It was over two weeks ago that PUNCH finalized this list of the world’s most iconic bars—those old-school standard-bearers scattered across the globe from London to Los Angeles that still provide daily inspiration to drinkers, bartenders and a thirsty community of passers-through. Around the same time, one-by-one they shut their doors.
During these uncertain times when all of our cherished cocktail bars, taverns and corner taps are denied to us in the name of caution, it’s reassuring to remember that such epochal bars have weathered all sorts of adversity over the decades, and that odds are good they will survive this current crisis, too.
These bars share a number of characteristics. Most are small in size and all are cosmopolitan in attitude. They are simultaneously beloved by locals and famed tourist attractions. The bartenders are frequently uniformed to the nines and there’s at least one signature drink that ought to be ordered before leaving. Finally, more often than not, they count novelist and infamous cocktailer Ernest Hemingway as a former regular. Above all, they haven’t changed much with the times, but are instead honored as timeless, by generation after generation. Now is as good a time as ever to honor that steadfastness.
To assist in our painstaking selection of the most iconic bars across the globe, PUNCH polled a collection of the top drink-world authorities, including historians Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Philip Greene, François Monti and David Wondrich; journalists M. Carrie Allan, Paul Clarke and Kara Newman; and all-around roving cocktail experts Philip Duff and Angus Winchester.
American Bar at The Savoy, London
One of the most storied addresses in cocktail history, and, as the name of the place indicates, “one of the earliest European outposts of that great late 19th-century American export, the cocktail,” according to Greene. The talent behind the Covent Garden bar has always been not just stellar, but often historic. Past bartenders have included Ada Coleman, a female bartending icon of the early 20th century and the inventor of the Hanky Panky; Harry Craddock, author of the highly influential 1930 volume The Savoy Cocktail Book; and Peter Dorelli, head barman for two decades, who kept the flame burning in the late 20th century and continues to preach the cocktail gospel today as the education secretary for the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild. An impermeable art deco cocoon of white-jacketed servers and bygone manners, it is, as Allan terms it, “elegant, old school, and deeply connected to mixology history.”
Opened in 1933 by Cuban Miguel Boadas, after he finished his bartending schooling at El Floridita in Havana, this intimate, triangular space—located just steps from the tourist nexus Las Ramblas—is the cradle of the thrown Martini, in which the drink cascades theatrically through the air from one mixing vessel to the next. Elegant, yet bohemian, “it’s a combination of civilized drinking—the American way—and the European leisurely way of life that has all but disappeared,” says Monti. The clientele, meanwhile, constitutes “some of the crustiest, most amusing regulars anywhere and a casual élan that is unmatched,” says Wondrich.
Dukes Bar, London
Small bars loom large in the imagination of the cocktail maven, and few are smaller, more reserved and more retiring than Dukes, the quiet, well-upholstered space that just barely announces its presence off the lobby of the Dukes Hotel in Mayfair. (The hotel itself is difficult to locate, secreted down a couple narrow lanes off St. James’s Street.) Dukes might have remained a sleepy locals-only bar, if not for the worldwide fame garnered by its house Martini, invented in 1987 by bartender Salvatore Calabrese. As frozen as Nome in January and utterly undiluted (it is poured directly from ), it is prepared tableside and guests are limited to two.
The signature Martini at Dukes in London. [Photo by Jason Bailey].
El Floridita, Havana
This is, perhaps, the most iconic of the world’s iconic bars. The so-called “Cradle of the Daiquiri” and of so much more, the corner Havana bar and restaurant represents all that a cocktail bar should embody, from the bartenders’ flamboyant style to their unfailing graceful service, flawlessly consistent cocktails and welcoming ambiance. The legend of the bar grew exponentially during Prohibition years, when Americans flocked to Cuba and it became a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway. Its Hemingway connection cannot be overstated—a life-size statue of the writer refuses to give up its place at the end of the bar—but it’s the unfettered professionalism and glamour of the place and its bartenders that have secured the bar its unshakable place in the cocktail firmament.
Harry's New York Bar, Paris
A haven for thirsty expatriate Americans in the 1920s and a beacon of cocktail culture ever since, the bar was shepherded into fame by Scottish barman Harry McElhone, the author of several well-known cocktail books (one of which introduced the world to the Boulevardier) and creator of several notable cocktails (The Monkey Gland, Scofflaw). And even if it may not have been the birthplace of the Sidecar, it is the bar most associated with the drink: One of the first printed recipes of the mixture appeared in McElhone’s book, Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails. Still family-run, it exhibits a cheeky insouciance, and attracts the trade of the footloose today as much as it did 100 years ago. “If you catch the bar at the right time it can be a place of magic,” says Wondrich. “A little alcove outside of time where the ghosts of drinkers past steady your elbow as you lift your third Sidecar to your lips.”
Harry's Bar, Venice, Italy
Located just steps from the Grand Canal, Harry’s Bar churns out countless Bellinis and tiny, ice-cold, shot-glass Martinis, which have become the bar’s two signatures. A six-stool bar anchors the attractive, compact room where a collection of wooden chairs and tables are cast in a soft amber glow by a series of small wall sconces. A magnet for boldface writer and artist types—including Orson Welles and, of course, Ernest Hemingway—since opening in 1931, it has, like most of the bars on this list, managed to handle the tourist hordes without losing its sang-froid. The bartenders and servers are white-jacketed apostles of hospitality, the menu the work of a quirky group ego that harbors no doubts about its greatness.
The shot-glass Martini at Harry's Bar in Venice. [Photo by Colin Dutton].
Bar Hemingway at the Ritz, Paris
The most famous of the bars inside Paris’ most famous hotel, it is also the most exclusive. Under original head bartender Frank Meier in the 1920s through the 1940s, it was “simply the place to get a drink in Paris, to see and be seen,” says Greene. “If you were any kind of celebrity, you went to the Ritz, from Hemingway to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to Cole Porter to Winston Churchill to Marilyn Monroe.” Most associated with Hemingway, ever since he “liberated” it from the Germans during World War II—though the Nazis were long gone when the writer showed up at the hotel with a jeep and a machine gun to free the bar from foreign tyranny—it has been synonymous with glitz and high living ever since. “Luxury personified,” as Winchester puts it. “Bring your firstborn child as the drinks are not cheap.”
The most famous of the bars inside Paris’ most famous hotel. [Photo by Hemingway Bar].
Milk & Honey/Attaboy, New York
The only modern bar on this list and deservedly so. The late Sasha Petraske’s hidden Lower East Side neo-speakeasy returned cocktails and cocktail bartenders to their former place of dignity when it opened on Dec. 31, 1999. It was the first bar of the cocktail revival to mount a set of house rules and to forgo a menu in favor of dealer’s choice. It went on to inspire a hundred other speakeasy-style bars bent on perfecting the evanescent magic of adult drinking. Milk & Honey moved to another location in 2013 and closed soon after, but Attaboy, run in the original space by two of Petraske’s most ardent protégés, has continued the tradition of crafting classic drinks to perfection coupled with meticulous service. As with any eternal cocktail den, it boasts a few liquid calling cards, including the Penicillin, Gold Rush and Greenpoint, all born at Milk & Honey. It is, says Winchester, “still small, still hard to find and still wowing patrons with its no-menu mixology that shares lesser-known classics and modern classics to an appreciative crowd.”
Napoleon House, New Orleans
Few cities have held on to more great old bars than New Orleans, a city that knows how to live and how to drink. Many of the NOLA old guard could arguably merit a place on this list. But Napoleon House, which has held firm to its corner of the French Quarter for a century, may be the first among equals. The high-ceilinged room breathes age with its romantically distressed walls, hodge-podge collection of pictures and slow-moving ceiling fans. The house drink is the light-bodied Pimm’s Cup, a perfect antidote to the climate (and chosen because owner Peter Impastato preferred drinks that didn’t get people too intoxicated). Sip at a Sazerac and nibble at a muffuletta, and time will stand still for as long as you want it to.
Tiki Ti, Los Angeles
Though nearly erased by neglect and changing tastes, tiki culture, which has come roaring back in the last decade, has managed to hang onto a few of its original standard bearers. None are as small or have as direct a line to tiki’s origins as L.A.’s Tiki Ti, a world of wonder hidden inside a boxy hut alongside Sunset Boulevard in Los Feliz. Ray Buhen opened the bar after three decades working for Donn Beach, Stephen Crane, and other tiki pioneers. His lineup of tiki classics, like the Missionary’s Downfall and Fogcutter, are still made today by his son and grandson, “as they were originally made by Ray and others in the 1930s to ’50s,” says Berry, “making the Ti a sort of ‘missing link’ between tiki’s first golden age and the current tiki renaissance.”