Bars, nightclubs, lounges. Everybody has been to one, but not every experience is worth talking about. This is the first in a multi author series where we ask popular travellers about experiences they've had while traveling.
Every article in the series will be on a different topic and will provide you with hands on experiences from influential people who's stories you will be excited to read.
Everybody has a different idea what makes any particular experience special. The following seven stories will give you perspective not only on amazing places to go for a drink, but also what makes things special for different people.
Flashbacks Bar Circa 1991
I've had some wild nights at bars all over the world, yet, strangely, the experience that sticks out the most is one that involved no alcohol. To explain, let's rewind back to 1991…
Dew glistened on the weed-dotted lawns that ran parallel to Rutland Road in the morning sunshine. The air was still invitingly crisp, but there were already hints that this day would be a typical Okanagan scorcher. A few kilometers from Kelowna city centre, 10-year-old me rode his battered up BMX along the dirt shoulder throwing up a dust wake that floated over the empty street, lightly dusting the rows of cabbages across the way.
I skidded to a stop in my family's dirt driveway and a pebble ricocheted off the fender of the dusty faux-wood panelled station wagon. "Hey! Watch it", my dad exclaimed. He was loading speakers into the back of the vehicle, and the back bumper was sagging dangerously close to the ground.
"Where you going?" I asked excitedly. "Do you have a show tonight? Can I come along while you set up?"
Brief hesitation. "Hmm. I guess so. I could use the extra hand. Here, grab that guitar case over there."
After some quick loading, dad and I were cruising into town past strip malls and RV dealerships distorted slightly by heat waves as they baked in the mid-morning sun. Phil Collins and Rod Stewart played through the car's tinny speakers. My dad smoked. I hung my arm out the window against the hot side of the car door and pretended not to be curious about having a cigarette. Soon, we rolled up to a weathered brick building; the sign (underwhelming in the light of day) on the exterior read "Flashbacks". To 10-year-old me, the whole vibe was very urban and cool.
My dad was a musician, and I often tagged along to help him set up on the day of performances. I'd seen the musty interior of dozens of bars and pubs before I'd celebrated my 10th birthday. Flashbacks was a new experience though. The theme was 1950s so there was a fake Chevy (cut into a booth, as I recall), jukeboxes, and a plethora of kitschy neon signage. I placed a cardboard box of mic cables on the checker-patterned floor and took it all in. Another member of my dad's band had arrived and they were already involved in an in-depth conversation, so I decided to explore.
The place seemed utterly devoid of any employees, so I tentatively began exploring the bar area and booths. I poked at the buttons of a retro-looking jukebox; pages of albums clicked from side-to-side in an illuminated glass enclosure. Terribly amusing for a few moments. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a quarter on the stained carpet by the jukebox. Growing up poor gives you a certain radar for spotting loose change, but my senses had been masked by the novelty of roaming around an empty bar. Now, however, I was hyper-aware of just how much loose change was laying around – mingling with the cigarette burns – on the floor of the place. After a furtive glance around the room for any authority figure, I began pocketing coins.
Now, I would have been happy with a few bucks. Enough for a milkshake at the TasteeFreeze or some tokens at the Scandia Arcade would have literally made my month, but after a few moments I already had around $8 jangling around in the various pockets of my jeans. But, like Smeagol, a feverish obsession had taken root. I was determined to leave Flashbacks with every last fallen nickel, dime, quarter, and Loonie.
I heaved against the jukebox and kicked out a few more coins. I lifted the mats behind the bar and pocketed even more coins. Soon, storage was becoming an issue and my jean pockets were bulging with currency (a new problem in my somewhat hardscrabble life). I needed a new depository, and after a quick search, I realized there wasn't much to work with. Wasting no time, I removed my t-shirt and created a hobo's sack (minus the stick). After heaping my bounty into the shirt, I sat in a booth and patted the shining mound of coinage. Just then, one of the quarters rebelliously rolled off the pile and into the crack behind the seat before I could snare it. A flash of realization. Under the seats!
As it turned out, the enclosed booths had easily-removable leather covers, and it appeared nobody had EVER thought to remove them. The floor within was literally obscured with buttons, lint, cards, bottle caps, but most importantly, money! I set to work straight away.
Thanks to my dad's thorough sound check, I systematically pillaged every single booth in the bar and carried loads of coins out to the car. Within 15 minutes I stood, arms crossed, proudly gazing at the raw pile of silver and gold hued coins laying behind the passenger seat of my dad's car. I'd managed to earn over $100 in under half an hour.
Flashbacks is (sadly) no longer a cheesy '50s pub. My dad's still a musician though. And me? I like to think traces of that brash, resourceful 10-year-old still remain today. And, in case you're wondering, I did get my TasteeFreeze milkshake.
- Nick Routley
The Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler BC
But the excitement didn't stop there. We then made our way to the wine cellar where we followed the footsteps of many a Canadian gold medalist from the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Whenever a Canadian won gold, the Bearfoot Bistro invited them to sabre a bottle of champagne. What a thrill it was to hold a sword and watch the cork pop when our blade touched. We then happily drank our bottle while perusing the 20,000 bottles of wine. With a happy glow that only champagne can create, we made our way back to the bar where we continued to eat and sample wine during our six course tasting menu. Needless to say, we felt a little rough on the slopes the next day, but it was worth it. The Bearfoot Bistro goes down as our best night out ever.
- Dave & Deb
Second Story, Chicago
Between San Francisco and Green Bay, we stopped off in Chicago for a few nights to take in the city and try out this amazing city that everyone seemed to be talking about. A few great nights in, and we found ourselves wandering around Chicago's famous Magnificent Mile, getting some shopping in, when the heat and the walking suddenly required a beverage.
We had eaten some great meals on the trip and had fantastic service, but this time we wanted to really get to know the city, so we whipped out Yelp and searched "Dive Bar".
The app led us around the corner to a place with some fabulous reviews called "Second Story". When we arrived, we saw a disappointingly average facade. Fortunately, one of the reviewers had the foresight to leave in their review that we'd have to walk down a hallway and up a set of stairs to get to the bar.
And so we did, down a dimly lit, poorly carpeted hall - up a narrow staircase into an unmarked door.
We were down for whatever, so didn't miss a beat pushing through the door and into the bar. I was glad to be out of the heat and into a cold beer, so I rushed straight to the tank-topped bartender, ordering us a couple of drinks. Meanwhile, my girlfriend hung back, taking in the atmosphere.
The guys at the bar were awesome - it was refreshing to meet a group of people who would so casually strike up a friendly conversation. We chatted for a while about travel, Vancouver, and they gave me some local tips before I pushed back to find our table.
I sat down and took a satisfying drink of my beer when I noticed the smile on my girl's face. "Look around" she said.
My eyes scanned the room:
I saw the friendly bartender, the two guys who had sparked the conversation with me, and approximately two dozen other guys between 25 - 45 years old.
Something was different, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I focused on the TVs, which were showing topless oiled men lounging poolside with no discernible plot-line.
We had found one of Chicago's hidden gay bars, nestled away from the mainstream establishments.
Suddenly, the conversations at the bar made much more sense and, at the same time, one of my new buddies picked up his drink to walk over to our table.
I tried to hide my smile as he sat down and asked to be introduced to my "friend".
We picked up right where we left off, it turns out that he was a flight attendant from Ireland who frequented Chicago and spent a good amount of time in Vancouver. A few drinks and a lot of laughs later, he got to the point and asked out about our "situation".
Upon learning that a Canadian couple had accidentally stumbled into their little spot, our guys and their friends let out a laugh that easily eclipsed our own.
Just like that, we became the center of attention as people gathered at our table to hear about the misguided travelers.
The drinks were cheap, shots frequent and the conversation legendary - the stories and jokes that were tossed back and forth are one the highlights of a trip that also included my first ever trip to see Lambeau stadium.
- Conner Galway
La Carboneria in the Heart of Seville, Spain
- Micki and Charles Kosman
Archea Brewery in Florence, Italy
Just around the corner from the beautiful Piazza Santo Spirito in Florence is Archea Brewery: a small, dimly lit birrificio that could easily be classified as a hole in the wall. What sets Archea apart from other local joints is the beer selection; it’s vast, with a wide assortment of craft brews from around the world, as well as a couple varieties of their own beer, brewed just south of Rome.
It’s a spot for those looking for a bite to eat and a nice pint (or, if you’re like me and have a tough time deciding, go for a flight of different beers), away from the main tourist areas of Florence. The staff there is, for the most part, fairly fluent in English, and they’re passionate about their jobs and eager to tell you about each beer in great detail.
When I visited the pub, I spent hours lingering over different snacks and drinks, chatting with the bar staff about the area, the Italian beer scene, and comparing our favourite breweries. Later on, after the live music began and the locals started pouring in, I giddily left the bar, husband in tow, ready to explore the excitement at the nearby Piazza Santo Spirito. Perfetto, no?
- Stephanie Arsenault
La Vina de Bacco, Mexico
There's no better way to end a long day of sight-seeing, wandering or exploring than sitting back with a glass of wine! We're both lovers of fine reds and were delighted to stumble across this gem of a tapas and wine bar when visiting San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico. La Vina de Bacco is owned by two Italians who are passionate about their wines and cuisine. This small, cozy bar is located on the bustling pedestrian street of Real de Guadalupe, which made it the ideal place for people watching while we swirled, sniffed and sipped our glasses of vino.
Not only was the location great, but the atmosphere was upbeat and fun with local artists playing music on the street in the evening. Wines from Argentina, Chile, Italy and Mexico are available with the most affordable being $1.50/glass. The best part about drinking here is that with every glass, no matter the price, you are given free tapas. If you're feeling a bit boozy and need something more substantial than finger food, try the fantastic pastas! This place is bursting at the seams in the evenings with everyone trying to get a spot at one of the oak barrel tables, so come early...but we guarantee you'll end up staying late.
- Nick & Dariece
A Noble Experiment
Over the years I have had quite a few bar experiences; possibly even a little more than my fair share. While I have been to plenty of awesome bars, this particular bar stands out.
It was a warm spring night in San Diego and I was in town for a Social Media Marketing World 2014. I had met a few other attendees who had come to the conference solo who were also interested in having a few wobbly pops. After attending a gathering on the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier a few of us decided to tag along with a local San Diego Veteran named Andrew.
As we hopped in the Taxi, one of the other guys piped up and said, "As a local, take us to the absolute coolest bar in town". Andrew did just that.
We took the taxi and landed at a pretty interesting little restaurant/pub called the Neighborhood Restaurant. The lights were dim, conversations were flowing out of peoples mouths and it looked like a pretty cool place to enjoy a drink. At a glance the bar appeared to be a rustic looking whiskey bar with a nice selection of local craft beers. The place was busy for a Wednesday night, but it looked like we would be able to find a spot.
Before sitting down, we followed Andrew in and headed towards the bathroom. I assumed we all needed to run to the little boys room since each of us had numerous cocktails while on the aircraft carrier. Just before going into the bathroom, at the end of the bathroom hallway, there was a nine or so kegs stacked on top of each other forming a wall. Nothing strange about that right? We are in a pub after all.
To my surprise, Andrew doesn't go into the bathroom, but instead pushes on the right side of the keg wall. Like a secret room in the Adam's Family movie, the Keg wall sprung open to reveal a lady standing behind a little station. I'm guessing her job must be a little awkward because the majority of the time she is stuck tarring at the back of a wall anticipating guest's arrival. After opening the door, without hesitation the gatekeeper (hostess) asks if we had reservations. Being that we just landed in town that day, we said no. Andrew asked how long the wait was to get a spot. The Gatekeeper's job is clearly to make the place feel exclusive as her immediate response was "Could be five minutes, could be never. I can take your number though and will text you if a table opens up.".
We decided to give her his number and luckily were texted an invite within the hour to come back.
As we walked in past the gatekeeper, we were greeted with an entire wall of gold plated human skulls. When I looked to the right there was a short bar with a mixologist wearing prohibition style clothing. The entire 950 square foot establishment had a total of 35 seats.
Each cocktail was $13. Each cocktail was AMAZING. I had a Whiskey Sour and the Millionaire's Mojito.
There are no waitresses at Noble Experiment. The mixologist came to our table, and one person didn't know what they wanted, so he asked you what flavours she likes. He headed back to bar, and returned with an amazing drink that was exactly in line with what she requested. The fact that they are able to cater to your pallet with such ease blew me away.
Everything about this bar made me excited. The flavours in these seemingly expensive drinks, the anticipation of being granted access and the feeling of exclusivity because the place was a hidden bar inside a bar transformed a few cocktails from a casual night out to an experience I've already told dozens of people about.
If you are a local in San Diego and need a date idea, or plan to be heading there. Make reservations days in advance. The experience is just something else.