If the stigmatization and scapegoating that have befallen bars and restaurants in the past few months were all one had to go on, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these gathering places were nothing but overgrown petri dishes and vectors of disease transmission. But anyone who has ever celebrated a birthday at a late-night karaoke joint or an anniversary at a favorite cocktail bar, mourned a loss over a whiskey on the house, or stopped in a corner bar in an unfamiliar city for a brief sense of belonging knows that our bars are essential fixtures of community, sites of true hospitality, ingenuity and craft.
As the United States continues to set global records for the number of new coronavirus infections, the prospect of being allowed to spontaneously cross the threshold of a bar grows ever more distant for much of the country. Instead, for upwards of eight months, many of us have been forced to become our own bartenders (and often our own company), mastering the quarantini, finding our comfort cocktail and, more often than not, making it overproof. These circumstances have, at times, led to creative discoveries—Vodka LaCroix, anyone?—but mostly they’ve left us pining for the Before Times, when the sterilization of the communal Negroni fountain barely registered as a consideration while serving oneself from the flowing taps. Lately, the ennui brought on by facing the home bar yet again has cast a pervasive feeling that most of us would rather be just about anywhere but here.
Depending on who you ask, that anywhere could be a snapshot in time, recreating a favorite memory from the past—far from home—when the specter of a global pandemic was an unlikely hypothetical, and our favorite bars had not closed en masse. For Karen Fu, bartender at Los Angeles’ Republique, that anywhere would be enjoying “a glass of Champagne at Bemelmans Bar,” the Upper East Side bastion of patrician drinking, where dinner-jacketed staff serve classic cocktails to guests seated beneath the iconic cartoon murals. For Atlanta’s Keyatta Mincey Parker, it would be Little Red Door in Paris, a clandestine bar in the Marais where bartenders take an experimental approach to cocktail creation. Anu Apte, of Rob Roy in Seattle, would be about a 5,000-mile plane ride away in Berlin, “at Becketts Kopf … drinking a Hispaniola Buccaneer,” a blend of Clairin Sajous, coffee eau de vie, PX sherry, verjus and Bittermens tiki bitters, served in the bar’s signature stark style over a large rock with no garnish. For Chris Elford, it would be at Toronto’s Bar Raval, an intimate pintxo-style bar, drinking “a nice glass of fino sherry”—the sort of drink that invariably tastes better when poured for you rather than for yourself.
Of course, no matter where you wish to be—a hole-in-the-wall dive with a shot and a beer, chasing oysters with glasses of muscadet—the people with whom you share another round are what make the drinking memorable. “I would be back home in Japan, sitting at the basement bar of the SG Club with my friend Annie Beebe-Tron, with Joshin Atone as our bartender, sipping gin Martinis, shōchū and sherry,” says Julia Momose, partner at Chicago’s Kumiko. For Nacho Jimenez, the people he’d like to be with could well be perfect strangers, so long as they like to boogie: “One of the things I miss the most is …having those spaces where you can dance,” he says. Andrew Volk, meanwhile, would be perched at the newly renovated and reconcepted Clyde Tavern in Portland, Oregon. “I would be seated there with my wife, Briana, drinking Old-Fashioneds until they kicked us out.” Clyde Common is where the two met and eventually got engaged.
For others, the anywhere they’d rather be is somewhere they have yet to go. “There’s a universal language inside a bar, a comfort of home, no matter where you are or what you are drinking,” says Toby Maloney, partner in the Violet Hour and Mother’s Ruin. “But to spend some hours inside and then step out into a place that is definitively not home—a cobbled European street or sandy soil and a tropical breeze—to be reminded that you are on an adventure, it’s the perfect mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar,” he says. “Where I’d like to be most right now is drinking on my next adventure, with people who have been waiting equally as impatiently to be behind the bar making something memorable.”