What makes a bar an Esquire Best Bar?”

It’s a question I get asked a lot, and I tend to dodge it, mainly because it’s so hard to answer in a satisfying and meaningful way. My canned reply is something like: a place that you love so much you can’t wait to experience it all over again.

If I’m being honest, I found that answer cliché—like a Yelp review presented by the Hallmark Channel. I masked a cringe every time I said it. But fuck if this pandemic hasn’t made that sentiment so true.

A trade secret: While we spend most of the year going to bars to compile this list, a flurry of reporting happens in the spring, right before our deadline, because (a) it’s a great time to travel and drink and (b) writers never turn in stories early.

But this March, as the trees began to bloom and the country started to hibernate, I squeezed in one last reporting trip to Los Angeles and had one final drink at a bar before the Great Quarantine. It was at the Prince in L.A.’s Koreatown, a place that made this year’s list not only because of its horseshoe bar, red banquettes, and cocktails and Korean fried chicken—what a killer combo!—but also because I just had to share this old-school, slightly weird, still sort of under-the-radar experience with my friend Amanda. Even though she’s lived in L.A. for years, she’d never been. Best Bars are places you need your best pals to know about.

When I returned home to New York, my favorite watering holes had started to close, with messages like “Stay Safe, See You Soon!” hastily taped to their doors. Many transitioned into makeshift to-go operations, and that’s where my saccharine “What makes a bar a Best Bar?” reasoning became honest fact. Could I make a semi-decent daiquiri at home? Yes, but it wouldn’t be as transcendent as the one I picked up from the window at Brooklyn’s Leyenda (Best Bars, 2016). Do I like martinis at home? Yes, but not as much as I like martinis at home delivered by Mister Paradise (Best Bars, 2019). And I can’t come close to making the bacon-y Benton’s Old Fashioned that was handed to me in a paper bag outside of PDT (Best Bars, 2008). Even though these establishments weren’t open in the traditional, save-me-a-stool sense, I still had to experience them. I craved their effort. Their hospitality. The love they put into operating during a pandemic just to help their employees get by. (And it felt good to send a little love their way, too.)

So my canned answer to what makes a bar an Esquire Best Bar? A place you just can’t wait to experience again? It’s still my answer. Except now I really mean it. Whether they’re open or not so open, we hope you’ll fall in love with this year’s best bars, and all past (and future) places in our ever-growing hall of fame, when you can. —Kevin Sintumuang

Editor’s note: As of July 14, fifteen of the bars on this list are temporarily closed due to COVID-19. We hope they’re able to open safely in some form when the time is right. Please check directly with the bar for updates. Cheers.

CHICAGO

The Bamboo Room at Three Dots and a Dash

If tiki bars are fantasy, then the Bamboo Room, tucked within Three Dots and a Dash, is the fantasy within the fantasy—a rarefied, rum-fueled fever dream presided over by barman Kevin Beary. When you order a daiquiri, a coupe filled with shaved ice arrives and in goes the cocktail, dissolving the fluff like magic. All nights should end with a meander through a rum list of funky finds. 435 North Clark Street —K. S.