The World’s 10 Most Legendary, Historic Bars
Most bars serve spirits — but that’s doubly true of these richly historic drinking spots, inhabited by the ghosts of their famous clientele… Not to mention the inventive bartenders who created seminal cocktails for their drinking pleasure.
10. BAR HEMINGWAY AT THE RITZ, PARIS
As with several of the historic bars featured here, this luxe drinking hole owes much of its renown to the patronage of Ernest Hemingway. Legend has it that ‘Papa’ Hemingway, who’d wiled away many an hour in what was then the hotel’s “Ladies’ Bar” carousing alongside his Lost Generation pals in the 1920s and ’30s, personally “liberated” the intimate space when Paris was freed from the grasp of the Nazi occupiers in the closing days of World War II. Settling in at the bar that now bears his name, it’s said that Hemingway ran up a tab for 51 dry martinis, consumed alongside the American troops who’d accompanied him on the mission to ‘free’ the Ritz (which in fact had already been abandoned by the fleeing Germans long before Papa and Co. arrived). The master bartender who now oversees Bar Hemingway, Colin Field, continues to serve up a formidable martini — which you’ll once again be able to sample when the Ritz re-opens (after extensive renovations that are said to have left Bar Hemingway largely unchanged) later this year.
The Ritz Hotel, 15 Place Vendome, Paris, France
9. THE KING COLE BAR AT THE ST REGIS, NEW YORK
Set within century-old five-star institution the St Regis, and dubbed thusly in honour of the Maxfield Parrish mural depicting the proverbial ‘merry old soul’ that looms over the service area, this tony New York bar is synonymous with the Bloody Mary. The story goes that barman Fernand Petiot, who headed up the King Cole from 1934 to 1966, ‘remixed’ a plain vodka and tomato juice drink he’d previously purveyed while working at Harry’s New York Bar, Paris, adding the salt, pepper, hot sauce, Worcestershire and lemon juice that characterise what we know as the Bloody Mary today. And voila, a hangover-remedying classic was born. An array of bloody brilliant iterations of the cocktail are now available at St Regis bars around the world (the Chilli Padi Mary, a super-spicy Singaporean twist, being particularly worthy of investigation).
The St Regis Hotel, 2 East 55th Street, New York, NY, USA
8. HARRY’S NEW YORK BAR, PARIS
Taking its name from barman Harry MacElhone, who was hired in 1911 and — when the original proprietor hit hard times — ended up purchasing the joint in 1923 (his descendants have run it ever since), the seating at this Paris bar has been graced by a long list of luminary derrieres, from Coco Chanel and the Duke of Windsor through Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, Jack Dempsey, George Gershwin — who’s said to have composed “An American in Paris” here — and the omnipresent Ernest Hemingway. One of several bars laying claim to having been the site of the invention of the Bloody Mary, though that assertion will forever remain subject to dispute (per the above, the King Cole seems to boast far stronger bona fides), it is generally agreed that the Sidecar and French 75 were indeed created at Harry’s Paris.
Harry’s New York Bar, 5 Rue Daunou, Paris, France
7. HARRY’S BAR, VENICE
The well-spring of the Bellini cocktail and the beef Carpaccio (named, respectively, in homage to the work of Venetian painters Giovanni Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio) and the foundation block of the vast Cipriani hospitality empire, this cosy, costly little bar/restaurant off Piazza San Marco has seen more than its fair share of famous clientele: Alfred Hitchcock, Truman Capote, Charlie Chaplin, Peggy Guggenheim, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Aristotle Onassis, F Scott Fitzgerald, and legendary lush Ernest Hemingway — the man got around — among the most memorable. Established in 1931, Harry’s was declared an Italian national landmark seven decades later; no mean feat in a country as history-rich as Italy, and a city so brimming with monuments as Venice. No relation to the aforementioned, similarly-named Paris bar, this Harry’s gains its moniker from the wealthy American patron, Harry Pickering, who gave founder Giuseppe Cipriani the seed money to open his own place, and spawn a dynasty.
Harry’s Bar, Calle Vallaresso 1323, San Marco, Venice, Italy
6. THE LONG BAR AT RAFFLES HOTEL, SINGAPORE
Though it’s pretty touristy and ‘casual’ (expect to see plenty of Bermuda shorts, sandals, baseball caps and cameras suspended from necks — perhaps even a Croc shoe or two), cast all that out of mind and you’ll find yourself carried back to Singapore’s 19th-century colonial past at this historic Far Eastern bar, extant since the 1880s. It was here that in 1915 the famous Singapore Sling was created, and ordering at least one of these syrupy-sweet concoctions seems obligatory — as does casting peanut shells on the floor (this is famously the only place in antiseptic Singapore where littering is encouraged). For a more refined atmosphere, try the hotel’s equally antique Bar & Billiards Room or — if you’re confident and smartly dressed enough to stroll past the ‘Guests Only’ sign — the Writers’ Bar, named for the literary types (such as Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Noel Coward) who called Raffles home-from-home in bygone days.
Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Rd, Singapore
5. GORDON’S WINE BAR, LONDON
Virtually unchanged since its establishment in 1890, this subterranean time capsule is widely considered London’s oldest surviving wine bar. Delightfully dank, dusty, dark and dingy — in the most charming British way — Gordon’s unsurprisingly boasts a brilliant wine list, and though the ambience is decidedly vintage, happily, you’ll find both new world and old represented in the cellar.
Gordon’s Wine Bar, 47 Villiers St, London UK
4. PEGU CLUB, YANGON
Unfortunately you’ll have to ‘bring your own’ if you wish to raise a toast at this historic drinking den in the city formerly known as Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). Today sadly abandoned and in a derelict, tumble-down state, the Pegu Club was once among the most glorious gentlemen’s clubs in all the British colonies. Housed in a beautiful teak-wood structure built in 1882 opposite Rangoon’s Russian embassy, this is where the British Raj officers charged with the administration of Burma quenched their thirsts... until the Second World War put a rather abrupt stop to the party, the club eventually being nationalised when the country turned socialist a decade or so after Burma’s independence was granted in 1948. These days, a renowned New York bar named in honor of the Pegu continues its legacy, doing a brisk trade in the gin- and curacao-based cocktail that bears the Pegu Club moniker.
The Pegu Club, Pyay Rd, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
3. EL FLORIDITA, HAVANA
First opening its doors in 1817, this is yet another legendary bar enlivened by the spirit of Hemingway — a life-sized sculpture of the author now occupies the stool that ‘Papa’, during his years residing in Cuba, habitually perched on, supping double-strength daiquiris by the bucket-load. El Floridita claims to be “la cuna del daiquiri” — “the cradle of the daiquiri” — and it was here that the frozen version of that cocktail was invented in the 1930s. (Meanwhile, Hemingway frequented another historic Havana bar that remains in business today, La Bodeguita del Medio, when taken by a thirst for a mojito, which that establishment purports to have originated.)
El Floridita, Obispo, La Habana, Cuba
2. AL BRINDISI, FERRARA
The most ancient establishment on this list, Al Brindisi traces its history back as far as 1100 AD, when the first iteration of this bar began trading at the location, catering to workers labouring on the nearby cathedral. Titian and Cellini drank here in the 15th century, and Copernicus lived above the bar while studying at Ferrara University in the early 1500s. How’s that for old school?
Al Brindisi, Via Guglielmo degli Adelardi 11, Ferrara, Italy
1. THE AMERICAN BAR AT THE SAVOY, LONDON
As its title suggests, The Savoy Cocktail Book — considered the bible of classic mixology — was written by the barman holding court here in the 1920s and ’30s, Harry Craddock (who claimed to have invented 240 cocktails throughout his career, including the White Lady). Though Craddock is justly famed in mixology circles, the individuals who’ve gotten their drank on at this grand, art deco bar throughout its 126-year history will be more familiar to the layperson — names such as Errol Flynn, Richard Harris, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Christian Dior, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and John Wayne, to mention but a few (and only the fellas). Now helmed by award-winning bartender Erik Lorincz, and following a vast recent refurbishment, this historic saloon remains one of the world’s greatest spots for a sophisticated tipple.
The Savoy, The Strand, London, UK
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is intended as a list of — as the title suggests — the world’s most legendary, historic bars. For ‘The World’s Oldest Pubs’, please search elsewhere.
Main image: Ernest Hemingway and friends at El Floridita, Havana, circa 1955 (JFK Library).
Thanks to Joel Fraser of The Cufflink Club, Singapore, for historic tippling tips.