Best Of 2005

It's one thing when a microbrewery offers a wide selection of tasty beer; it's quite another when it all but hands you the keys to the place. That's the feeling you'll get at the Brew Kettle, where you're invited to craft your own brews, selecting from a beer menu of more than 60 varieties, everything from dainty pilseners to deadly porters. Brewmaster Chris McKim - who's won more medals than Jesse Owens - helps mix your ingredients in the kettle, then transfer the mixture to a fermenter. Return two weeks later, and you're greeted by chilled, filtered beer that's ready for bottling. Each batch costs $90 to $110, with a guaranteed yield of at least 72 - seventy-two! - 22-ounce bottles. (That's 132 standard 12-ouncers, at well under a buck apiece.) Care for a taste test before you commit? The bar features 24 exotic drafts, a half-dozen of which are the Brew Kettle's own concoctions. Best bet: Stop in on Sunday, when pitchers go for five bucks.
Like its vampiric namesake, this specialty brew rarely emerges from the shadows. But when it does, unwitting innocents fall under its spell. An ale crammed with more hops than LeBron James, Nosferatu's inviting amber color and smooth finish make it instantly addictive. With a deceptive 8 percent alcohol content, Nosferatu lulls you into a stupor before baring its fangs. With one pint, it's your friend; with two, your lover. At three, it sinks its teeth into your neck; at four, you're on the floor. Nosferatu is available through October, so get to know it while you can. Tell the bartender you want the Bad Boy; he'll know what you mean.
"One-dollar beers" may be the most beautiful words in the English language, and they're spoken every day at McCarthy's Ale House in Lakewood, home to all that is good and just in the world of liquid intoxicants. McCarthy's is actually three bars in one. By day, it's headquarters for the shot-and-a-beer crowd, who come for good conversation, glasses of whiskey the size of swimming pools, and the affectionate service of Deb McConkey, a former winner of Scene's Best Bartender award. By night, it's a mating ground for Lakewood's post-collegiate crowd, with live music ranging from traditional Irish to reggae. And on Sunday, it's the West Side's best sports bar, with NFL Sunday Ticket and 25 plasma-screen TVs. (Just so you don't miss a crucial third down, there are even TVs mounted above the urinals.) As a general rule, bars that try to be all things to all people often cease to be anything to anyone. But McCarthy's is a joint without pretense, a comfortable place so unassuming that it's equally fit for getting hammered with your softball buddies and enjoying a night out with the girls.
Despite the bar's official name, everyone calls it Mitzi's, after owner Mitzi Jerman. The bar, an extension of her family home, is where she was born in 1914, and it's where she's lived and worked ever since. From the street, Mitzi's gives off a soft yellowish glow reminiscent of old-fashioned oil lamps. Inside, the atmosphere is cozy, with zinc tiles covering the ceiling and stretching halfway down the walls. If Mitzi takes a shine to you, she'll describe the neighborhood as she remembers it, when it was home to some of the largest factories in the world and to the old League Park, where the Indians used to play. During Prohibition, Mitzi's mother trained her to watch for federal agents - easy to spot, since they always wore white socks with black pants. Mitzi still keeps an eye out; she walks to the door to greet most visitors, followed by her dog, Roscoe. Mitzi doesn't drink anymore, but she readily suggests her favorite combination: a bottle of Rolling Rock and a shot of whiskey. Her bar is one of the last living connections to Cleveland's golden age.
Flying under the radar for 30 years, the Shamrock is a true throwback. Ambiance, atmosphere, and nuance? Forget it. You'll also find no self-aggrandizement, no bling-bling, no trendy decor, no Jäger girls circling with ludicrously overpriced shots, no live DJ, and no coordinated special events. The jukebox volume is always kept low, so it's easy to talk to the guy sitting next to you. The clientele is of the no-bullshit variety - softball players, blue-collar workers, and veterans. The bar hosts "Dollar" Mondays and Wednesdays, where domestic beers run $1.50, and Sick Saturdays, with beers and well shots costing just 75 cents. You'll save even more money by not having to buy a fancy shirt - your flannel will fit in just fine.
At this see-and-be-seen hangout for the University of Akron's gay and lesbian coeds, the Interbelt's scantily clad male dancers, "the go-go Cupids," have boogied under strobe lights and disco balls since 1988. With drag diva Danyel Vasquez directing the club's entertainment lineup, the former Ritz movie theater stages weekly hip-hop parties and drag shows. At least once a month, it hosts a theme night - like its annual Heaven White Party, where mist envelops white-clad partyers on the dance floor. But its best fete is its summer-long series of "Big Fag Parties," when foam machines spit out 15-foot walls of perfumed suds in an inflatable pit on the bar's outside patio. The most popular scent is vanilla, and it's about the only time that word is ever used to describe the Interbelt.
Of course, you'd expect a place called Tequila Ranch to be all about the liquid agave, and this lively, nouveau-western bar has never let us down. Whether you're a connoisseur of fine sippin' tequilas - like the miraculous Milagro or the grand Patron - or a mere neophyte, preferring to disguise the booze with all the inactive ingredients that make up a margarita, Tequila Ranch has got the goods. The bar stocks around 40 different types of tequila at all price ranges, going from $5 to $30 per shot. For wusses, the barkeeps also can whip up a variety of tequila-based cocktails, including the popular Tequila Sunrise, and a jumbo 23-ounce margarita that serves a small crowd. For newbies, the Ranch hands out a list of all the tequilas in stock, complete with space to jot down your tasting notes. So saddle up, pardner; we reckon to rope us one high-octane night on the town.
We like the diverse musical lineup at the House of Blues. What we don't like, however, is paying $6 or more for a drink. Which is why we always stop at Little Bar - a homey shot-and-a-beer enclave, where drafts and bottles cost just a couple bucks. Bonus score for the eats. Little Bar shares kitchen space - and fish and pasta dishes - with the esteemed Johnny's Downtown. The burgers rank among the best in town, and the potato-crusted cod puts us in spud-and-fish heaven. Friendly bartenders and a classic-rock-stuffed jukebox can make you forget that this isn't your final destination for the night. And unlike other costly downtown spots, there's always a stool at the bar. Just a few blocks from the House of Blues, Little Bar's worth the walk. Your wallet will thank you.
Your girlfriend was right: Size really doesn't matter — at least, when we're talking about bar tacos. Most joints try and cram as much low-grade ground beef into a taco shell as humanly possibly. But at the Riverwood Café, the tacos are on a par with one of those fancy Mexican joints, where you can't read the menu without a Spanish degree. Perfectly seasoned, light on the grease, garnished with spicy salsa, these are the perfect tacos for soaking up a pitcher or two of your favorite brew. No, they're not the size of your head, but they're still filling enough to satisfy anyone who's not a professional wrestler. And on Wednesdays, they're only a buck, so it's your wallet that stays fat — not your gut.
There are exactly four beers on tap at this corner bar: Miller Light, MGD, Bud, and Bud Light. And it's no coincidence that they don't pour Coors Light, a beer made in a nonunion shop. In just three years, with zero advertising, the Union Club has earned a reputation as the ultimate workingman's bar. Surely, the decor helps: The bar's lined with union stickers and a sign that reads "Hard Hats Required." But drinkers are more drawn to Cliff - the chatty owner, who'll tell you about his last trip to Vegas, if you ask. It's a no-drama hole-in-the-wall, where drinking and smiling are the only requirements - although checking out the famous $5.95 sirloin steak dinner is highly recommended.