Staff Picks: What to Drink at a Not-Great Bar

Simon Cocks on Flickr

It's all well and good to talk in theory about the best craft beers or spirits, but sometimes you find yourself at a bar that's not known for carefully-mixed cocktails or clean tap lines. Maybe you're at the closest dive to home, maybe it's somebody's birthday party choice, or a hotel bar at a wedding, but it's not where you go for a perfect Sazerac. What, then, is the best drink to order?

Here's our advice on the safest bet, drinkwise.

Pabst Blue Ribbon
Robyn Lee

"I try and read the space. If it's clear the bartender doesn't know how to mix a cocktail but there's good business on the beer from people who look like they might notice when a beer is served from a dirty line, then I'll see what's on tap. If I can't even trust the taps, then I'll probably ask myself what I'm doing there in the first place and order myself a can of PBR while I contemplate my life."—J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

"Unless they try really, really hard, a bad bar can't screw up putting decent gin in a glass with some ice. Plain Bombay is my go-to, with a lime if I'm feeling fancy."—Max Falkowitz

"If they have Campari, a Campari and soda is a safe bet. Alternatively, well vodka + soda + a ton of lime juice. It doesn't even have to be from fresh limes. Rose's bottled lime juice is fine, just use a heavy hand."—Carrie Vasios Mullins

"Whiskey on the rocks. Hard to find fault with that drink."—Elana Lepkowski

"If my husband orders a beer first, I'll taste his pint and see if it's musky and weird from dirty draft lines. (He doesn't mind being my tester. Right?) Not fresh and clean tasting? I'll order a bottled beer then. Or seltzer and lime."—Maggie Hoffman

Simon Cocks on Flickr

"I do a lot of drinking in not-fancy spots, and you have to adjust your expectations accordingly. When it's clear that I'm in a dive (and I love a dive), chances are I'm not there to savor my cocktail, so I'll stick with something pretty hard to mess up, like a Jack and coke. I'm not afraid to announce to the internet that I also sometimes order well whiskey and Coke, because it's cheaper than the name-brand stuff and I'm not, I repeat, in a dive to savor the subtle nuance of a well-crafted drink."—Jamie Feldmar

"When I'm worried about a bar's taps, I go with a bottle of Champagne (by which I mean Miller High Life). It's refreshing, usually reasonably priced, and never has that dirty-tap funkiness that grosses me out."—Ben Fishner

"If everything at a bar gives me the heebie jeebies, chances are I'm going for a beer and a shot. Assuming the selection is limited, that'll be a Jameson and a PBR, thank you very much."—Niki Achitoff-Gray


"I spend waaaay too much time going to karaoke bars. I always skip the soju cocktails and stick to pitchers of Sapporo (or Kirin, if they don't have it) if everyone's drinking. Otherwise Sapporo in a bottle is fine too. I never go for the fancier beers or wines or mixed drinks because you're asking for trouble—terrible tasting and guaranteed hangover material."—Tracie Lee

"Bourbon and ginger ale is my choice for weddings, dive bars, and places where the bartender looks more comfortable with a bottle opener than a jigger. It's a hard combination to mess up, it's works well with bottom shelf spirits, and it gets the job done."—Leang Chaing

"Lately, my safe drink at a not-so-good bar has been a whiskey with a splash of ginger ale. The ginger is usually just enough to take the edge off of whatever cheap-o whiskey is waiting for me in the well."—Paul Cline

"Campari or Fernet, neat, if they have them. If I'm feeling adventurous, a makeshift Boulevardier—equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth, and whatever whiskey looks tolerable, on the rocks. Skip the twist as it usually ends up being a nasty orange wedge."—Nick Caruana

What's your go-to drink in a really divey bar?