Last week I counted down my favourite cities in the world. This week? This week I’m covering something much more important – counting down my favourite watering holes. Whether it’s a karaoke bar in which I sang my heart out to Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing’ or a seedy dive where I sank suds and searched in vain for a pretty girl to make a pass at – you’ll find it here.
10 – The Lucky Country, Newcastle, NSW
I’m pretty sure it’s been closed down for operating without a liquor license, and the place was often crawling with cockroaches – but it offered cheap beers and even cheaper shots, and that’s about all an unemployed Novocastrian could hope for on a Saturday night.
In 2004 I was strapped for cash and at the very lowest point of my social interest. If the popular ones are social butterflies, I’m not sure what that made me. A social moth? A social blowfly?
But every so often Mark, Randy, David, and I would head on out to the Lucky Country and we’d see where the night would take us. More often than not the answer was ‘King Street McDonalds’ for burgers, but sometimes it lead to an adventure. The one I remember best was the night that I pretended to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. By all that is good and holy I probably should have been killed by the real deal, but I somehow managed to not only pull it off – but impress a pretty young girl into giving me a goodnight kiss.
I only saw the lass one more time, and she was far less impressed with me when I had a thick Aussie accent on and didn’t recognize her – but it was a fun night and makes for an even funnier anecdote.
9 – The ‘Stro, Armidale, NSW, Australia
During my years at the University of New England in Armidale, the ‘Stro was just about the highlight of the week. We might not have had the money to afford more than a drink or two – even at the Uni bar’s reduced rates – but that didn’t stop us from having a good time.
Rather than use our meager savings, we’d pitch together on the classiest of beverages – a four litre cask of Fruity Lexia or dry white. The party would start early in the evening to maximize our drinking time before it was time for the drunken walk up the hill to the University. It’s no small wonder I managed to lose weight over the two years of hauling my ass up the steep UNE hill.
Games of Shithead, Asshole, or even Uno were used as drinking games and then there was the infamous ‘Circle of Death’ that guaranteed at least one of us would be going to the ‘Stro with the smell of vomit and white wine on our breath.
From what I hear the ‘Stro isn’t what it once was – but I’ll always have fond memories of the place. From drunken making out with complete strangers to long deep and meaningful conversations in the haze of smoke that hung permanently over the porch out back.
The entire night was often capped off with the drunken walk home. A few of us would inevitably end up at the all night service station at Girraween and wolf down sausage rolls before crashing out praying that we’d be able to make that 9am tutorial we had the next morning.
8 – The New England Hotel, Armidale, NSW
How many Saturday nights did I spend at the ‘Newie’? How many bad dances did I have? And how many of those nights out ended with a pie from the bakery across the road and a long, drunken walk home alone? For the better part of three years, the Newie was the best place to be on a Saturday night. Whether you were out on the dance floor or just sitting out on the chicken wire wrapped balcony – the Newie was the highlight of a pretty quiet social calendar.
Why was it significant? I found out that my first girlfriend liked me during a Newie visit. I kissed girls ranging from scary to passable at the Newie. I tested the greatest pick-up line ever (which none of us can remember anymore) and had it succeed beyond my wildest expectations. I got a girl’s number despite having ripped the ass out of my pants.
Notice a trend here?
The Newie wasn’t the coolest place in town nor did I ever have a particularly amazing night there – but I had a lot of good ones there, and that counts for something.
7 – Soul Train – Gwangju, South Korea
When I first decided to head to South Korea, I did what any traveler to be would do – I went out to a bookstore and I bought the Lonely Planet edition for my future home. While I am a huge lover of the Lonely Planet books, their entry on bars in Gwangju was a little sparse – with only the Speakeasy and Soul Train rating a mention.
I remember stumbling down the stairs and into the near abandoned Soul Train bar early in my tenure in Korea, having agreed to meet a few new friends there. The bar staff, a mixture of cute Korean girls with good English and Korean guys who seemed less inclined to chat, were super friendly as they welcomed me in and ushered me to a booth. The girls at the bar sported cute names like Christina and Alexis and flirted shamelessly with any foreign male to grace the establishment – and that went a long way towards prolonging any stay there.
While Soul Train dropped off of my drinking rotation as time passed, I had a lot of really good times there in the early days. New Year’s 2008 was spent there with my best friends. Many games of pool were played, many Korean girls were flirted hopelessly with, and the slippery walk across ice caked streets to the cab rank was always an interesting challenge. And watching the bar’s owner pour a birthday shot is a sight to behold. Think techno music, juggling, a tower of glasses, and set it all on fire.
I hear that Soul Train has found its way back into the good graces of Gwangju’s foreign inhabitants, and I’m glad for that. It’s a nice change of pace from the usually loud, crowded bars we tend to frequent.
6 – The Fitz, Vegas, USA
Say what you will about the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas strip, but I fell in love with Fremont Street and ‘Old Vegas’ during our four day visit there in October 2009. I would walk the crowded streets at night with a $2 Corona in my hand and indulge in a bit of people watching. Then there was the surreal moment every hour when the lights would go out and the roof over the street would light up in tribute to Queen or John Denver or Don McLean. It was like something from a horror movie as everybody came to a complete stand-still and just stared slack-jawed up at the roof.
We drank in a lot of casinos during our visit, but my favourite would have to be the Fitzgerald Casino. With its cheap beers, affordable food, and a balcony that looked out over the street – we six whiled away many an evening up there where the air was cooler and the beers were just a few feet away.
When you’re in Vegas by all means hit a show, buy a $12 beer at New York New York, and do a bit of shopping on the Strip. But make sure you pay a visit to Fremont Street and when you do, swing by the Fitz and have a beer on the balcony. You won’t forget it.
5 – Abey, Gwangju, South Korea
I’m not sure if it’s just Gwangju’s foreigner population who can be fickle about their hot spots or whether it’s a global thing, but for a short while this ultra hip hookah (flavoured tobacco) bar was the high point of the drinking week.
I first encountered the dimly lit interior of the Abey on my first weekend out in Gwangju. A high school friend had traveled down from Seoul and brought some friends along to ensure I didn’t spend my 24th birthday alone, and the Abey was the place where I rang it in. It was the first time I’d felt truly at home in Korea, and later that night I would make my first local friends – Liz and Kirk, whom I still speak with today.
Midnight was about to tick over and I took another pull from the apple flavoured hookah we were sharing. I felt delightfully naughty smoking, and I remember asking that the photo not be put on Facebook in case my mother saw. Heloise turned to me and asked me what my birthday wish was, and before I could answer everybody leaped to their feet and showered me with streamers as party poppers exploded. I don’t know when they found time to go out and buy them, but it’s a gesture I’ve always appreciated. I knew then that I had made the right decision by uprooting myself and traveling halfway across the world.
Later in the year the Abey would gain further significance for me as I romanced a South African girl I’d met at Speakeasy (appearing farther down the list). The bar had since been taken over by the irrepressable Joe Wabe, who had turned it from a well kept secret into a popular foreigner haunt.
You’d descend from the loud, well lit streets above and into a cool, candle-lit bar full of secret alcoves littered with pillows and blue and purple curtains that shifted delightfully in the breeze. Fairy lights hung over the bar and occasional belly dancing display added to the exotic appeal of the part. Joe would occasionally offer free shots to anybody who would populate the dance floor – but it was the quiet moments stolen in the secluded corners of the place that I remember with the most fondness.
It couldn’t last forever. Joe eventually moved on (although he’s now back with a vengeance and managing a Mexican themed bar called Tequilaz) and the last time I saw the Abey, it was all but empty as it returned to being a less foreigner friendly bar. But damn, those were some good times while they lasted.
4 – Ground Kontrol, Portland, Oregon
It’s not a happening night spot and the beers on offer aren’t particularly good, but Ground Kontrol earns a mention for the nerd factor alone. I like a good beer and a lascivious glance across the bar as much as the next guy, but there’s something supremely awesome about finishing three player Sunset Riders with a beer in hand. And who cares that it cost you $5 in quarters when the beers are only $2?
The entire bottom floor of this very cool establishment is crammed full of old arcade classics ranging from Mario Kart and the original Donkey Kong to pin-ball machines that look like they might have been considered old even when my parents were wasting their pocket money on them. Dance Dance Revolution in particular offers up a great spectacle as inebriated girls stumble and stagger their way towards an abysmal score.
All in all, it’s the kind of unique experience that you don’t get very often when drinking – and that alone gets it in the top half of the list.
3 – Camel Toe Lodge, Couer D’Alene, Idaho
It doesn’t have a liquor license and its hours are restricted to the whims of its owner, but for one or two nights a week the shed out back of the Perry’s house is just about the most happening place in Idaho. That’s meant to be high praise, although I’m sure it doesn’t sound it.
While spending six weeks in the Pacific North West, I spent a good number of nights in the most pimped out shed I’d ever seen. A pool table, a full length shuffleboard table with attached scoreboard, and even a popcorn machine like you see at the circus! The fridge was always full of beer and with the Perry’s being owners of a Papa Murphy’s franchise – there was plenty of delicious pizza to chase the beers with. I learned a new respect and love for shuffleboard on those drunken nights, and Diamond Rio’s ‘Beautiful Mess’ will always hold a special place in my heart after drunkenly practicing some swing dancing moves while the adults sang at the top of their lungs.
I still wear the shirt with pride (I’m actually wearing it as I type), and while it looks like I’ll never get to pay a visit again and I doubt an invitation will be extended to many of my readers, it was still a helluva good time.
2 – Shark Bar, Sydney, NSW
I’ll be lynched by my co-workers for not mentioning the Madison, but the Shark Bar is the closest I’ve come to a haunt in Sydney. It’s a bit of a backpacker destination, but 9pm every Thursday night it turns into the best karaoke bar I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. I fell in love with singing rooms and noraebang in South Korea, but there’s an extra thrill in belting out ‘Gay Bar’ by Electric Six in front of a crowd of drunken people whose interest levels range from indifferent to creepily enthused by my mock gyrations.
As if karaoke wasn’t enough, the $9 buffet is heaven for anybody on a budget. And they give out free drinks to everybody who sings! Not a bad incentive to put your self consciousness on the back-burner long enough to work on that ‘Endless Love’ duet with your best mate.
=1 – Mike and Dave’s Speakeasy, Gwangju, South Korea
The first of a two part winner, ‘The Speak’ is almost certainly the first bar most visitors to Gwangju will come in contact. Started up by Michael Simning and Dave Martin, the Speakeasy was recently voted the fourth best bar in all of South Korea by a horde of booze swilling foreigners. That’s a pretty ringing endorsement when you consider that drinking may just be the #1 pastime amongst expats.
I’ll be honest, the Speakeasy isn’t much to look at. After hauling your ass up the stairs and shoving open the door, you’ll almost certainly be hit in the face by the hot smoky air that there’s no escape from no matter how many windows are open. You’ll need to weave your way through a minefield of tables and booths to get to the tiny dance floor and the bar, and the unisex bathroom affords anybody outside an excellent view of anybody using the single urinal.
By all rights it should be the kind of bar you avoid like the plague, but it’s the closest most of us will ever come to being a cast member on Cheers. I made countless friends in that tiny bathroom, and if having to pee in front of a dozen of your closest friends doesn’t loosen you up, the tunes out on the dance floor and the cheap spirits certainly will.
What made and makes the Speakeasy so awesome is that it’s run by foreigners for foreigners. From time to time there’ll be a concert or an open mike night, and on other occasions there have been charity auctions (yours truly was bought for a handsome 50,000 won) and even private parties. People have bade farewell to Korea there and people have (believe it or not) celebrated their wedding there.
Dave’s back in Canada now and Mike’s moved on to other projects (like raising a family and battling leukemia) – but the place is still going strong under the watchful eye of Derek and Tony. The staff are always up for a chat and there’s even merchandise for the die hards. I still have my Speakeasy shirt.
It might have been surpassed by trendier spots of late, but the Speakeasy will always be the hot, smelly, and lovable heart of Gwangju in my eyes.
=1 – German Bar, Gwangju, South Korea
It was a pretty sweet bit of kismet that the two best foreigner bars in Gwangju just happened to be right beside one another. If Speakeasy was a bit dead or the place was crammed to the rafters with grabby serviceman in from the nearby military base – you could just skip over to German Bar and see what was on offer there.
Song, the owner, might have been a bit eccentric and a little inappropriately touchy with females of the pretty variety – but the man brewed a good beer and ran a pretty good bar.
It might have lost a lot of its luster when the very groovy Sang Young called it a day, but when the noisy confines of the Speak proved too claustrophobic, the German Bar’s open spaces and obnoxiously loud karaoke were a welcome change of pace.
Offering up cheaper alcohol than its neighbor and a decent selection of ‘German’ food, Songs was the perfect starting point for a fun night out. By the time you were liquored up on a crisp Weissen or a dark Dunkel, you’d probably already warmed up your vocal chords with a few songs and it would be time to move next door to the Speakeasy for some drunken bumping and grinding.
The two were a pair made in heaven. I can’t wait to get back to them.
What about you? Do you have a few favourite bars of your own? Share the knowledge!