The Most Important Bars You’ll Go To In Your 20s

Jessica Blankenship at a bar. Big surprise.
Jessica Blankenship

When contemplating the relationship between young women and their bars, there are more substantial emotional attachments in play of which you should be aware. These haunts are, in many ways, our homes. They are our safe places, despite the fact that we regularly go to them to get into all kinds of unsafe behavior that would make all the grandmothers clutch all the pearls. This has been particularly true for me at certain times. Given that I am the undisputed master of finding reasons to quit apartments – my roommate’s hair products smell like Cambodia, the air conditioner is too loud, I saw a spider once (I think), I want to move in with the guy I’ve been dating for 5 minutes, I need to escape the racist sociopath I moved in with after 5 minutes of dating, etc. – some of the bars in my life have provided a more consistent feeling of home than any place I’ve ever paid rent. With the dizzying, revolving nature of our friends, sex partners, jobs, haircuts, and actual abodes, it’s not entirely unreasonable that the bars we frequent offer our greatest source of continuity. They are our disgusting, gin-soaked, grimy security blankets.

It’s not unusual, on any given night, to see someone lose an earring, a tooth, their phone, their friends, their sexual standards, or their entire sense of self-awareness. It’s important to understand that not only are these losses accepted, they are often secretly the ultimate goal of going out in the first place. Most twenty-somethings will drink to the undoing of their social decency, only to lament their transgressions the next morning over bellinis (a Basic Bitch Brunching staple) while they and their friends indulge in an appropriate degree of hungover shame, playing a collective game of pretend that getting messy wasn’t the point all along. Alcohol is something to be explained and regretted to some people, which I guess is fine, if you’re okay with being, like, really mediocre about your existence. If you’re awesome, alcohol is a mighty tool for the advancement of being. An explanation: I have one.

The truth: No one drinks because they want to keep their shit together.

More truth: There is absolutely no merit in keeping your shit together all the time.

Extra double truth: We walk into our twenties so full of shit. Shit we learned from our parents, shitty ideas and expectations and entitlements that were put in our heads based on rules and realities that are so grossly outdated by now, and a whole lot of shit notions about how shit is supposed to work. We need to lose our shit, let all our shit fall apart, so as to give us some raw materials to re-arrange and re-assemble our lives into something that honestly makes sense, something sustainable, something fulfilling and healthy, and more accurately reflective of how we want to live and who we want to be.

Thus, it can be reasonably deduced that the most highly evolved bar-goers are the ones who are beyond pretending. The smartest of us have eschewed a morally-imposed requirement to feel ashamed of our drunkenness in favor of building an unapologetic culture of celebrating the qualities of our lives that not only make getting stupid drunk understandable, but advisable and practical. Living every minute of every day on the mental battlefield between “what you expected your life to be”, “what you were told your life should/would/could be” and “what you actually want your life to be” is brutal. It’s overwhelming. Yes, it’s also thrilling to the point where you could explode with the immaculate potential of yourself at any given moment, but if your rapidly changing brain doesn’t need to be turned off regularly, then you are very likely half-assing the self-discovery you should be going through during these years. There is immeasurable benefit to be gained from numbing our over-taxed minds, letting our primal selves take over for a while, and seeing what truths come to the surface in the process. It’s only when you fully embrace that legitimately valuable life lessons and personal growth that can take place in the dark, dirty bosom of bar life that they do take place at all.

The preceding justification for post-graduate borderline alcoholism was brought to you by the following bars:

Your Bar

Everything I know about how to love a bar – like really love a bar – I learned at Star Bar. I first started going there for Tuesday night funk dance party when I was 16 and had a fake ID that needed using. It’s not a sentimental exaggeration to say I literally learned how to drink there. It’s where I learned how to open a bathroom door, close and lock the stall, put up the toilet seat, flush that bitch, wash my hands and get out, all without putting my hands ON ANYTHING. (Full disclosure: I have also had full-on sexual intercourse in that same, sullied bathroom, lest you think I’m some prissy germaphobe who bathes herself in hand sanitizer before going to a dive. I just try to save the contamination for times when it’s really worth it, like when there’s an orgasm at stake.)

This is where I became a firm advocate for investing adequate time in a place to know its subtleties and nuances so well that you feel completely in your element every time you walk in the door. After years of frequenting Star Bar, I now know where to sit for optimal comfort depending on weather/genre of band playing. I know that there is no cell signal at all downstairs. I know where the most flattering lighting is. I know that you absolutely don’t want to be around even a second past last call because those unforgiving fuckers will turn on the bright lights, exposing smeared eyeliner, wrinkles you imagine you have, parched split ends, basically ruining all the sexy game you’ve been laying down all night. I know where my ex-boyfriend and his girlfriend before me wrote their initials in a heart on the wall. I know a spot where you can perch up above the crowd during packed shows and see the stage perfectly and still be within arms reach of the bartender.

This bar has been host to countless birthday parties, second dates when we share an unspoken intention to get drunk enough to get completely real with each other, “we’re just going to go out, order you a bottle of bourbon and a straw, and dance until you don’t remember that dick-biscuit’s name” post-break-up nights, unsuspecting Wednesdays that turn out to be more fun than any Saturday, and the unfailing, easy confidence of nights that start with the door guy kissing your cheek, stamping your hand, and never dreaming of charging you a cover. I’ve met best friends there. I’ve ruined new shoes there. I let my boyfriend give me a bad haircut, gone there to drink away the horror, and then gone home drunk and let him cut it some more because I do not learn. It’s where I have all my going away parties, and all of my welcome home parties.

There isn’t anything especially beautiful or unique about bars like this. They’re not fancy or modern; there are no gimmicks, no angles to account for their relentless appeal. These are the awkward, wonk-eyed, pound puppy bars. They aren’t perfect, but they are ours, they are home, they are where we grow up.

The Bar Everyone Hates But Secretly Loves And Still Goes To

And so it was written (preeettty sure this is in the Bible), everyone will end up finding a bar that teaches them how to do drugs. This is the bar where I once literally sat in cocaine that had been left on the toilet seat by what I have to believe were 22-year-old Tumblr models, because who the fuck else is that careless with expensive drugs? By the time I started hanging out here at age 20, I had long since discovered that cocaine was THE BEST, and then that it was THE WORST, so it wasn’t really on the menu for me. Regardless, it’s still a perfectly solid place to get one’s drink on. As is true with most coked out hipster drinkeries, there are usually more people joking about all the cocaine being consumed than there are people actually consuming it because A) we’re too poor to afford it, and B) despite what we say, most of us have a deep down desire to not destroy our lives in any real, irrevocable way, and cocaine is a well-known fast track to homelessness, despair, and getting naked in front of Terry Richardson. No thank you, please.

Other notable qualities of this kind of bar: large tables in an open space, with a few hidden booths in case you wanna get your make out on or have an actual conversation. This setup is perfectly suited to spotting everyone you’ve ever known across the room, shouting to them to join you, reshuffling chairs to make space for your ever-expanding party (the shuffling of chairs is the unofficial soundtrack of bars like this), and proceeding to become Queen of Having ALL THE FRIENDS, surrounded by loved ones, acquaintances, and randoms who have been numbed into silence by hitting the toilet seat too hard, too early in the night.

This bar doesn’t have a karaoke night, and I once saw Mos Def hanging out there. If that’s not a good enough endorsement for you, I don’t want to be friends with you anyway.

The Bar Your Friends Own

When in the company of any group of budding mini-adults (especially if they’re stoned), you’re going to hear some asshole talk about how he or she is totally going to open their own bar. This claim comes to fruition approximately once for every 47 billion times it’s declared. Since my friends are decidedly extraordinary individuals, I actually know some dudes who did it. The greatness of this cannot be understated; it’s new and shiny, I already know the hunky gents behind the bar, my tab is regularly much smaller than it ought to be, all my friends go there, it’s within walking distance of my apartment and spitting distance of 3 of my other favorite bars. It turns out that owning your own bar is a waste of a dream compared to having friends who own their own bar.

The Bar That’s Not Really A Bar

May the proprietors of these establishments burn in hell. From the ages of 22 to 24, I spent upwards of 12 hours a day, nearly every day, at a coffee shop/bar down the street from my apartment. SLASH BAR. These evil geniuses found a way to perfectly capitalize on the ever-growing crop of laptop-toting young freelancers: get them jacked up on high-quality coffee and tea by day, and then offer nerve-soothing, boozy elixirs at night (and sometimes day.) This is the kind of hangout that every twenty-something needs; a quiet, unassuming, closet of a place, hidden so squarely in the middle of a hip neighborhood as to make you wonder why/how everyone doesn’t know of this magical hovel where all varieties of sinful dysfunction are lovingly validated and facilitated. The employees and patrons became utterly entangled in each other’s lives, and often traded roles. You would walk in and suddenly one of the regulars was employed there, and someone else had been fired, but was still getting drunk in the corner, actively and unabashedly hating everyone in the building, but still staying because it didn’t make sense to be anywhere else. Once you were in, you were in. Judgment didn’t exist, but morning drinks did. There would be countless days when I would show up at 7am, spend the day drinking tea and writing (okay, Facebooking), pack it in around 3 or 4pm, grab a falafel from next door, seamlessly switch to vodka, stay until forever o’clock (the owner made a habit of going around before last call, marking black Xs on the heads of some people, yell that everyone without one had to get the fuck out, and thus began the after hours party. Even if I didn’t feel honor bound to not disclose what went on during those times, I wouldn’t remember it. But we did get to smoke cigarettes inside, which was all I ever wanted anyway.) and then stumble home, pass out, wake up, and do it all again.

For the luckiest among us, this kind of non-bar bar can be the setting for unexpected growth and profound change. For me, it was where I retreated after the end of a relationship that had left me depleted and tired and in no mood for the barrage of rebound dick I typically sought. It was the perfect place to be alone with other people. Everyone there was alone together. And then I would go home and be alone by myself, every night for months, like I had never done before. Learning how to willingly, contented sleep in the middle of the bed is something everyone needs to learn. Sometimes bar therapy is what it takes to get you there.

For something that could be aptly perceived as a period of binge drinking and risking BUIs (biking under the influence, duh) this was, in fact, the most romantic time I ever spent with myself. I would go on to make out with just as many ill-advised persons (I mean, this place is located right next to a popular music venue – how am I not going to end up getting black out drunk and sticking my tongue down the throat of one of the guys from Third Eye Blind on a Tuesday night?) Subsequent years would generally prove that I hadn’t learned much, hadn’t grown up at all, save for the irreplaceable knowledge that I was enough for myself. I could be alone and not just accept it, not just survive it, but gain immeasurably from it. For all the unglamorous misadventures and moments of unbearable sloppiness I engaged in at this place, there is no more worthwhile service that a bar can serve for a tender, violently self-discovering young person than to make them feel accepted. And drunk. Everyone needs to frequently be made to feel quite accepted and quite drunk in their twenties.

And don’t ask me how it happened, but I’m pretty sure it was summer for the entire two years I hung out there. TC Mark

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