Southern cities are abuzz with new hotels and their watering holes. Our editors pick the ones worth sidling up to.
The Hermitage’s Oak Bar, the Williard’s Round Robin, Hotel Monteleone’s carousel: Southerners love a good hotel bar. Whether it bookends a big night out—the place to meet for a drink beforehand and grab a nightcap afterwards—or is a destination unto itself, swanky hotel bars occupy a special space in our social lives. Bonus points for well-crafted cocktails, a nice wine list, and welcoming bartenders. The best ones make us feel like we’re on our own turf, even when we’re miles from home.
Now, an urban building boom has spawned a whole new category of hotel hangouts that go beyond who has the fussiest cocktails: the concept bar. From local ingredients-only to epic whiskey lists, these establishments are intent on carving out niches that will attract the next generation and land them on Instagram feeds. But can the young bucks hold a candle to the icons? We report on thirteen newcomers that are well worth posting up at next time you’re in town.
THE LIVING ROOM
A brass bar emerges from the wall like a gleaming stage, the white-jacketed bartenders behind it the players; they entertain an eager audience not with memorized lines but elegant elixirs. Downtown Charleston’s the Dewberry is an unabashed ode to midcentury modern design and all its cherry wood-paneled, nostalgic glory. Designers leaned in hard to the theme when it came to planning the Living Room, the lobby bar-lounge that lives up to its name. Clusters of plush Poul Kjærholm sofas and wingback chairs encourage conversation and etagere bookshelves are stocked with copies for casual browsing. The result is a place that lures Charlestonians and hotel guests alike to gather over well-built cocktails. The leather-bound menu spans cocktails light and bright—the Golden Hour with reposado tequila, Aperol, and orange bitters is a fitting order for the time of day it’s named for—to rich and bittersweet. Of course, around these parts you can never go wrong with a classic old fashioned. This one comes with a built-in stirrer: a skewered cherry cleverly nestled into a hand-cut ice cube emblazoned with the Dewberry’s logo.
The Edwin Hotel
Standout hotel bars in Miami and New Orleans are practically a given, but in Chattanooga? Thanks to Whiskey Thief, absolutely. Positioned atop the year-old Edwin Hotel, it affords patrons a sweeping vista of downtown and the Tennessee River through near floor-to-ceiling windows. Its name: a reference to the tool distillers use to retrieve samples of booze straight from the barrel. To no one’s surprise, the bar offers much in the way of brown water, from cocktails to a dizzying catalogue of 2-ounce pours. Such devotion encourages a deep exploration of the spirit in all its iterations for both novices and enthusiasts; turn the bar into your own whiskey thief for tastes of rare and intriguing bottles like the Tottori Ex-Bourbon, a Japanese whisky that’s aged in bourbon barrels. It’s served neat and also stars in the Paper Plane alongside Aperol, Amaro Nonino, and lemon. Other cocktails employ a bit of whimsy—the Queen Anne with Copper & Kings brandy, Crème de Noyaux, Goodman coffee, and a crescent chocolate garnish could double as dessert.
The Thompson Hotel
Cruising Broadway and boot-stomping at Robert’s Western World are all part of the Nashville experience, but sometimes it’s nice to rise above the fray. Hence, the lengthy wait on Friday and Saturday nights for L.A. Jackson, the rooftop lounge of the Thompson Nashville hotel. Ever since the runaway success of original 60 Thompson Street property in New York’s SOHO (now, the SIXTY SOHO), which opened in 2001, the boutique chain has been keen on replicating its stylish footprint in trendy locales, such as this one in Music City’s reinvented Gulch neighborhood. And the indoor-outdoor rooftop bar (and restaurant) is a key part of that fashionable formula. Indeed, the spot has a stellar vantage point to take in the city’s ever-growing skyline. Even if you can’t score a seat outside, the indoor bar offers views on three sides. You’ll inevitably rub shoulders with hotel guests, tourists, bachelorette parties, and locals, who all flock here for brunch (bourbon corn dogs do wonders for a hangover) and DJ sets on weekend evenings. The bar has a nicely curated line-up of craft beers from the South and creative cocktails to share like the Tequillin’ Me Softly with blanco tequila, campari, mango, ginger, lime, and chile tincture, or the ANGO Unchained— L.A. Jackson’s take on rum punch inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained.
The story begins with the Clermont Lounge, a see-it-to-believe-it, skeezy yet beloved subterranean dance lounge with a single rule: no cameras. Billing itself as Atlanta’s oldest strip club, it’s been around since 1965 (most of its dancers could say the same) in the underbelly of a building positioned at the corner of Ponce de Leon and Bonaventure avenues. Formerly the site of the Clermont Motor Hotel, a flophouse that closed a decade ago, the building sat vacant until developers recast it into the boutique, historic-minded Hotel Clermont, which opened its doors last year.
Its Lobby Bar, located just off the entryway, is steeped in the Clermont’s distinctive brand of seedy chic. Wicker lamps, plush carpeting, and tassled velveteen furniture might recall grandma’s house, but the drinks are anything but old school. Some embrace with bravado the dive bar in its underbelly: “The Strippers Real Name” with blanco tequila, ruby port, Aperol, orange, and chocolate bitters comes to mind. But the vodka-based Medicine for Melancholy, with St-Germain, cucumbers, basil simple syrup, and absinthe rinse, is a good place to start your evening. After a few, you just may find yourself slipping downstairs to catch a dance.
THE BROKEN SHAKER
Forget the Miami Beach drinking scene you know, where the outfits are more flash than fabric and the velvet-roped nightclubs come with bottle service and light shows. Instead, picture this: an easy, breezy, bohemian hideaway outfitted with bric-a-brac vintage lawn furniture beneath palms festooned with Christmas lights. The cocktails are flowing; starring ingredients like coconut milk, dill-curry mango, and brown butter washed bourbon, they’re a distillation of the vibrancy and diversity of Miami itself. Welcome to the Broken Shaker, the coolest backyard party in town. What began as a pop-up is now a permanent fixture of the so-called “upscale hostel” that is Freehand Hotel (which has since expanded its brand of casual-cool to Freehands in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.)
At the Miami Beach outpost, the bar team takes an avant-garde approach to tropical drinks. Infusions feature prominently as they showcase herbs and spices from the onsite garden. Local produce and spirits from across the Americas also play lead roles. Some sips of Surfer Blood, with Guatemalan rum Ron Zacapa, agricole rhum, amaro, grapefruit, and bitters, is a good way to get the party started. Or get a taste of cachaça—the staple rumlike spirit in Brazil that’s making its way onto menus in the States—in the Beet Drop, which mixes the it with beet juice oregat and fresh citrus. Still, the most fun way to drink at the Broken Shaker just may be in batch form: Groups of six to twelve can name a spirit, fruit, and botanical and bartenders will spin them into a punch bowl. Go with a crew (the bar accepts reservations for parties of six or more) or make some new friends.
Hotel Saint Cecilia
Tucked quietly away just a block from South Congress Street, an area perpetually abuzz with street performers, bleary-eyed tourists, and crawling traffic, the Lounge at Hotel Saint Cecilia is a well-dressed cocktail oasis. Yes, the bar is restricted to hotel guests (and their guests), a city mandate per its residential locale. All the more reason to book a stay, no? Housed in a circa-1888 Victorian and named for the patron saint of music and poetry, it’s the property that put Liz Lambert, a public prosecutor turned hip hotelier, on the map.
But back to the Lounge: Make your way there across a sprawling chevron-tiled patio, beneath the broad twisting branches of a majestic 300-year-old live oak. With its moody cobalt patina walls and broken-in chesterfield couches, the vibe inside is rock ‘n’ roll, refined. A white stuffed peacock casts a watchful eye on the room from its perch above the bar. Your order? The frozen gin and tonic with juniper bay leaf syrup is a cool respite from the late summer Hill Country humidity.
THE ELYSIAN BAR
Hotel Peter & Paul
Mark this one in the only-in-New-Orleans column: At the Elysian Bar inside Hotel Peter & Paul, you can sip a spritz (or four—who’s counting?) in a nineteenth-century rectory. The much-anticipated boutique hotel opened last fall in a former Catholic church complex with the team from nearby wine spot Bacchanal at the bar’s helm. The curated beverage list includes niche wines and Bacchanal’s signature blend, and a daily aperitivo happy hour adds a dozen refreshing drinks to choose from between the hours of 4 and 7. After ordering—the citrusy, semi-sweet Alessio Blanco Vermouth and tonic, perhaps?—you may want nothing more than to sidle up to the glowing beauty of a bar. But you’d do yourself a disservice to not explore the surrounding multi-room wonderland of sun porches, parlors, and patios, each somehow more fantastical than the next.
THE NEXT WHISKY BAR
The Watergate Hotel
In Washington, few things pair better with a cocktail than a juicy political scandal. And while discretion rules at most DC watering holes—you never know who might be at the next table—the Next Whisky Bar embraces its doozy of a past. Tucked into the lobby of the reincarnated Watergate Hotel, whose very name is synonymous with scandal, the brown water bar is downright cheeky about the infamous 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. To mark the break-in’s forty-seventh anniversary this year, guests who order the Break the Safe whiskey flight get a crack at busting open a 700-pound vintage safe. Inside, a bottle of the rare, thousands of dollars-a-pop Last Drop whiskey, which has sherry cask-aged for fifty years, is waiting for the lucky winner. Gimmicks aside, the bar’s intimate vibe—lit by the golden glow that only a wall of 2,500 whiskey bottles can cast—and fancy whiskey menu attract a buttoned-up crowd who may or may not be brokering weapons deals or planning the next Watergate. It’s worth nursing a neat Balvenie at the bar to find out.
STERNEWIRTH TAVERN AND CLUB ROOM
San Antonio, Texas
Like the hotel it calls home, the ornate beer hall Sternewirth is pure steampunk: industrial and chic, grand and cozy. Carved out of San Antonio’s defunct Pearl Brewery—which closed in 2001 after 118 years—the hotel anchors the Pearl District, a mixed-use complex that carefully cultivates its buzzing food and drink scene.
With its Gilded Age architecture and a sordid family history, the old brewery provided ample material for designers and marketers to mine for inspiration. The name Sternewirth itself is a nod to the custom of allowing brewery employees free beer during the work hours. But there’s nothing workaday about the vibe here: With 25-foot-high vaulted ceilings and a hulking chandelier made with steel repurposed from the brewery’s bottling room, the cavernous space is made inviting with leather sofas, Kilim-upholstered pillows, and a massive fireplace. Perhaps the juiciest nugget from the brewery’s past is the story of the three Emmas—commemorated in one of the bar’s signature cocktails involving the reincarnated Pearl beer, Amontillado sherry, and Botanist gin—which ends with the murder of brewery owner Otto Koehler in 1914 by one of his mistresses (both of whom were named Emma) and his widow, also Emma, taking the reins of the company for the next twenty years.
Landing in New Orleans can trigger a Pavlovian thirst for refreshment, presenting the time-worn dilemma of heading straight to your digs or beelining for a bar, bags in tow. And that’s where a good hotel lounge comes in—a stylish yet comfortable in-between space that welcomes the travel weary with anon-point cocktail to gather one’s wits.In this city, that would be the Ace Hotel’s Lobby Bar. A few strides from the reception, it’s movie-set NOLA: Beautiful people chill on plush club chairs and vintage sofas, and folk art frames an imposing apothecary-style backbar. Forgot esoteric, the cocktails here are the classics you’ve been craving since you boarded the plane—vieux carre, sazerac, french 75—with seasonal originals like the Permanent Vacation, a watermelon-mint-vodka refresher, and the Tricentennial, an elegant coupe cocktail invented to commemorate the city’s three-hundredth birthday last year. In true Ace style, the crowd skews local thanks to a generous happy hour—4 to 7 pm daily—during which twenty bucks will buy you a few drinks and snacks. Who knows, you might end up staying the evening.
PROOF ON MAIN
21C Museum Hotel
In the annals of concept bars, Proof on Main’s intersection of edgy art and a killer bourbon list is hard to beat. The bar, off the lobby of Louisville’s 21C Museum Hotel—the brand’s flagship—doubles as gallery space for contemporary art installations found throughout the hotel. (A towering golden replica of Michelangelo’s David by conceptual artist Serkan Özkaya out front sets the tone.) With works ranging from Louisville photographer Ross Gordon’s portraits of local artists to Randy, a bronze satyr at one corner of the bar who beckons guests to stay for one more round, there’s always a conversational piece to chew on with your neighbor. Drinks-wise, Proof does its state spirit proud. This is the spot for sampling the whiskeys you missed out on the Bourbon Trail or getting a sip of something special like a Van Winkle bottled exclusively for the bar. Best order a bite from the bar menu—the smoked Kentucky catfish dip is a good bet—in case Randy works his magic on you.
Crafted to counter the stodgy concept that is the gentleman’s club and contemporary bar designs that still skew masculine, Camellias is a pretty-in-pink, crystal-dripped dreamland. Like the nine-story neoclassical Hotel Bennett, which towers over downtown’s bustling Marion Square with authority, Camellias is a celebration of grandeur—think the opulence of imperial Russia meets millennial pink. The continental connection is no mistake: among other sources, Atlanta-based Design Continuum, Inc. gleaned inspiration from a Fabergé egg, hence the ovular room. The jewel box of a bar still weaves in local touches, with four painted panels of its namesake flower adorning the walls and its bar topped with pink marble recovered from the façade of the public library that formerly sat on the lot.
The drink menu favors bubbly, be it the ample Champagne list or cocktails with a touch of fizz. A small food menu by hotel head chef Michael Sichel (of New Orleans Galatoire’s fame) offers fancy fare: oysters on the half shell, two kinds of tartare, and a section devoted to caviar.
A RAKE’S BAR
The LINE DC
With a twenty-foot arched milk glass window as a backdrop, the bar at A Rake’s Progress, the restaurant inside DC’s LINE Hotel, inspires a sort of reverence. That’s no accident—the team behind the mini chain of design-focused hotels spared no expense to retain the architectural elements of this century-old neoclassical church. But a sense of the sacred extends to the lounge’s libations as well. Like his chef counterpart Spike Gjerde, beverage director Corey Polyoka is bent on sourcing ingredients from the mid-Atlantic, for drinks with “a sense of place,” in his words. You won’t find your favorite tequila or Japanese whisky here; instead, the menu is rife with references to regional producers, like the small-batch Borough Bourbon, made in DC, and Lyon Curaçao from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, or the vermouth and cider—both from neighboring Virginia—called for in the & Soda cocktail. There’s local beer and cider on tap, and the bar makes its own fruit syrups and bitters. Call it precious, but if the farm-to-table movement is any indication, we’ll all be toasting to Polyoka before long.
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