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My List: Part 2

If you'll recall, I had a list in progress. So without further ado, let's wrap this up!

#5 Come Back Inn - Madison, WI

One weekend early in 1996, my brother and I, along with my cousins Vince and Casey, piled into the gigantic pink conversion van and drove up to Cascade Mountain ski resort, near Wisconsin Dells. After a day of some of the best skiing to be had in Central Time, we piled our bruised bodies back into the pink van and drove back south. After about an hour of driving, we reached Madison, which none of us had ever really visited before. Why would we? I was 17 and the oldest by a year and a half. We followed the signs toward downtown, and saw a sign for a place called the Come Back Inn. Being stupid teenagers, we all tee-hee'ed to each other that with that name, it must be a gay bar. Of course, we went in and got some dinner. At the Come Back Inn, in 1996, at the tender age of 17, I got served for the first time. Without an ID. The beer was a Leinenkugel's Red.

This was all miles from my mind when I visited Madison again a couple years ago for work. I had a free night, and was enjoying a delicious imperial pint of cask-poured ESB at the Great Dane Brewery when I struck up a conversation with the bartender, explaining that I was from out of town(she said she could tell) and was looking for a good place for beer. When she ardently suggested the Come Back Inn, just around the corner, my memory of that night almost ten years earlier snapped into focus. I quickly paid my tab with a generous tip as a reward for the woman jogging my memory, and made a beeline for the promised place.

It was exactly as I remembered it. One thing I didn't notice when I was 17 was that the thirty or so tap handles were wonderful. When I was 17, my only experience with good beer was whatever Sandy from the deli at the grocery store where I worked would buy me. By the time I was 26, I had developed a taste for beer, and immediately ordered a Bell's Two Hearted Ale, which was apparently on special that night for $2. The bartenders, who were beer geeks themselves, quickly noticed that my beer order was never the same twice, and figured out that I was there for the selection. From that point on, they kept bringing me samples. That's one thing I love about enthusiast bartenders. They can't wait to give you things to try. I stayed for perhaps eight rounds before catching the bus back to my hotel. My total bill was perhaps eleven dollars.

I came back the next night, and before I even had my seat, one of the bartenders had poured me a glass of Tullamore Dew. "This one's on the Gipper," he said. I wound up hanging out with the folks that worked there after they got off. I have since heard that it may possibly have closed down. I'll need to go back and find out for myself.

#4 The Blind Pig - Champaign, IL

I was in Decatur on business, and after a short time there I realized that there is nothing to do in Decatur. Coming to this realization one day, I got in my rental and drove the forty or so miles to Champaign. The University of Illinois has its main campus in Champaign, and bleeds over into adjacent Urbana(actually, the administration buildings are in Urbana, so the school is "officially" there). Having Illinois' biggest university in town has a great effect on Champaign. Lots and lots of young people with Daddy's money converging to behave irresponsibly. It's beautiful.

Even so, there's still not a great deal of goodness for the beer lovers. But like so many times before, I consulted beerfly for a great place to have a pint, and saw surprisingly high ratings for a place in downtown Champaign, which is well off the beaten collegiate path. I walked in near opening time, since being on a business trip, I had nothing better to do. I immediately noticed the stunning bartender who, it turned out, was Dutch. Being the only customer there afforded me an easy opportunity for conversation. She was the wife of a very lucky professor at the U of I, and had never been to Illinois before the previous month. Like most Dutch people, her English was superb. She proceeded to walk me through their tap selection, bringing me tastes, and occasionally indulging herself. She knew her beer. She introduced me to the Duchesse de Bourgogne, Cantillon, and various other excellent beers from across the pond that hadn't been addled by flavor-molesting preservatives.

When it came the time to get going, I sorely regretted it, and looking back, I kind of wish I had found a place to stay in Champaign instead, because getting back to gray-skied Decatur wasn't exactly exciting.

#3 Beveridge Place Pub - Seattle, WA

Erp and I traveled almost the length of the American West Coast in 2006. We took a woefully slow and consistently late Amtrak train from Los Angeles to Seattle, making stops in San Francisco, Chico, and Portland. We had had just about enough of the train by the time we got off in Seattle, and set to finding our way around a city that neither of us had ever visited. I hadn't been expecting much, which made the shock of reality that much more impressive. Seattle is a sensational beer city. Hale's, Elysian, Boundary Bay, Maritime Pacific, Mac & Jack's, and more whose names elude me at the moment.

After running around for a couple of days, Erp and I parted ways as he caught his flight home a day before mine. That left me a full day to see the city on my own. I enjoyed a burrito from Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen, and walked for a couple of hours before I was tired enough to get on a bus. I got off at a slightly suburban corner in the apparently working-class neighborhood of South Seattle, and looked across the street at a place that I would never have guessed would become my third-favorite beer bar ever.

Beveridge Place Pub doesn't have a great number of beers on tap, but their 20 or so taps are all amazing. On top of those, they have several beers available on cask as well. The place was just opening as I walked in, and there were already some people there. A woman sitting next to me at the bar ordered a hand-pumped pint of Rogue Shakespeare Stout before she told me all I cared to hear about Seattle. The patrons all knew they had a really good thing going with this place, but they were still surprised when word quickly got around that I had come all the way from Kansas City to try it. Some of them started shouting things like, "Harry's Country Club is great!" and "I hate the Quaff!" as I answered questions asked by the curious people. They seemed keen to let me know they had been there. These were not uppity coast people. These were working-class South Seattle residents that considered Kansas City just as interesting as I considered Seattle.

After pint after pint, and many unsolicited tastes brought to me by the friendly bartender, I was very dizzy, and decided I had to head back downtown before bus service stopped, or before I would be too drunk to find my way. As with so many great beer bars, I got the bill for the eight or nine beers I had, and was billed perhaps $20. I will be in Seattle in September, this year, and you can bet that I'll be visiting the Beveridge Place Pub again.

#2 Map Room - Chicago, IL

I've been to Chicago more times than any other city where I don't live. As such, I like to think that I know where to go to get a good pint of beer. But alas, I did not know until shockingly recently, about the Map Room. Besides having the best name any beer bar can have(combining geography and beer!), it is 100% devoid of pretense. Like so many beer geeks, the staff and customers there just can't wait to convert another person, and as such, they are as friendly with beer-drinking strangers as is socially acceptable in our society.

Uncharacteristic of the great things in Chicago, The Map Room is located well off the beaten path. It's still a nice neighborhood, but the nearest El stop is about the same distance as the nearest Metra stop, and neither is particularly close. The best way to get there via public transit would require the use of the bus, which doesn't appeal very heavily to outsiders, even though there really is nothing wrong with it. Nevertheless, no matter how they get there, beer geeks the world over make it a point when visiting the Windy City, to spend some time at the Map Room. I had my first taste of Three Floyds summer seasonal, called Gumballhead there.

It's very much a neighborhood bar, and a corner mainstay. When sitting at their classic varnished bar, especially during the day, it's not at all uncommon in one hour to see a dozen individual people stop in, have a pint, and leave. They're just on their way somewhere, and the Map Room is convenient for them. I have a great envy of these people. Having a place like this nearby would make me very seriously consider buying a home there. Do not miss the Map Room.

#1 Toronado - San Francisco, CA

It was from drinking a beer at Toronado that I first felt inspired to brew beer myself. In short, it is a beer-lover's paradise. It is basically perfect.

To anyone that knows me well, this bar's #1 spot shouldn't be a big surprise. Let's look at the various contributing factors. My favorite city in the world is San Francisco, and Toronado is squarely in the middle of it. I love American beer, and Toronado has it in spades. I like paying reasonable amounts of money for my glasses of excellent regional beer, and I've never paid more than three dollars for a pint at Toronado. They just do it all right.

Their tap selection is comprised of perhaps forty handles, and I'm not certain that any of them are permanent. I was in Boston for a beer fest not long ago, and while there I spoke with the brewers from the sensational Bay-area Lagunitas brewery about Toronado, and inquired as to how the place manages to offer their beer so cheaply. Apparently, they order very few of their kegs, if any. They just present themselves as local distributor warehouses(and from the sound of it, breweries), and ask if there's anything interesting they can take away for cash then and there. Using this approach, I was told, Toronado is able to get great deals on kegs.

I don't make it to San Francisco very often, but whenever I'm there, a trip to Toronado is absolutely not negotiable. It is simply the best beer bar I know.

Further honorable mention must go to the following bars. They are all great places to get a beer, and some are certainly better than others. But I have now visited so many great beer bars that when I have to name the top ten, some great places will have to be omitted from the list.

  • Alberta Street Pub - Portland, OR - Small friendly neighborhood pub with 15-20 beers on tap, with no Big Three selections. Usually has live music.
  • Hessen Haus - Des Moines, IA - German beer bar with about 30 beers on tap- all German. Would rank higher if it wasn't usually filled with fratty jackasses.
  • Beer Sellar - Nashville, TN - Basement beer bar in downtown Nashville. It feels like a very cool dungeon.
  • El Bait Shop - Des Moines, IA - Independently-owned megabeerbar in downtown Des Moines. Closest Dogfish Head/Lagunitas taps to Kansas City.
  • Rogue Ales Public House - San Francisco, CA - While technically a brewery-style place, they also host a number of off-brewery taps, and they're all delicious.
  • Library Alehouse - Santa Monica, CA - Very cozy bar with a beer selection that had a lot of thought put into it. It's kind of surreal, next to the bustling frattiness of Main Street Santa Monica.
  • Mugs Alehouse - Williamsburg, NY - This place must have ten IPAs on tap, besides everything else. I found it to be a hop-head's dream. Selections are indicated on a chalk board. Very intimate.

Like I said, there are some really good bars in that list, and I highly recommend visiting them if you're ever in their cities. It was a shame to omit any of them, but ten is ten.

So how's 'bout you? What are your favorite places?

1:21 PM, Jun 14, 2007

5 comments

chris cut in with:

here are my favorite places to get a pint, and why...as you know, i am the opposite of well-traveled, and i haven't been to many beer bars, so my selections are mostly for reasons other than beer selection.

* Grinders (KCMO) - the quintessential Crossroads establishment, in my opinion. great beer selection, eclectic crowd, relaxed atmosphere. the only downside is the recent increase in beer prices, but whatever.

* Ginger Man (Austin) - i loved this place so much i went five times during a 10-day trip to Austin. this is the only place i've ever had Stone, Dogfish Head, St. Arnold's, and many others i cannot remember, on tap. the interior of the bar isn't special, but the beer garden outside is a great place to hang out on warm texas evenings. the bartenders (though not nec. the servers) were beer geeks and loved talking beer, which was new to me.

* RagTag CinemaCafe (Columbia MO) - not a beer bar but a small indie movie house in downtown columbia. the "bar" area is also the lobby, ticket booth, snack stand, kitchen, etc. and it is approximately the size of my childhood bedroom. they have three taps, usually a boulevard, a schlafly, and a rotating selection. bottles include belgians in large bottles, hebrew, bell's, etc. it's great to watch an art film on a thrift store couch whilst sipping a pint of good beer.

* Flat Branch Pub & Brewing (Columbia MO) - my first real experience with a brewpub, this place became a mainstay for my friends and i during my seven (!) years in columbia. i have probably been to Flat Branch 400 times. the food is great, the atmosphere is what you'd expect at a large, lofty brewpub in a college town, and some of the beers are delicious. i love their green chili ale, katy trail pale ale and baltic porter.

* Addison's (Columbia MO) - downtown restaurant with a good beer selection. on tap: multiple Boulevards, Schlafly seasonals, Fat Tire, NB seasonal, Abita Turbodog, etc..it makes my list because it was the locus for Sunday Night Drinking Club, where a few law school dudes would get together from 10pm-midnight on sundays to partake in $2 pints and merriment.

word.

1:48 PM, Jun 14, 2007

todd brooked no delay in saying:

You're half-correct re: Map Room. While it's not close to the Red or Brown lines, it's only four blocks from the Western/Milwaukee Blue line stop. I'll also shamelessly plug Delilah's, especially since Ben and I introduced you to it. You're welcome.

1:54 PM, Jun 14, 2007

ralfonso cut in with:

* Toronado (SFCA)- Amazing. I was there during a barleywine festival. The bartender was a complete dick, but it's the only non-brewpub I've ever seen with cask beer. (five handles of it!) The crowd was fantastic while I was there. Everyone was talking to the other tables about what they were drinking.

* Mountain Sun (Boulder, CO) - This is my favorite brewpub. The beer selection is always changing and they always include something for hopheads and strong beer lovers. Two of their beers are always offered on both CO2 and nitrogen. The servers wait tables by committee, even if you're just dining. Myriad food options for vegetarians. This is what happens when hippies learn how to brew.

* Grinders (KCMO) - it's already been said

1:56 PM, Jun 14, 2007

bahua said:

Oh yeah, Delilah's! That deserves at least an honorable mention.

2:05 PM, Jun 14, 2007

Rachel brooked no delay in saying:

What about the Horse Brass? Are you kidding me? More than thirty rotating taps, nitrogen taps offered, legit English pub, right by my house (not that you know), etcetera, etcetera.

2:07 PM, Jun 16, 2007

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