If your sole purpose is to get loose, you can do that cheaper by drinking at home. That’s why I like a good bar more than I like a good drink. Good bars are a mix of good people, good food, reasonable prices, reasonable sound level and a community comfortable enough with itself to invite newcomers in. Only once you’ve found all of these does the variety of bourbon matter, or the brands of beer on tap, or the crispness of the martini. I’ve been to many bars that I wouldn’t call “good” even though they had an impressive collection of bourbon.
Here’s our checklist:
- Good people: This includes both staff and customers. We like bartenders who don’t stare at us like we’re crazy when we introduce ourselves, and fellow-customers who’ll chortle at our jokes and don’t mind us adding two cents to any semi-public chat they’re having about, say, Phillies pitching.
- Good food: We like to eat at the bar. If an establishment doesn’t allow that, it’s off our list. But obviously you want to eat good food. Price doesn’t matter here - a good bar can be a neighborhood burger place as easily as an expensive steakhouse.
- Reasonable prices: To us, “reasonable” is relative. Bell’s Tavern in Lambertville is reasonably priced, though the cost of dinner there is noticeably less than dinner at Marsha Brown’s in New Hope. Both are great restaurants. They’re just different experiences, and we think the price of each is reasonable.
- Reasonable sound level: Lynne and I like to talk when we eat. We talk with each other, we talk with the bartender, we talk with other customers. The proprietors of good bars realize their places are about conversation.
- Easygoing community: We’ve met some really nice people just by sitting at the bar and being drawn into the conversation around us. In some places, you can lean over to ask your neighbor what she’s eating for dinner and she won’t shift her stool a foot away from you. Or, the couple across the way can suggest the night’s special when they see you’re in a decision-making crisis over the menu. The real test comes the second or third time you visit, when you begin to recognize others, and they begin to recognize you. The holy grail, of course, is when the bartender serves your drink without your having to order it. (Really good bartenders can sense when you might be in a different mood, and so will wait for your choice rather than assume this is a night for “the usual.”)
Finally comes the bourbon selection. This is where it gets personal, I know, so substitute your own preferred libation here. For me, I like a bar that appreciates bourbon enough to have Maker’s Mark as its basic brand and then two or three others that rise through the scale: Woodford Reserve, Baker’s, Knob Creek, Booker’s.
With all that said, we begin an occasional series listing (in no particular order) some of our favorite bars in the area. Be sure to send us your own ideas. We need more places to visit.
Pineville Tavern: We’ve written a lot about the Pineville Tavern, which has become our regular hangout because it possesses all of the characteristics of a good bar and has the added advantage of being close to home. It’s warm. Everyone – staff and customers – seem to be in a good mood. There’s a buzz of people enjoying themselves. The food is good, Maker’s Mark is handy.
Bowman’s Tavern, just south of New Hope on River Road, has a friendly, easy-going vibe, good food, and bartenders with a knack for chatting about pretty much anything. We had a wonderful conversation with a couple sitting next to us the last time we were there, comparing notes about restaurants on both sides of the river. The weinerschnitzel, which was recommended to us by the Pineville Tavern’s Drew Abruzzese, was outstanding – tender and lightly fried. The ribeye steak was perfectly cooked, perfect brushed with home-made barbecue sauce.
The bar at Anton’s at the Swan in Lambertville is warm, friendly with a good bar menu that makes eating there a simple decision. Choices include burgers ($10), a sundried tomato pizza ($9), strip steak ($21), and pork chop with garlic mashed potatoes ($16).
Bell’s Tavern, on North Union Street in Lambertville, is tough to beat. Wonderful food, good prices, bartenders who are not above tweaking us about remaining carb-free in the face of their excellent Italian bread. (Okay, so I opened myself up to it when I ordered the bread pudding, which is worth the trip in and of itself.)
More coming soon. In the meantime, if you’ve got a favorite place of your own, tell us about it.