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A regular old cocktail somehow becomes more potent, more intoxicating, when you’re sipping it in a classic room. Through their storied pasts, these five U.S. bars have come to represent much more than four walls, a jukebox, and a line of barstools. In addition to cocktails, you’ll find landmarked murals, famous lounge singers and bartenders, fanciful decor, and the type of ambience that can make every hour a happy hour.
King Cole Bar (New York, New York)
The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel — overseen by a fantastic mural of the jolly old soul himself, painted by Maxfield Parrish in 1906 — is a place engineered for special occasions. A table in the corner, at the far edge of the mural, is called Table 55, and those who reserve it can dine from an extravagant and exclusive chef’s menu. The bar’s dim lighting and gleaming wood paneling, the intimate size of the room, the polished staff, and the perfectly concocted Bloody Mary (called a Red Snapper here) could make anyone feel like a sophisticated and very contented grown-up. There’s no guarantee you’ll get in: The small space fills up on busy evenings, but it’s worth the gamble. Dress up and try your luck at snagging a seat at the bar, under the glow of the saturated colors from the mural.
The Dresden (Los Angeles, California)
Opened in 1954, this cocktail lounge has true Hollywood bona fides: The leather booths and mid-century light fixtures have played supporting roles in Swingers, Mad Men, and Anchorman, among other productions, and the bar has become a destination for those in search of kitschy Rat Pack vibes. (You know you’re in for a theatrical evening when the sign out front is outlined in lightbulbs like a Broadway marquee.) Once you head inside the Dresden, the old Hollywood enchantment continues with dim lighting, a veteran waitstaff, and, of course, classic cocktails. There’s also nightly live music — one of L.A.’s longest-running acts, Marty & Elayne, have played jazz standards here since 1982. Ease into a booth and let the decor, the jazz, and a well-made drink calm your thoughts of the outside world.
Million Dollar Cowboy Bar (Jackson, Wyoming)
The location of the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar — across the street from Jackson’s town square, where an iconic triumphal arch constructed of antlers welcomes pedestrians — seems plucked out of a classic Western. Its name dates from when the bar first opened in 1937 (with the state’s first post-Prohibition liquor license). The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is a genuine honky tonk that has never gone out of style — or out of business. Storefronts around the bar have been taken over by art galleries and Starbucks, but behind the famous facade, you’ll still find a world of western-saddle barstools, pool tables, taxidermy, and country music. You’ll see plenty of tourists in the crowd, but the live music draws in locals, too.
Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar (San Francisco, California)
When you’re dressed for the cool San Francisco evenings and sitting inside a hotel on top of Nob Hill, you might be surprised to hear the rumble of thunder nearby and the sound of a tropical downpour. But that’s what happens periodically when you’re having a drink at the city’s most venerable tiki bar, the Tonga Room inside the Fairmont San Francisco. A thatched barge with a band floats on an artificial “lagoon” in the center of the room, while drinks (mostly updated to modern craft cocktail standards) are served in fake coconut shells or ceramic bamboo cups adorned with umbrellas and pineapple slices.
The Tonga Room opened in 1945, designed by MGM Studios set director Mel Melvin, who fully realized his tropical vision with bamboo railings, carved tiki heads, and lava rock walls. The dance floor was made of wood salvaged from the deck of a lumber schooner that had floated the South Seas, and the Tonga Room’s official band, The Island Groove, has been entertaining guests for years.
Carousel Bar (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Riding on merry-go-rounds is generally reserved for a younger crowd, but at the landmark Carousel Bar in the French Quarter, ordering another round is a strictly adult activity. At the center of this cocktail lounge at the Hotel Monteleone, opened in 1949, a 25-seat circular bar executes a complete rotation every 15 minutes. The slow, smooth motion won’t make you dizzy, but the canopy overhead — supported by a pillar in the middle of the bar — will remind you that, by getting a stool, you’ve scored the golden ring on this popular carousel. The fanciful room is always crowded with locals and tourists eager to take a seat at the revolving bar and sip one of the city’s signature cocktails, like a Sazerac or a Vieux Carré — which was invented right here.