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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Finding a friendly neighborhood bar

What defines a local bar? For some, it’s the neighborhood bar, a watering hole one can walk a block from their house or apartment and be there. For others, it might be a place near the office where a drink can be had before heading home for the evening.

For me, someone who works in the downtown core of Memphis but lives in the epitome of suburbia 40 minutes away, I find my neighborhood bar is a mix of after-work watering holes and pregame pubs. A relatively new bar in Downtown Memphis, South of Beale, has become my go-to spot for after-work drinks, pre-event cocktails, pregame drinks and postgame nightcaps.

As a season ticket holder to University of Memphis basketball games and the Broadway season at The Orpheum Theatre, not to mention a Downtown worker, I have more than enough reasons to have a neighborhood bar there. My neighborhood bar doesn’t need to be near my house. My friends and I frequent South of Beale before Tigers games, sometimes afterwards and I expect my wife and I will stop in before we head to shows at The Orpheum this spring.

South of Beale bills itself as a gastropub, a bar that serves good drinks AND good food, not just drinks and a smattering of pub food. The concept of the gastropub can be the topic of another post, but trust me, the food is great.

I ended up at South of Beale after today’s Tigers game against Gonzaga, but we decided to try another neighborhood bar for pregame activities. Bardog Tavern is also a relatively new establishment. It has the look, feel and character of a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood drinking establishment. It is, in fact, a neighborhood bar of sorts. It seems the bar is always packed when I visit, no matter the time of day. We were lucky enough to have owner, Aldo DeMartino, stop by and have a drink with us before my friend Dave and I walked over to FedExForum for the game.

Aldo, a New Jersey native who lived in New York for 15 years before coming to Memphis, has built a gem of a place in a residential and business district of Downtown. He confirmed our suspicions that many of the people at the crowded bar today were indeed locals. Last week, in fact, when Memphis was slammed with an ice storm, he said it was one of the bar’s busiest nights on record, and it was nothing but locals. To me, that’s the epitome of a local bar.

When I travel, even if it’s just for a day, I like to find what I consider a local bar. When in New York City last summer, it was Blind Tiger on Bleecker Street in the West Village. This place, while it had some tourists and a bit of the college crowd nestled up to the bar, to me it was local to the core. It was a smaller place, where the bartenders seemed to know the patrons. I stumbled upon the place on a Friday afternoon. After 30 minutes there, the bartender/owner enthusiastically greeted my wife when she soon joined me. The guy next to me was buying us drinks. And by the next day, not only did the bartender remember me, his coworkers who had not met me before were greeting me like an old friend.

There are plenty of other examples of bars from my travels that I feel – if I lived there – could become a neighborhood bar for me: Brooklyn’s Bar Great Harry, Keg & Barrel in Hattiesburg, Miss., Kilkenny’s Irish Pub in Tulsa, Okla., Elevator Brewery in Columbus, Ohio, The Ginger Man in Dallas and The Fat Cat in Norwich, England. There are several I can’t even remember and can’t possibly Google because they were so small: the tiny bar in the first floor of an apartment building near the Philadelphia Art Museum, the bar with 10 taps of beers I had never heard of near Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., and the little place with pool tables, a couple of dart boards and too much University of Alabama stuff in Atlanta.

I might not live near a neighborhood bar “where everyone knows your name,” but if I can stumble upon one on my travels, it’s just the icing on the cake.


  1. Check out Tyler Cowen's book "Discover Your Inner Economist" for a great set of discussions on finding good restaurants. In addition to his academic work he maintains "Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide" online. If your travels take you to St. Louis anytime soon, definitely check out Blueberry Hill and Fitz's in the Loop.

  2. Also, while I'm thinking about STL, the Budweiser and Schlafly Brewery tours provide a very interesting study in contrast.