Best Of 2007

You know you're living right when you walk into a bar and see a bowling machine smiling at you from the corner. And that's what greets you when you stumble into the Red Rose Café, a shoebox of a bar hidden in a Madison Avenue strip mall. No Belgian ales or handcrafted IPAs here -- just a plentiful supply of cold lagers and a well-stocked liquor shelf. No 8,000-square-foot heated patio with picnic tables either -- just a simple bar inside and a brick walkway outside, affectionately nicknamed "The Dugout." The drinks are cheap, but just to be sure, there are drink specials every day of the week, including $2.50 margaritas -- with real tequila! -- on Fridays. 14810 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 216-228-7133
Keep your lake and river vistas; in this Rust Belt town, we prefer to belt our whiskey with some rust in site. Which is why we saddle up to the long oak bar at Major Hoopples Riverbed Café, a tattered dive on the western outskirts of the Flats. Along with coolers stocked with cheap brews, the bar is backed by nine huge glass windows. Through them you'll catch the best view in the city: the rusty Columbus Road lift bridge in the foreground, the illuminated Cleveland skyline beyond that. And on Thursday nights -- when goofy blues axeman Glenn Schwartz busts solos with his gum line -- no other seat can make you happier to live in Cleveland.
Whiskey Island is tucked between railroad tracks, the Cargill salt mines, and a waste-water treatment plant. But once you stumble upon the oasis, you'll be rewarded with wide-open, grassy fields, a long row of sand volleyball courts, and possibly the city's best outdoor drinking refuge. With the ambience of a Myrtle Beach boathouse, the Sunset Grille serves fresh, hot burgers and ice-cold tallboys -- the marks of any class joint. The best part: You can take those beers anywhere. Take a seat at a picnic table, toss the Frisbee around with friends, or take your brew down to the shore to skip rocks or escape to privacy with your sweetheart. That's what islands are for.
The upside of Tremont's gentrification is that it's provided a rare oasis of affluence to the West Side. The downside is that it's become a bit too fancy for anyone with paint stains on his Dickies. The Prosperity Social Club straddles this divide. For regular types, it's an upscale neighborhood bar without the pretense and prices. To the more sophisticated, it offers a classy 1938 feel, with a kitchen serving everything from hummus plates to stuffed grape leaves. In short, it's the one place that seems to understand West Side old and new -- a joint that aspires to more than Tic Tac Fruit and Jäger bombs, but knows you don't have to get all sphincter about it.
The signature drink of the Water Street Tavern is the Mongolian [email protected]&#er, a gentle mix of cranberry juice, orange juice, and 11 different liquors. This cluster-fuck cocktail is appropriate, because Water Street Tavern is an abject free-for-all: It’s the official bar of Kent State sports, the official bar of getting hammered for remarkably cheap, and the official bar of sloppy hookups. And it’s adding more to its résumé: An ongoing expansion includes a rooftop patio, a new kitchen, a stage for live music, another full bar, and plenty of TVs. College students: They’re the luckiest damn bunch around.
Raise a glass to this pretty suburban youngster in downtown Brecksville, where everything a wine-lover could ask for is close at hand. That includes a smartly chosen roster of boutique wines, scheduled tasting events, an intimate setting, and a killer menu of French-inflected food, offered up in small-, medium-, or large-plate formats. With bargain prices -- retail, plus a mere $10 corking fee -- 2182 Bistro and Wine Bar has the oenophile in you covered.
Not many bars can boast the frothy sweetness of a raspberry lambic on tap. But that's just one of the highlights at McNulty's Bier Markt, which proudly offers more than three dozen Belgian beers. From Chimay to Delirium Tremens, lightly sweet Hoegaarden and yeasty Corsendonk brown, it's like discovering some kind of tongue-twisting hops heaven. All are thoughtfully and mouthwateringly explained on the menu. But don't worry: There's also plenty of Guinness and Labatt if you're not feeling too adventurous. Add to that a warm, spacious atmosphere, and it's easy to sit here for hours.
With its rough, almost windowless exterior, the Tarrymore Inn looks like the kind of bar that comes equipped with a vise in the back room. But once you step inside . . . well, it looks even more like that kind of bar -- with mirrored chalkboards to keep score of your dart game, red vinyl bar stools that remind you of the interior of your '82 Eldorado, and, of course, the ice-cold Genny on tap. There aren't many places you can find Genesee out of a keg anymore, unless you're a West Virginia coal miner in the year 1987. But at the Tarrymore, not much has changed since the bar opened in the '50s. And that's just how the regulars like it. The cast of characters hasn't changed in so long, the owner keeps track of patron birthdays on a chalkboard above the bar. But you've got to take down a lot Genny before you reach that kind of status.
If you're sick of $8 martinis, penis hats, and other monstrosities the Warehouse District proudly offers, there is at least one oasis of sanity remaining. Johnny's Little Bar and Grill is a place your average Cleveland lush can call home, with reasonably priced beers, intimately friendly bartenders, creaky stools, and sports on the tube. And while the upstairs area offers cozy couches and Golden Tee, the main bar area is sparse and, yes, little -- leaving only one conclusion: This Johnny fellow is a man of the people.
The best thing about this cop bar: You can't go there. Not unless you know a cop, or you are a cop. (You're not, are you? We're just holding it for a friend, we swear.) The bar's tucked below the police union's old-school meeting hall, giving it a bunker feel that the cops deserve -- a little protection from the shit-storm they face on the road. A shiny black-and-white zone car anchors the rear of the bar. Officers lick their wounds at the square center bar, eyes on the nightly news. And since it's just down the stairs from the union leaders' offices, and since union VP Amy Duke runs the bar, there's usually an ear for the rank-and-file to bend -- another well-deserved perk for the folks who spend their days patrolling Cleveland.