-era detail, from the domed ceiling to the battered subway tiles on the wall. That shabby elegance is a nod to the time when gin was thought of as a plague and referred to as “mother’s ruin.” Attention to detail also defines the menu, which is designed like a train timetable. Elevated bar bites and classic pub grub with Indian accents make up the food menu. And as for those drinks, there are more than 700 gins to choose from, priced from $11 to $350-plus. The 12-page roster of cocktails, which ranges from classics to supremely imaginative concoctions, goes well beyond gin and tonics and martinis (though you can get an extensive variety of those here too). The Lamplighter’s Story, for one, blends hibiscus-infused gin, grapefruit marmalade, bitter orange soda, and lemon. 

WHERE THERE'S SMOKE, THERE'S MEZCAL

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Whatever you do, do not call the industrial-chic Espita Mezaleria (espitadc.com) a tequila bar. Mezcal, tequila’s rugged yet sophisticated cousin, is made by roasting agave instead of steam-cooking it like tequila producers do. It’s typically produced at small farms instead of massive distilleries. And though it's traditionally consumed as a shot, it’s become a bartender's darling in the past few years because it adds a smoky oomph to any cocktail. Josh Phillips, one of the few Master Mezcaliers in the U.S., helms the bar at this restaurant in Washington, D.C.'s, Shaw neighborhood, and he has more than 100 mezcals on offer, plus a slew of creative cocktails like the Oaxacan Zombie (a Mexican spin on the classic tiki drink), an elevated smoky margarita, and a few inventive house originals. If you’re curious to learn about the range of mezcal flavors and aromas, ask for a flight. And rest assured, there’s plenty of outstanding Mexican food to wash down the drinks, so make a night of it.

BUBBLES, BUBBLES, AND MORE BUBBLES

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Wine bars are a dime a dozen, but few specialize in one style the way Ca Va (cavakc.com) does. The Kansas City hangout features more than 100 sparkling wines by the glass and bottle, including magnums, from France, Spain, South Africa, and its home state of Missouri, with a premium on organic, biodynamic, sustainable brands. (The name, by the way, is sah-vah, French for “what’s up,” but it’s also a clever play on cava, the Spanish sparkling vino.) If you think this is an opulent, lavish bar for special occasions, think again. The vibe is casual, and the snazzy chandeliers, marble-top bar, pressed-tin ceiling, shabby metal chairs, and brick wall give it the appearance of a French bistro on a Midwest bender. The kitchen’s moules frites, charcuterie board, and croque madame play to its Gallic side, while snacks like duck-fat kettle corn wink at American childhood classics. And though wine bars can sometimes be a bit intimidating, Ca Va steers clear of that with a creative menu that offers whimsical descriptions for each wine. To whit: “meditation as Champagne,” “sea shell, lemon curd, summer nights."

THE GREEN FAIRY ON THE VEGAS STRIP

Sage (aria.com/en/restaurants/sage.html), a grand, sweeping restaurant in the Aria Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, has a lot in common with the city’s other luxe restaurants, like indulgent steaks and glitzy décor. But there’s far more that sets it apart, like its vegan menu and its absinthe-focused bar. First things first: absinthe, flavored with anise and other herbs, will not make you trip. It was made illegal in the early 1900s because it had that effect on Paris’s Left Bank artist types, but that’s because they drank too much of it—and it’s argued that drinking too much of any unregulated spirit would have that same hallucinatory effect. Today, absinthe is produced around the world, and Sage showcases a broad range on its clever absinthe cart. Get your camera ready as the bartender serves it table-side the old fashioned way, which makes for quite a spectacle. Placing a slotted absinthe spoon on the rim of the glass and a sugar cube on top, he pours water over the sugar cube, which dissolves and drips into the glass, creating a hazy effect. It feels like the Belle Epoque all over again.  

SOUR POWER IN PORTLAND, OREGON

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If you aren’t yet a sour beer enthusiast, Portland's airy, lively Cascade Brewing Barrel House (cascadebrewingbarrelhouse.com), which is essentially the tasting-room extension of the nearby brewery, will make you a fan. Or at least a super-informed drinker, as the strong flavors can be a bit polarizing. The style is a longtime cult favorite of beer geeks that's now making more regular appearances in bars and restaurants. It gets its signature tangy flavors from Brettanomyces, a wild yeast, and barrel aging. And Cascade’s brewers know how to get creative with all that. They offer at least a dozen tap selections that they serve with the same reverence any sommelier would show towards a fine wine. They always have the Rose City Sour, their standard, flavored with rose hips, and seasonal picks like a coffee blonde, which is made with Stumptown coffee, and Kentucky Peach. 

FOR SAKE'S SAKE

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Institutional bars, restaurants, bakeries, and music clubs have vanished from New York City, but Decibel (sakebardecible.com) has held strong since the early 1990s, despite radical changes in drinking trends. This hideaway, a cultish favorite in the East Village, is located down a set of metal stairs with only a small light box sign that reads “On Air” indicating the entrance. A mashup of the neighborhood's extinct punk rock bars and Lost in Translation, the dark, intimate bar space is lit by hanging Japanese lanterns, and graffiti is scrawled on the wall and ceiling. (Feel free to contribute.) Snack on edamame, dumplings, or raw chopped octopus while you browse the menu of over 100 sakes. Each one is explained with a clever haiku-like description. (“Soft, delicate aroma and sharp,” “full-bodied sweetness with a crisp, dynamic flavor.”) A visit is an education in its own right, obliterating the myth that sake is just an afterthought served lukewarm.

A SHERRY RENAISSANCE IN NYC

In the past few years, there’ve been a lot of stereotype-shattering drink revivals—rye whiskey, for instance, pisco from Peru, and Brazillian cachaça. Also on the roster: Sherry. The Spanish wine has long been thought of as the fusty tipple of batty old aunts, but bar owners and bartenders have stepped up to set the record straight. Donostia (donostianyc.com), which sits on an unassuming street in New York’s East Village, is one of the pioneers of the sherry renaissance. The Spanish bar has a casual elegance, with a marble bar top, worn metal stools, and walls adorned with antique maps of Spain’s Basque region. The massive leather-bound menu features pages of options, giving you a chance to thoroughly explore this classic fortified wine in all its sophisticated iterations. Just be sure to come hungry. A mouth-watering array of traditional tapas, like olives, chorizo, manchego, and more olives, are on offer. And in a clever touch in keeping with the Basque theme, there’s tinned fish and other classic Spanish market staples for sale. 

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Inspiration

#BTReads: ‘Cuban Flavor’

One of the most effective ways to evoke a travel memory or sense of place is to learn to cook some of the dishes that are popular in a favorite destination. And although this is true of regions all over the U.S. and, indeed, the world, bringing home a taste of Cuba may be the most evocative of all. TASTES OF CUBA “Cuban Flavor: Exploring the Island's Unique Places, People, and Cuisine,” by award-winning food, lifestyle, and travel photographer Liza Gershman, makes a beautiful case for Cuba’s enduring appeal. Gershman’s photography and snappy, clear writing deliver not only the classic tastes of Cuba, such as Ropa Vieja and Arroz con Leche, but also the visual juxtapositions that characterize the island’s architecture, fashion, nightlife, and natural beauty. She immerses us in every sensory experience Cuba offers visitors. USER-FRIENDLY RECIPES Of course, the recipes ultimately dominate, and they will keep home cooks happy and busy, with simple ingredients and super-clear steps. After devouring the history, culture, music, and stunning visual impact of the island in Gershman’s scrapbook-style pages, I settled into tackling Roast Pork with Mango Glaze. It’s cooking in my kitchen as I write this, and the aroma, like “Cuban Flavor,” is intoxicating.

Inspiration

Take an Eating (and Drinking!) Tour of Georgia

It’s no secret that Georgia’s cities boast some of America’s tastiest plates, with cool multicultural riffs on traditional favorites and fresh, locally sourced ingredients. But we’re here to tell you that you’ll also find good eats in the mountains, along the coast, and in small towns you’ll love discovering along the way. Here, your road map to discovering the best foodie finds in Georgia. SAVANNAH There may be no city in Georgia more “foodie” than Savannah, with soul food, seafood, Asian, Italian, and more - including the distinctive local “red rice.” - cooking in kitchens across the city, especially the revitalized River Street warehouse district. Start your day at B. Mathews for their great breakfast sandwich, and basically keep eating all day long. We love Old Pink House for shrimp and grits, especially the “Southern sushi,” which is smoked shrimp and grits rolled in coconut-crusted nori seaweed. Head to Pacci for contemporary riffs on Italian recipes and its gorgeous interior design. Bernie’s is the place when you just want fresh oysters and shrimp in a laid-back environment; and Collins Quarter serves up some of the city’s finest hamburgers. When evening rolls around, wet your whistle at Savannah Taphouse and tuck into their sweet tea fried chicken (yes, marinated in the iconic summer beverage - it doesn’t get any more Southern than that), or raise a glass and take in some live blues at Bayou Cafe. If you have room for dessert, you won’t regret a stop at Savannah’s candy Kitchen for a candy-dipped apple boasting indulgent ribbons of chocolate. THE COAST Remember, as good as the food in Savannah is, a visit to the nearby coast will deliver a dose of unforgettable dishes you shouldn’t miss. On St. Simons Island, Crabdaddy’s Seafood Grill has been family-owned for 30 years, delivering a welcoming ambience and fantastic food like shrimp and grits, the day’s catch, or great steak. Also on St. Simons Island, ECHO is renowned for its shrimp and grits, and the Public House offers succulent pork chops. On Tybee Island, the Crab Shack is a consistent favorite among Budget Travelers for its great prices and for its super-fresh seafood - try the steamed oysters or the extremely filling “Low Country boil,” which includes shrimp, sausage, and potatoes. ATLANTA It comes as no surprise that Georgia’s capital city is a must-eat destination for traveling foodies. Chef Wendy Chang’s Herban Fix serves Asian-inspired vegan dishes such as soy beef and soy chicken that even carnivores love. Atlanta is home to so many top-notch eateries, it deserves an eating tour all its own. Some highlights include seafood-centric Italian meals such as shrimp and lemon linguine at Saltyard and “black spaghetti at Boccalupo (psst, the color comes, of course, from squid ink). You’ll also want to head outside the city to some of the Atlanta metro area’s most delicious communities, including pimento cheese fritters at Chicken and the Egg in Marietta, and perfect buttermilk fried chicken at Food 101 in Sandy Springs. And we especially love the Iberian Pig in Decatur, where an array of, you guessed it, pork takes center stage, including incredible tacos with grilled corn salsa and avocado crema. ATHENS Ready to get beyond the big cities and beaches? Try something different: A cool college town. Granted, Athens is no ordinary college town, with a major university and incredibly diverse population that craves, in addition to great indie music and intellectual pursuits, the finest local food. Start with classic Southern fare at Weaver D’s, including fried chicken, mac and cheese, and apple cobbler, and grab a local cocktail like the bourbon and ginger ale at the Manhattan Cafe, then move on to some unique (and uniquely delicious) joints like Big City Bread Cafe for a spicy lamb burger or Mama Jewel’s Kitchen where the fried chicken and biscuits are given an imaginative upgrade thanks to jalapeno peach jelly and melted brie. THE MOUNTAINS A trip to Georgia’s mountains yields an entirely new world of good eating, with smaller towns grabbing the spotlight with delightful, imaginative culinary offerings. Those who know the state’s mountains know that two major fresh local ingredients are pecans and trout. Lake Rabun Hotel & Restaurant in Lakemont makes it easy to enjoy both with its pecan-encrusted mountain trout. Because no trip to the Georgia countryside would be complete without savoring some BBQ, drop by Jim’s Smokin’ Que in Blairsville for baby back ribs and smoked chicken smothered in the restaurant’s house-made sauce. And if you haven’t tried fried green tomatoes yet, there’s not better place to give them a try than Tam’s Tupelo in Cumming, where the BLT sliders are topped with the tasty Southern favorite, not to mention upscale fixins’ that include pepper-crusted bacon, arugula, and tomato jam. Learn more about everything there is to eat and drink in Georgia at exploregeorgia.org.

Inspiration

Hotel We Love: Eastwind Hotel & Bar, Windham, NY

While it’s only a two-hour drive from New York City, in southeastern New York state's mountainous Catskills region, the idyllic town of Windham feels a world away. Once a thriving vacation spot known as the Borscht Belt, thanks to the lively Jewish culture that flourished there in the 1950s and '60s, the Catskills lost a bit of its luster as younger generations looked toward hipper, more exotic locales. Today, however, it’s experiencing a renaissance.  “There’s a large movement into more nature and adventure-driven destinations,” says Bjorn Boyer, who opened Eastwind Hotel & Bar in Windham in June. “More people are coming here now and trying to build simpler life up here, yet it’s a place that still has a New York character and all the finesse and qualities of any big city.” The hotel, which he owns with three others, fits that same bill, capturing the simplicity one seeks when escaping to nature while still offering sophistication and luxury alongside playfulness and style.  THE STORY Bjorn and his wife, Julija Stoliarova, are two of Eastwind’s four owners. A native of Germany who previously worked in both finance and hospitality, Bjorn says he was drawn to the Catskills because its rolling hills and small-town communities reminded him of Thuringia, a state in the east-central region of the country where he spent his childhood summers. In September 2017, Bjorn and his partners purchased the building, which dates to 1928 and was originally used by fishermen and hunters when they came to the area to work in the wilderness. The down-to-the-studs gut renovation involved new bathrooms, new plumbing, new electricity, and then some. Then Julija brought it to life with décor they describe as "Scandinavian electric,” all clean lines and elevated comforts. The place has a countryside soul with heavy measures of urban style, the result of months she spent hunting down everything from furniture to fixtures, like doorknobs and bookends, at Brimfield, the massive, long-running antique flea market in Western Massachusetts, and other antique markets and vintage stores. The salon, anchored by a mighty iron Malm fireplace, exemplifies the sleek yet idyllic style, with huge windows delivering sweeping views, blond wood tables and bar, Turkish rugs, and shelves lined with vintage books and games. THE QUARTERS The floors in each of the 11 minimalist rooms in the Bunk House, the main building, are made of wood reclaimed from the original building, giving the quarters a cabin-like feel. Each is uniquely accented with Julija's vintage finds, from macramé wall hangings to typewriters to old wood desks and chairs. (Request one of the two “writer’s rooms” if you’re looking to plug into your creative outlet.) Amenities, though, are modern, even lavish. To whit: indulgent Frette linens, sleek Otis & Eleanor speakers, free high-speed internet, and bathrooms with rainheads in the walk-in showers. The Hill House, situated slightly up the hill from the Bunk House, will open later this year and features accommodations for larger groups. Those seeking something more rustic can book one of the three Lushna Cabins, standalone A-frame units that are like tents, if tents were made of wood and had insulation, a window for a wall, a queen-size bed, and a private bathroom with a mirrored wall.  (Courtesy Jordan Layton) THE FOOD With the hotel being so new, the food and drink programs are still being hammered out. As of now, a European breakfast spread that includes yogurt, granola, fruit, cheese, meats, and hot items is available Saturday and Sunday from 8:30 to 11:00 a.m. ($20 per person.) The bar in the airy salon serves beer, wine, and cocktails Friday through Sunday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. Expanded hours are coming soon, and with that will come a bar menu that includes charcuterie, crudité, and dessert plates. THE NEIGHBORHOOD The Catskills have long been a destination for outdoor sporty types, and Windham’s location offers easy access to ski slopes, hiking trails, golf courses, adventure attractions, and streams for fly-fishing. A nearby spruce forest is a mellow wilderness paradise for hikers, bikers, and even horseback riders.  Windham Mountain, a popular ski destination, is a five-minute drive away, while Hunter Mountain, which hosts music events and other festivals when it’s not ski season, is about twenty minutes away. A mile from Eastwind is downtown Windham, established in 1798 and known as the Gem of the Catskills, with a collection of cozy restaurants, from French to Italian to hip American brewpubs, shops, and spas, many set in historic buildings. It’s the kind of enclave that Edward Hopper would have been quite comfortable painting. And speaking of painters, the galleries here are a crash course in the Hudson River School, an American art movement of Romanticism-influenced landscape painters that was largely originated by Thomas Cole, who resided here. His home is open for tours. RATES & DEETS Starting at $159 for rooms and $179 for Lushna Cabins.  Eastwind Hotel & Bar5088 Route 23 Windham, NY 12496(518) 734-0553 / eastwindnewyork.com

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: San Antonio, Texas

Before the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there was San Antonio. Established in 1718 by the Spanish, it celebrates its 300th anniversary this year (2018). And this Texas city, which clocks in as the seventh largest (still true in 2021) in the United States, has a whole lot to celebrate. Institutions along Broadway Cultural Corridor, a two-mile stretch north of downtown, have invested over $500 million in refurbishments and upgrades over the past five years. Among them is the Witte Museum, which encompasses ten acres along the river and focuses equally on nature, science and culture, all with a Texas slant. A multi-million refurbishment that transformed a total of 174,000 square feet was completed in 2017. It’s all happened under the watch of Marise McDermott, the Witte’s president and CEO for 17 years. A culture journalist from New York turned culture executive in the Lone Star State—“Once you marry a Texan, you live in Texas,” she notes—she’s called San Antonio her home since 1986, with a six-year break in the middle. She appreciates its “slower pace” and cherishes the eleven oak trees in her yard. We checked in with her to get the lowdown on the changing landscape of one of America’s oldest cities. A CULTURAL AND CULINARY MELTING POT The McNay Art Museum (Florin Seitan/Dreamstime) So, about those museums. The Broadway Cultural Corridor is a two-mile stretch just north of downtown on that runs along the San Antonio River. It includes the McNay Art Museum, a modern art hub; San Antonio Botanical Gardens; the San Antonio Museum of Art, which focuses on classical art dating back to the ancients; a 50-acre zoo; and the DoSeum, a children’s museum. It's also home to the Witte, which is devoted to telling the state’s history, from prehistoric times to recent decades. Under Marise’s watch, the Witte, which has been around since 1926, has taken great strides in elevating San Antonio’s cultural status on the international stage, bringing exhibits that hit other big cities to its galleries. A 10,000 square foot gallery that was opened as part of the $100 million transformation in 2017 as part of the $100 renovation debuted with “Whales: Giants of the Deep,” a show from New Zealand that featured a 58-foot whale sperm whale skeleton. (As an interesting footnote, Marise notes that there are 21 whale species on the Gulf Coast.) Where museums go, restaurants follow. As the institutions invested money, a culinary renaissance flourished. Longstanding restaurants upped their game and new ones opened. Marise is no stranger to the rustic, casual Smoke Shack, not least because it’s located across from the Witte. Also, their barbecue holds its own in a culture that values its grilled meats. One of the city’s standouts is located a few miles away from the Corridor in the Pearl, a revitalized old brewery that’s now a destination for its creative independent businesses.La Gloria specializes in Oaxacan street food. Its fun décor—a garage door entrance, metal furniture, and other industrial-chic touches—signals its lighthearted vibe. There’s a dog-friendly porch where you might find Marise hanging out with her two greyhounds and indulging in the fish tacos, one of chef-owner Johnnie Hernandez’s signatures. But the highlight isn’t the fillings, it’s the fixings. “The sauces are the most important part. They give you all sorts of different ones and they’re all freshly done with herbs.” And one other important thing: “No matter what time of day it is, get the sangria.” For something a bit more formal, she recommends Bliss, which is about two miles south of downtown. They offer a dependably excellent branzino dish, Marise says, and expertly paired wines. You’ll need a reservation because there aren’t many tables. MISSIONS: ACCOMPLISHED Missions Espada in San Antonio (Amanda McCadams) Back when the Spanish arrived in the 1700s, Franciscan priests built complexes known as missions to establish their rule on the frontier and convert Native Americans. Each mission contained all the necessities of daily life, from chapels to farms and granaries to workshops and acequias, their water distribution system. Today, the missions stand as an example of how craftsmen blended European and local design elements. They’re such a bedrock of regional history that the Mission Reach, which embodies five missions on nearly eight riverside miles, was established as a World Heritage Sites in 2015. Now, as Marise says, “visitors are finally finding them.” A trip to Mission Reach, however, is hardly a stroll through time-tested ruins. Many are still living places with vibrant cultures. Taquerias that have been run by the same family for generations are dotted along the riverfront park, which has seen investments of about $300 million in the past five years for public art, plantings, and chutes for kayaks. The money has also gone to upkeep of the area’s wetland space, so expect to spot all kinds of wildlife. When her teenage grandsons come to town, Marise will rent bikes from Swell Cycle (now called San Antonio Bike Share), the local bike share company, and hit as many missions as they can in a day. Along the way, they stop at roadside vendors for raspa, flavor-infused ice served by the scoop in paper cups, and paletas, Mexican ice pops made with traditional flavors like hibiscus flower or tamarind. TAKE IT OUTSIDE Texas is sprawling, to be sure, but you don’t have to go far for a change of scenery. For a heavy dose of the outdoors, head ten miles outside San Antonio to Government Canyon State Natural Area, which encompasses rugged bike trails, about 40 miles of easier walking trails, and camping sites on 12,244 expansive acres. To Marise, being there “feels like you’re in Hill Country, in the middle of nowhere.” Marise likes to share the story of the time the Witte’s paleontologist uncovered prehistoric footprints of an Acrocanthosaurus there. Museum staff thought there might be 20 tracks, but this one scientist uncovered 300 footprints and molded some of them you can find on display at the museum. Today, when wandering Government Canyon, the only beast you have to look out for is coyotes. SHOP AROUND The Broadway Cultural Corridor is, to hear Marise tell it, a retail corridor as well. "I shop at all the museum stores," she says, noting that she's purchased most of her jewelry at art institutions' shops, especially the McNay, the modern art museum. The San Antonio Museum leans more toward ancient-themed item, and the stores at the Botanical Gardens offer a wide selection of books and gifts for kids as well as unique outdoorsy things like hemp-fiber picnic blankets, suitable for, well, an afternoon at the botanical gardens, or any laid-back sunny spot. But that's not to say you can't get distinctly San Antonio items elsewhere. There are fantastic boutiques in the Pearl District. She calls out Dos Carolinas, a shop known for bespoke guayaberas made with natural fibers. This Caribbean and South American style of men's summer shirts is distinct for its pleated tailoring. "Good ones are hard to come by," she says. Until, that is, you get to San Antonio.For more information on San Antonio visit their website.

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