We gather at bars to mourn, to celebrate, to kill time, to find love, to talk, to meet friends, to partake in shared experiences, to watch games, to play games. The actual drinking part is on the list somewhere, but it's not really near the top — you can drink anywhere, after all. We choose our favorite watering holes for what they offer: maybe it's selection, maybe it's expertise, maybe it's a friendly smile, maybe it's nostalgia. Really, though, it's for all of those reasons and more. A great bar feels like home and becomes a pal of sorts, the atmosphere being more than background noise, something that actually informs the experience and betters it.
Our essential bars, culled from many debates and more nights out than we can remember, represent Cleveland — the people who go there, the people who run them, the reasons that make them stand out from the rest, the reasons that keep us coming back time after time.
Any list like this is subjective, of course. We probably left off some joint that you consider indispensable. That's part of the game, part of the great debate. But we do think it's an inclusive list, one that represents not only the kind of drinking town that Cleveland was but the one it's becoming. Take a gander and then drop us a line to let us know what you think we missed.
Tremont is a drinking neighborhood, even more than it's a dining neighborhood, a reputation earned decades ago when it was a working-class enclave for the steel mills. It's easy to bandy about the word "neighborhood" on a list like this — these places mean most to those who live nearby — but with Edison's, it's the best way to describe it. Sure, there's the endless list of craft beers, which it was slinging before it became mandatory for every bar to offer 100 craft brews, but the draw is the comfort here. It's dark and friendly, sports a beautiful back patio for the summer, welcomes our four-legged friends, and is focused not on TVs and distractions but booths where conversation is front and center.
Parkview Nite Club
Tucked away in Detroit-Shoreway, the Parkview has that hipster gleam — not by design, but just as the result of a long and storied tradition where nothing much changes. It's family friendly, offers free music (catch Michael Bay and the Bad Boys of Blues Wednesday nights), sports a full menu of cheap bar favorites (get the friend asparagus), and feels small despite the large dining room. It's been a blues club, a speakeasy, a corner bar and has remained some combination of all that since the Plonskis bought it in 1993. A cool place for shady people indeed.
Velvet Tango Room
Before bacon-infused this and artisanal bitter that and the revolution of the modern cocktail, the Velvet Tango Room was slinging incomparably good classic cocktails with little distinction and no ballyhoo. That changed, of course, as the VTR became the best-known secret in Cleveland — one with a set of rules for decorum issued by owner Paulius Nasvytis, which he instituted in 1996 after buying the building for just $35,000. When Duck Island blows up in the coming years, remember who set up shop there first.
Platform hasn't even been open a year yet, but it's already one of our favorite spots. Cleveland now sports some 357 breweries, by our last estimate, so it's not easy to stick out. One way to do that is to go off the strip a bit, which is how Platform found its home down Lorain Avenue (we won't call it NoLo, sorry). Owners Paul Benner and Justin Carson made the right call in tapping Shaun Yasaki as brewmaster, and the brews stemming from his work are worth the trip alone. Add in the perfect setting — open, bustling, communal — and it's easy to see why Platform makes the list despite still being in its infancy.
Johnny's Little Bar
It never really fit with the rest of the Warehouse District sect, and certainly not its friends down the street on West Sixth, but the little heaven that is Little Bar became a destination just for that reason. (And, well, one of the best burgers in Cleveland didn't hurt either.) City and county employees, lawyers, aimless day-drinkers and everyone in between found a home here, where the lack of any natural light allows an escape into the dark and warm quarters of a place you can be seen, if you want, but left alone if that's what you prefer.
Scene has a long, proud tradition with the Harbor Inn. It was the setting for just about every job interview for years and most of the staff has whiled away the hours there, meeting sources and talking stories. There's a reason or two for that: One is Wally, the owner, the proud man who's helmed the Harbor since the '70s. The other reasons? They're harder to nail down, but among them: It's the oldest bar in Cleveland; it's a shot and a beer bar in a town that's moved away from that model; it's cheap; it's open early. It's for sale now. So if you have some cash laying around, go buy the best thing in the Flats and save it for all of humanity.
Porco Tiki Lounge
Tiki lounges used to dot the downtown landscape decades ago. We'd heard stories of how great they were but really didn't understand until Porco opened in Ohio City down by I-90. Authentic tiki cocktails with names like the Zombie and Painkiller fill the menu with apocryphal backstories of their origins. And those cocktails? Stuffed with at least two shots of booze in most cases, meaning one is more than enough most times. Add in the festive decorations and the off-the-beaten-path locale, and you can't help but feel like you've stepped into another world entirely.
Tina's Nite Club
A lot of places do karaoke. No one does karaoke like Tina's. Or, to be more specific, Little Lou, who is your grandfather's age and who runs the stereo rig on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Which isn't to say the mic loses its luster any of the other nights, just that Little Lou is our favorite. Dig into the massive lists of bygone hits after you find the building, which is very much off the Detroit-Shoreway main drag and which takes unassuming to new levels, and belt out your guts in front of your fellow wannabe stars. Karaoke's not the appetizer here. Karaoke is the reason the bar fills up every week. So come prepared to sing.