There are places that are good. There are places that are great. There are even places that are "amazeballs." And then there are places that are so singular, everyone else seems pedestrian by comparison. That’s what this list is all about: truly unique restaurants, bars, and more all across the country -- establishments that make you rethink the possibilities of terms like “cocktail menu,” “happy hour,” and even “ice cream parlor.” If you thought all it took to be “THE Underground Bar” was a basement location and semi-obscure soundtrack, you’re in for a surprise.
THE 2-for-1 Deal
Celebration Restaurant (address and info)
Since 1971, this comfort food stalwart has been a godsend to both the ravenous and indecisive: order an entree, and if you’re still hungry afterwards, they’ll give you a second entree of equal or lesser value for free. Seriously -- you can devour the pork chop, then ask your waiter to bring you the meatloaf, or the fried chicken, or the pork chop again, at no extra charge. And that’s not even including homemade breads, three vegetables served family-style, and your choice of homemade soup, salad or fresh fruit. Also, you’ll save money by passing out immediately after dinner.
THE Jazz Joint
The Green Mill (address and info)
The country’s oldest continually run jazz club is also its most storied, beginning its career as a hangout for stars from Essanay Studios, the silent production company that served as a home to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson. During Prohibition, Billie Holiday and Tommy Dorsey played here, Capone hung out here (his booth supposedly still stands), and his henchman "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn ran the place; McGurn’s throat-slashing of an uncooperative singer/comedian eventually inspired the Frank Sinatra movie The Joker Is Wild. The Mill has appeared in at least seven films, including Patrick Swayze’s fourth-best movie and Liam Neeson’s best movie, Next of Kin.
You can still come here for some of the best jazz in the country, but unfortunately you can’t take a tour of the Prohibition-era underground tunnels running underneath the place -- a policy best summed up by the last question on the Mill’s FAQ page:
Q: Can I take a tour of the underground tunnels?
THE Hiking Terminus
The Tourist Club (address and info)
Mount Tamalpais State Park, CA
Over 100 years old, this extraordinarily beautiful Bavarian cottage/biergarten is the Marin County branch of 119-year-old Austrian organization Die Naturfreunde, which translates as “Die, Friends of Nature.” Or “The Nature Friends.” Probably that one. Located a few miles up Mt. Tam, its breathtaking deck views and belly-filling pitchers of European brew are an infinitely more satisfying reward than some rock you sit on a while until you get bored and start wondering if maybe Uber’s started a helicopter rescue service. The only hitch is, it’s members-only except for three weekends a year. But: those days (including Maifest) are worth planning a San Francisco trip around, and besides, if you hike more than three times a year you’re a crazy person anyway.
THE Sports Venue
Fowling Warehouse (address and info)
A Motor City phenomenon cooked up by Detroiter Chris Hutt and friends, “fowling” might be the greatest innovation in the sporting universe (you throw a football at a lineup of bowling pins -- it’s brilliant). This is its temple: 34,000sq ft, 20 lanes, and two full bars, all dedicated to a sport no one else in America’s ever heard of. It’s a testament to… well, it’s a testament to a bunch of guys just being awesome.
THE Underground Bar
La Kiva (address and info)
La Kiva has been closed since a tragedy involving owner Glenn Felts last year, but the new owners are doggedly working on a reopening, and the bar simply has to be on this list. La Kiva isn't merely underground in the "only-cool-people-know" sense, or even in the "in a basement" sense. It's dug right into a creek bank in Terlingua, a legendary Texas town "conveniently located just a few exits past the end of the world." Getting there means driving through miles and miles of beautiful nothingness, but once you arrive, you'll discover a magical place, filled with odd characters who've dropped out of society but still love to socialize. La Kiva was and will soon again be their watering hole.
THE Summer Cottages
Legs Inn (address and info)
Cross Village, MI
In season from late May to mid-October, Legs is a 90yr-old, family run, woodsy resort on the stunning Lake Michigan shoreline. Named for the stove legs that form its rooftop railing, Legs' dining hall is one big Polish meat feast serving everything from a goulash Sloppy Joe to The Struggle: "a veritable mountain of sliced Turkey Breast, Ham and Corned Beef piled high on Marble Rye with Swiss cheese and bacon...". The dining hall is also a beer hall serving 100+ globals & micros, while the decor, "fantastical creatures" carved from roots by founder Stanley Smolak, will make you think someone slipped something in said beer. The Live at Legs Inn concert series brings in everyone from regional rock, blues, and folk to blasts from the past like Cracker. If you're feeling "Low," you won't for long. Unless you hate puns.
THE Pool Party
The Clevelander (address and info)
South Beach, FL
The Clevelander isn't the poshest pool party in Miami -- but who really wants to win that bare-arms race anyway? What sets this not-at-all-Midwestern scene apart is its absolute dedication to the belief that the pool party should never stop. There's almost never a moment when there's not a live DJ, girls in bikinis sipping Strawberry Fields at one of three bars, girls in bikinis walking Ocean Drive out front... Basically, any time you suddenly think "I need to make my life better right now, and the way to do that is a pool party, and possibly a frozen drink called the Miami Vice," the Clevelander is there for you.
THE Front Porch
The Columns Hotel (address and info)
New Orleans, LA
If sipping one of New Orleans’ best Bloody Marys on a 132-year-old Garden District front porch -- surrounded by Italianate columns as you gaze at streetcars ambling towards brunch at the Camellia Grill -- isn’t your idea of relaxation, you should probably drink another Bloody Mary. If this is too tame for you, don’t worry, those streetcars also take you back towards Bourbon Street.
THE Donut Shop
Blue Star Donuts (address and info)
For a few years now, Blue Star has taken the next-level donut thing to a whole new universe, stuffing their glazed-to-order, brioche-style masterpieces with fried chicken & honey butter, injecting them with booze-filled syringes, and complicating them in the best possible way with recipes like Pistachio Cake w/ Raspberry Hibiscus. Everything's locally sourced, and whether or not you care about that sort of thing from an eco- standpoint, there's no way "European-style butter from Larsen's Creamery" doesn't make these donuts taste even better.
Saloon #10 (address and info)
Would you rather stare at a Degas at the Met, or shudder as you watch some dude dressed like Wild Bill Hickock get shot in the same chair the real Wild Bill Hickock was actually shot in, then hit the full bar, then hit the casino, then gain new appreciation for the gumption of our Western pioneers as you check out mining artifacts collected over the past 50 years, then hit the Northern Italian steakhouse for beef and cheesecake prepared by the CEO (Cheesecake Execution Officer), then hit the other bar, then hit the other-other bar on the roof to thank actual lucky stars that you decided to vacation in South Dakota? It doesn't matter if this place is a tourist trap; if you can't have fun here, you might as well go sit in that chair.
THE Tiki Bar
Uncle George’s (address and info)
Hawaii National Park, HI
Uncle George's is nestled in the newly refurbished Volcano House, which is not only Hawaii's oldest hotel (1846), it's also the only lodging located inside Volcanoes National Park. What this means: you can sip on a Polynesian Paralysis, then wander outside to stare at a live freaking volcano (Kilauea's Halema‘uma‘u Crater) that, judging from the mesmerizing intensity of its eruptions, is still possessed by the gods that inspired the faces on those crazy tiki glasses. Myth. Art. Life. Cocktails.
THE Cocktail Menu
Trick Dog (address and info)
San Francisco, CA
Trick Dog’s drinks quickly established themselves as among the best in one of America’s great cocktail cities, but this isn’t about that -- it’s about their actual physical menus. Traded out every six months, they’ve created beverage & food lineups styled after Pantone cards, tourist maps, zodiac charts, and, currently, a Chinese takeout menu. If they’re putting this much inspiration into reading materials, you can rest assured they’re going the extra mile with their drinking materials.
Chateau Marmont (address and info)
Los Angeles, CA
It’s peering ahead at the century mark, but the classically elegant hotel still manages to generate ridiculous headlines about famous attractive people only a quarter of its age:
"Dakota Johnson leaves Chateau Marmont with mystery man after splitting from Matthew Hitt"
“Alexander Skarsgard: Sexy at the Chateau Marmont”
“Martin Lawrence at Chateau Marmont”
Granted, that last headline was referring to Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Jennifer Lawrence, and not the most glamorous sexpot of all Martin Lawrence, but the point remains: stars come and go, but this place is timeless.
THE Specialty Store
Mars Cheese Castle (address and info)
Cheese curds. Cheese spreads. Cheese breads. Cheese logs. Chocolate cheese fudge. Cheeses. Plus bratwursts and venison sausage and tons of other delicious stuff. Granted, there are a lot of amazing cheese stores in Wisconsin, but this 68-year-old legend is the only one that looks like a castle.
THE Ice Cream Parlor
At Random (address and info)
An offbeat cocktail lounge that looks like Baskin Robbins had a wild fling with the Copa scene from Goodfellas: 1950s decor, dim red sconces, and the barest nod to having windows, with Frank and Dean providing the soundtrack and the same employees working there since the days of Frank and Dean. But why ice cream parlor? Because, improbably, a huge chunk of the menu is dedicated to boozy ice cream drinks: Cookies & Cream, Caramello, the Orange Crush, and tons more amazing stuff that combines the innocence of earlier decades with the fact that you’re old enough to drink. If you’re with someone you truly care about, though, order the Tiki Love Bowl: the waitress will tell you to hold hands, make a wish, blow out the flame, and take your first sip together. After that, your wish will come true! Or hers will, and you will suddenly become handsomer.
THE Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Whiskey Tavern (address and info)
New York, NY
Rob Magill and his staff actually do know every single customer’s name in this neighborhood bar wedged between bail bondsmen in Manhattan’s Chinatown, but it goes so far beyond that. For instance, Rob frequently:
- Presents regulars with surprise birthday cakes made entirely of Twinkies and shaped like... man-parts
- Not only takes pictures with super-excited new customers, he dresses up in a costume for said pictures; he keeps a whole collection in the basement, from banana outfits to… man-part outfits
- Puts photoshops of customers and himself over booths to signify they’re reserved; people might be alerted not to sit at your table by your head on Superman and his head on Wonder Woman
- Throws “Congrats for Getting Dumped” parties for people who get dumped
He has also been known to make Twinkie wedding cakes -- complete with bride+groom figurines -- for couples who host receptions in his bar. So whether you get dumped or hitched, the love you’ll get here is a love like no other.
THE Happy Hour
The Ivy Inn (address and info)
The Ivy’s belief in a reasonably priced good time is so fervent, they actually trademarked the slogan “Every Hour Is Happy Hour.” Seriously, the certificate is framed on their wall. Their beverages are ludicrously inexpensive every moment they’re open for business, and have been, dating back to 1966. They say they offered 40-cent drafts well into the 1980s, and no matter when you pop in you can still buy 10 of their cheapest beers for less money that it costs to see a movie. Or you could buy 10 of their most expensive beers for about the same money it costs to get all six seasons of Babylon 5 on DVD ($50 from Best Buy).
West Side Market (address and info)
There are great food markets all over America these days, but few are as ingrained in the community (it’s 100+ years old) or as representative of it (some of the same vendors have been there 60 years or more). Cleveland native Phoebe Connell explains in this quote we had to excerpt the bejesus out of because she gave us two pages of loving notes:
“The West Side Market, THE JEWEL OF CLEVELAND. This isn't a farmers market -- it’s a place where everyone's grandmother used to come to get cabbage and a roast for Sunday dinner. Think of it as being in Williamsburg before Williamsburg was fancy: still in the city, but in an actual neighborhood with working class homes.
Favorites: When we visited my sister at college we brought her Frank's bratwurst on the plane her because THEY ARE THAT GOOD. Over Christmas when I stopped by Pierogi Palace this lady literally had four of those disposable lasagna pans out and inside were Ziploc bags of pierogis with flavors written in sharpie. There were only like 30 left and I bought two dozen and she basically shut down after that. And there's this one lady in the produce section who offers "$5" deals where she just loads up a bag with whatever she wants. She sort of tells you/shouts at you "I GIVE YOU GRAPE AND STRAWBERRY AND ORANGES AND LEMON -- you want lemon? -- ALL $5" and then she just shoves stuff in a bag and compliments you ("You so pretty lady") and it’s done.”
Also, the place was designated as one of “10 Great Public Places in America” by the American Planning Association -- so you know it’s good.
Keens (address and info)
New York, NY
You can have all the sleep-inducing "best steak" arguments you want, but there's no arguing against Keens as our choice for THE steakhouse. Spread out over three conjoined townhouses, Keens has been serving massive cuts since 1885. Its finest attributes are its four private banquet rooms:
- The Lambs, for when 100 powerful people feel the need to feast under the watchful glare of a massive painting of a tiger by Alexander Pope;
- The Lincoln, which displays the program the President was holding when he was assassinated;
- The Bull Moose, dedicated the steakiest of presidents, Theodore Roosevelt;
- and the as-date-friendly-as-steakhouses-get Lillie Langtry (the famed stage actress was also Keens's "first lady customer").
Then there are the 50,000 antique clay pipes. They were all once smoked by regulars, and now cover every inch of ceiling, though a few -- formerly belonging to customers including Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, and Albert Einstein -- are encased in a glass hall-of-fame case. Oh, and the dry-aged USDA Prime steak is definitely amongst the best, whether it's the NY Sirloin, the Porterhouse for Three, or the bad-ass steak sandwich served in the pub area. If you're feeling truly historic, grab Keens' famous signature Mutton Chop, which, as Frank Bruni discovered in 2005, has been made of 10-month-old lamb for decades -- because there can be no arguing that the best mutton is actually lamb.
THE Liquor Store
The Entire State of New Hampshire
Of all the states that control the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages, New Hampshire's per-gallon excise tax rate is the lowest. Because it is $0. Yes, zero dollars, vs Washington's $26.70, the highest rate reported in the WSJ's 2011 rundown of such matters. The Granite State's enviably low prices draw in bulk-buyers from all over New England, demand met by Costco-size outlets waiting at pretty much every rest stop along I-93. They're wonderful places to visit, even if you can't buy a flat-screen and an engagement ring while you're there.
THE Pop Art
Vernor's Mural, Flint, MI
So first off, Midwesterners call sodas "pop." But beyond the hilarious pun, this mural's history kind of encompasses everything. For the full story, read the entry in Flint historic site Flinn's Journal here. The quick version, drawn mostly from that source: the mural was erected in 1932 across the parking lot from a then-exotic, Mediterranean-style Vernor's retail store, which was eventually sold to onetime hamburger king The Kewpie Hotel (its owner claimed to have invented the deluxe burger... so...), which was eventually sold to current hamburger kings Halo Burger. Over the years it's fallen into disrepair, been saved by civic organizations, survived the arson-driven burnout of its host building's interior, gotten saved again (partly by Halo Burger, which prompted the addition of an angelic cow to the mural), and now serves as a staging ground for gatherings of Vernor's fans, who freaking love Vernor's. Oh and also...
... it's got these gnomes on it! The gnomes, depicted hauling ingredients into Castle Vernor's, quite possibly represent the first use of tiny, human-like creatures as magical creators of beloved consumer packaged goods. At the very least, they predate the Keebler Elves by 36 years -- in case you were wondering "Okay Thrillist, who are THE Food & Beverage Industry Humanoids?" these are they.