By: Lee Breslouer
Credit: Flickr/Kevin Oliver
The first known use of the word iconic comes from 1656, and, though most of these bars haven’t been around quite that long, some come damn close. Our rules for choosing an iconic bar were simple: it has to have been around since at least 1990, it has to be famous, and people need to still love going there. Sometimes this bar is a dive. Sometimes it’s in a fancy hotel where former presidents have had a drink or two. But for whatever reason, these 51 bars have stood the test of time, broken bottles, and health inspections, and they keep bringing the crowds back in. So here are the most iconic bars in every state (and DC!). Cheers.
Baldwin County (Est. 1964)
The Flora-Bama Lounge & Package (not to be confused with the Yacht Club option across the street) is precisely what you expect from a sprawling, wooden, Gulf-front roadhouse straddling the Alabama-Florida line. Since it opened in the ’60s, the daytime crowd has been a mix of young parents with toddlers (who are less welcome after 6pm), college kids on breaks, and locals who walk off the beach or drive up. Despite being almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 (devastation was so bad that it took until 2012 to be fully rebuilt), the bar only stopped serving for a few weeks. It’s inspired songs by everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Kenny Chesney and inspired many other things in spring-breakers. The drink of choice is a Bushwhacker, and the go-to event is the annual Mullet Toss. No party-in-the-back hair is involved (necessarily), just thousands of people standing in Florida competing to see who can toss dead mullets (it’s a plentiful Gulf fish) the furthest into Alabama. Don’t think too hard about it — just go.
The Salty Dawg Saloon
Homer (Est. 1957)
The old coastal lighthouse and cabin that now houses the Salty Dawg has been a lot of things since it was built in 1897, including a school and a post office. These days it’s still a beacon, though instead of boats, it catches the attention of fishermen, locals, and tourists alike. It’s as rustic as things get — this is, after all, Alaska — and if George Washington could talk, he’d have stories to tell. The first president has never been there, of course, but the joint’s covered floor-to-ceiling in autographed dollar bills from patrons who have visited from all over the world. There’s also a human skull in there. If you’re willing to buy somebody a beer, they’ll tell you a story about it. It probably won’t be true, but it’ll sure as hell be memorable.
Big Nose Kate’s Saloon
Tombstone (Est. ~1880s)
Sure the town’s a little cheesy, but it’s named after Tombstone pizza, so it kind of makes sense. Get it? Cheesy! (Wait, maybe we have that wrong.) Anyway, it’s also a tourist trap. But there’s something about a bar in a building that’s been around since the 1800s that you can’t fake. And while the saloon isn’t a house of ill repute anymore, you can still soak up the Wild West with live country music, and stained glass murals of Wyatt Earp and the bar’s namesake. We wonder if the mugs back then had “Big *ss Beer” written on them too.
White Water Tavern
Little Rock (Est. 1977)
If I were to define the word “resilience,” I’d say it was the ability to bounce back. And the late, great owner of White Water from the ’70s-’90s, the late Larry “Goose” Garrison was one resilient Arkansan. The bar had fire ruin it three separate times over those decades, and he rebuilt. And the Little Rock faithful and tourists from all over the country looking for a great dive to watch live music in continued to show up. In the present day, the yearly Holiday Hangout is a multi-day fest booked solid with great Americana acts playing for packed crowds drinking cheap beer and having a great time. You have to imagine Goose would approve.
Credit: Flickr/Jeremy Marshall
Buena Vista Cafe
San Francisco (Est. 1912)
California might as well be the land of storied, iconic bars. From Silver Peso in Larkspur (which we highlighted as one of the best dives in America), to the Frolic Room in Hollywood, to the Waterfront in San Diego, to Vesuvio in SF, it’s hard to go wrong when you want a drink at a historic bar in this state. That said, our pick is the Buena Vista, one of the oldest bars in San Francisco that basically introduced Irish coffee to Americans. Tourists and locals alike still crowd the Fisherman’s Wharf spot 100+ years after it opened to eat breakfast all day (pro tip: try the crab Benedict) and sip on that brilliant boozy concoction.
Aspen (Est. 1889)
Long before Colorado was a smoker’s paradise, it was a skier’s. And one welcoming place for smokers and skiers alike is the Hotel Jerome. Sure, Aspen is the same place where Mariah Carey drops your monthly rent on Louis Vuitton, but there are also gems like the J-Bar — where you can imbibe their famed Prohibition-era Aspen Crud (whiskey, vanilla ice cream, milk) for après ski. And you’d be in good company, as Hunter S. Thompson (R.I.P.), a longtime local, would often drink and work there back in the day. The beauty of a place like this is that it takes all kinds. Skiers, smokers, and gonzo journalists alike.
The Griswold Inn
Essex (Est. 1776)
Located on the Connecticut River in a tiny hamlet that looks like it could double as a Revolutionary War movie set, the Griswold is one of the oldest continually operated joints in the nation, functioning as a (allegedly haunted) hotel and pretty kick*ss bar (it used to also function as a Redcoat command center, but we won, so we’re cool with it now). The old (olde?!) Tap Room serves up great pub fare like fish & chips along with its own Revolutionary Ale, and the bar’s live music runs the gamut from swing to blues to sea shanties. Most importantly, it’s been one of the best bars in America since the day it opened. 239 years is a pretty damn good run.
Bottle & Cork
Dewey Beach (Est. 1936)
Ask people what they know about Delaware and their answers are usually two-fold: the highways and the beach. I grew up there, so I was never driving through Delaware to get anywhere else — to me, it’s a small state with nice beaches (and great sandwiches!). And Bottle & Cork is its legendary, cash-only beach bar known for its live music scene. It’s only open May-Sept, but during those months, they often host bands a year or two away from filling up arenas — The Avett Brothers and Dave Matthews Band among them. Or you can go midweek and catch a cover band while drinking cheap booze from a plastic cup. Either way, you’re having a good time.
District of Columbia
Round Robin & Scotch Bar
Washington, DC (Est. 1986)
Seems strange that a mint julep would be so popular at a DC bar, but Senator Henry Clay from Kentucky in the 1800s brought Bourbon County whiskey to the same building where the bar stands today, and passed along his recipe. They still use that recipe here, at the bar inside The Willard InterContinental, and plenty of them are served at their annual Derby blowout: the Bonnets and Bow-ties party. The bar itself is literally round, with the design based on the Capitol Rotunda. To further add to the DC-ness of the place, you can’t sip on a julep in here without running into anyone “who deals in the business of government.” Heads of state, NATO commanders, and delegations from any country you can name — if they’re in DC, they’re often staying at The Willard, and they’re definitely drinking at Round Robin.
Key West (Est. 1933)
Key West isn’t exactly Florida. It technically is, but it isn’t. Key West is its own thing, and yet it’s completely Florida, because people go there primarily to vacation, to tan and drink and temporarily escape their own sad life selling insurance in Iowa, or whatever it is regular people do. I don’t know, because I make my living writing about bars. Hemingway loved this bar in downtown Key West, and was friends with the original owner, who once ran a speakeasy. Nowadays it’s a “museum during the day,” where people eat lunch and browse old photos of Papa and the island. At night, it’s all Sloppyritas and Papa Dobles (a grapefruit & rum drink) and dancing to whatever party band playing that night. Vacation!
Atlanta (Est. 1956)
“What about Claremont Lounge?!” you’re screaming to yourself while reading this on your phone and driving. Put your phone down, dammit. And while it’s iconic, it’s also a strip club. This story is not about the most iconic strip club in every state. Strangely, Manuel’s isn’t so much a bar as it is a town hall. The bar’s namesake opened it in ’56, and his son who owns it now says that if the bar has any theme, it’s politics. And he’s not kidding — one of their busiest nights of the year is election night. Soak that in. Last election cycle, 1,000 people were in the parking lot watching the results come in. And their nearly 400 seats pack in groups of all kinds — a fly-fishing club, the Georgia movie industry, and even presidents (Obama, Carter, Clinton) come in and enjoy the 31 beers on tap.
La Mariana Tiki Bar and Restaurant
Honolulu (Est. 1957)
On the mainland, the cult of the Tiki bar has sought to recreate the feeling of relaxing on island time. More specifically, they’re trying to recreate the feeling of hanging amid the glowing pufferfish, thatch, and indoor waterfalls of places like La Mariana. Considered to be the last of the old-school Tiki lounges, La Mariana has become something of a museum for the ghosts of Tiki past, a place where you can sip a signature Mai Tai or Zombie while checking out pieces of the culture’s history. That includes legendary artifacts like carved Tikis from the Kon Tiki Room, old tables form Don the Beachcomber, and more. This is the mold from which all Tiki lounges are formed. Let’s hope it’s never broken.
Boise (Est. 1976)
This bar opening its doors in 1976 makes absolutely no sense. The bartop inside of the bar is 100+ years old. Every Thursday, the Frim Fram 4 — a local group that “specializes in the classic tunes of the Jazz Age” — serenade the crowds. Basically, the vibe makes the bar seem older than it is. The massive brick walls and buffalo head add to the ambiance. And somehow, when you put it all together, it works.
Credit: Flickr/Thomas Hawk
The Green Mill
Chicago (Est. 1907)
Chicago played a significant roll in the ascent of both jazz and organized crime in America, and the Green Mill’s history is thoroughly intertwined with both. Opened in 1907 as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse (the Green Mill name wouldn’t come into play until a few years later), the Uptown haunt would grow into both a landmark jazz joint and, for a time, a major hangout for Al Capone and other members of the Chicago outfit (his favorite booth is still there, as are the underground tunnels they used for… various things). Today things are more above board, but the Green Mill remains a fixture within Chi’s nightlife and music scenes.
Slippery Noodle Inn
Indianapolis (Est. 1963)
Though the Noodle has been around since the ’60s, the building the bar’s in has had a bar in it since the 1850s, meaning every time you pop open a Sun King here, you’re drinking in Indiana history, along with a solid beer. Beer signs crowd the walls, mostly from breweries that “unless you’re in your 50s, you’ve never heard of.” Daytime stays busy with office workers from locals Rolls-Royce and Eli Lilly ordering the Indiana-favorite (and Iowa) pork tenderloin for lunch, and the sound of live blues fills the bar seven nights a week.
Davenport (Est. 1934)
There’s a Mac’s Tavern in Philadelphia owned by a famous guy from a TV comedy, but this is not that. We think he’d approve of this dive too. When we talked to one Iowan, they said “it seems like everyone in the Quad Cities has been there at least once,” and since they opened in ’34, the odds seem pretty good. While Mac’s changed ownership in the early ’00s, the important stuff remains: the long, curved bar that takes up basically the entire space, the legendary St. Patrick’s Day festivities, and the eye-catching throwback neon sign advertising “fine food.”
Lawrence (Est. 1953)
Kansas is one of those states that used to have bizarre booze laws, like the one that forced this bar to only serve 3.2% beer, which is approximately 100% less delicious than 6.2% beer. Not anymore, thankfully. Still, the current laws say they have to serve food, but that doesn’t seem to bother the “local townies, bank presidents, and college kids” who pack the place. KU’s close by, which explains the latter. And how Kansas is this? The bar is 7,000sqft, mostly due to the fact that it’s housed in a former tractor/farm implement store.
Old Seelbach Bar
Louisville (Est. 1905)
I stayed in the gorgeous Seelbach Hotel last year to learn about bourbon from the master distiller at Old Forester, and our first stop was in this very bar. We drank their famed Seelbach Cocktail, a combination of Champagne, Old Forester, orange, and bitters that somehow works. The recipe was said to have been created before Prohibition in 1917 and then lost until they found it again in 1995. Another fun historical fact: F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently felt inspired by the bar’s luxury way back when, something that obviously helped him write the screenplay for that Leonardo DiCaprio movie. And when you’re in the Old Seelbach Bar, it’s impossible not to take full advantage of the fact that they’re on the Urban Bourbon Trail and order a cocktail or two — or a pour from one of 74 bottles of bourbon behind the bar.
Credit: Flickr/Jennifer Boyer
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop
New Orleans (Est. ~1940s)
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is one of those rare tourist attractions that is actually worth a visit. While it’s only been a booze destination since the ’40s, the building itself was built in the early 1700s and is the oldest building in America to house a bar. And while many other New Orleans bars can claim they invented some of the most famous cocktails in America, it’s hard to beat a dive where getting the house drink lands you a frozen purple daiquiri loaded with Everclear (it’s fondly called ‘purple drank,’ of course) that you can drink in the glow of video poker while pondering two brothers’ smuggling operations that took place under the same roof almost 250 years ago.
Freeport (Est. 1779)
Declaring itself the “Birthplace of Maine” because it’s where pioneering Mainers plotted their independence from crappy Massachusetts (America: home to history’s groggiest revolutions), the Jameson’s gone by many names since it was established, though we’re partial to Codman’s, for some reason. And while it was temporarily a private residence, it’s been a fully operational bar since 1981, serving up a famous lobster stew alongside house beers like Dr. Hyde’s Angry Ale. It’s a great place to drink in a little history, though sometimes history comes alive a little more than you’re comfortable with: apparently, it’s haunted as hell.
The Horse You Came In On Saloon
Baltimore (Est. 1775)
You might expect that a bar that’s been around over 200 years (and claims to be the oldest continually operated saloon in America) has had bizarre stuff happen there. And the bartender we spoke to didn’t dissuade us from that thinking, saying, “It’s definitely haunted. People have seen things.” We can’t guarantee a ghost sighting, but in the Fells Point bar you’ll definitely see a front bar made from Jack Daniels barrels, locals and tourists alike drinking Natty Bo and Heavy Seas, and the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe. OK, probably not that last one, but legend has it that his very last stop before he died was this bar. Yeah, we’re gonna go ahead and say it’s probably haunted.
J.J. Foley’s Café
Boston (Est. 1909)
With respect to Sam Malone’s admittedly iconic tourist trap, we’re drawn to the South End’s go-to Irish bar, where, for more than a century, legions of Bostonians have flocked. The history of Foley’s is rooted deeply in the history of the city itself. For the better part of a century, it was like Boston’s version of the Mos Eisley Cantina — everybody could be spotted there drinking, from heroes to villains. Politicians, cops, gangsters, journalists, Joe Six-Packs, yuppies, townies, after-Mass Catholics, and intellectuals commingled under the shared banner of strong drink. Four generations later, it’s still owned by the Foleys. And while the neighborhood has been on the up-and-up (or, more accurately, the yup-and-yup), the bar has remained the same. And on any given day, you’re likely to get a mosaic of Boston life inside.
The Pink Pony Bar & Grill
Mackinac Island (Est. 1910)
“But Mackinac’s such a tourist trap,” many Michiganders will say, probably en route to Mackinac. And they’d be correct. But it’s also a place visited by 95% of the population, and it kind of rules. Located where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet in between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, the island has no cars, and can only be reached by boat or ferry. Which is a good thing, because odds are that whether you’re up for one of the annual sailboat races or just visiting for a night, you’re getting down at the Pony. The place — which looks like Bilbo Baggins and Barbie co-designed it — hosts live music, rowdy parties, and includes one of the most gorgeous patios in the country, with a panoramic view that hammers home the reason they’re not called “Pretty Good Lakes.” If this is a tourist trap, we’re glad to be ensnared.
Minneapolis (Est. 1934)
Before you complain, know that Matt’s Bar is a restaurant. Here’s proof. People go to Matt’s to eat and the CC Club to drink. The place has housed plenty of local acts who later hit it big, like the guys from The Replacements, Soul Asylum, and umm, Tom Arnold. No, seriously, he used to live across the street. The CC Club’s aesthetic defines the term “no frills,” as everyone from “25-year-old college kids to 65-year-old Grandpas” drinks tallboys of PBR, and plays pool and old-school video games. And since it’s a bar where musicians still congregate, the jukebox is highly curated, and considered one of the best in the city.
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