Snowstorms, lost luggage, and flight delays are as typical of the holidays as snowflake sweaters and partridges in pear trees (actually, probably a bit more typical than that). It’s enough to make a gal or guy need a drink. And although American airport bars tend to be grim-looking lounges with bright TVs packed with tired travelers, the world has some wonderful bars, if you know where to look.
We spoke to Tasting Table editor-at-large Kat Kinsman (author of a forthcoming book about anxiety), journalist and spirits expert Wayne Curtis, and Jacob Briars, the global advocacy director for Bacardí. All are particular about their drinks, and travel extensively. Here are their favorites watering holes around the globe, from classy craft-cocktail joints to excellently kitschy dives.
Proceed with caution: These bars may just may make you want a longer layover.
Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville
An offshoot of a brick-and-mortar club in Nashville proper, Tootsie’s is a Kinsman favorite for its live musical performances. “They do numbers, you tip them, it’s fantastic—really high quality,” she says. “I’ve drunk at so many airport places that I liked the idiosyncratic nature of that.” She’ll hunker down with a whiskey—“it seems appropriate to the place”—and catch a show between flights.
The Bourbon Loft in Louisville, Kentucky
A “civilized”-feeling airport bar can be a rarity, and this “highly comfy” spot with cushy chairs and a good view took the edge off a “big, big, big” flight delay out of Kentucky for Kinsman recently. The airline handed out vouchers, her fellow passengers took full advantage of The Bourbon Loft’s extensive whiskey menu, and four hours later she experienced a slightly raucous (but fun) flight home.
Timberline Steaks & Grille in Denver, Colorado
At Timberline, Kinsman reports, “an adventurous traveler may augment her or his libation with a side of Rocky Mountain oysters.” Her server discreetly noted that the “oysters”— fried bull testicles—were “from the mountains, and not the sea.” Since she’s a big fan of regional specialties, Kinsman likes to swing through the Timberline for the kitschy log-cabin decor, a cocktail, and “oysters” any time she’s in town.
One Flew South in Atlanta
Imagine snagging a killer drink and knockout sushi … in an airport terminal. At ATL, that’s totally a possibility, says Curtis. Hands-down his favorite airport bar, One Flew South specializes in smart riffs on classics, such as a “Georgia bellini” employing fresh peach puree, a splash of Champagne, and ginger simple syrup, or an applejack-based tipple spiced with cayenne and sorghum. Sophisticated and calming, it’s the rare spot that fills up with “people who want to be there, as opposed to people watching the clock,” says Curtis.
Eyecon Bar & Caffe in Copenhagen
If you’re lucky enough to have visited Copenhagen, you’ve likely visited the airport Briars says is “so well-designed it’s as quiet as any large international airport can ever be.” So, too, is Eyecon Bar, which features a great selection of aquavit, the “local Scandinavian hooch,” and Danish beers—an ideal spot for a calming drink.
Airspresso Café and Bar in Queenstown, New Zealand
New Zealand native Briars is understandably partial to this airport. Not only are landing and takeoff here reputed to be among the world’s most gorgeous, the terminal itself—nestled right across from the mountains and shimmering lakes—boasts spectacular views. Briars thinks Airspresso has an impressive list of NZed pinot noir. Along with its breathtaking open vista, one could spend a much worse half an hour.
Tortas Frontera in Chicago
Briars travels around the world “51 of 52 weeks of the year,” and says that although there’s “almost nothing good you can say about [Chicago] O’Hare,” this Mexican bar and restaurant from celebrity chef Rick Bayless is the exception. Tortas Frontera will always have a queue, he notes, but that’s because the food and drinks are fantastic. Perch at the bar, order a mescal, neat, or a margarita made with fresh juice, and for goodness sakes, grab a torta. (They’re wonderful.)
Café Rembrandt in Amsterdam
Surrounded by the 17th-century master’s own paintings, Café Rembrandt is peculiarly cozy for an airport spot, and includes a sheltered outdoor section where smokers can indulge. With a fine selection of both Dutch beers and the locally made spirit jenever, it’s a welcome break, says Briars, from rum and coke.
Root Down in Denver
If you want to skip the rocky mountain oysters at Kinsman’s adored Timberline, it’s worth checking out what Briars calls “a really great example of an airport authority trying to bring some of the city itself into the airport.” An extension of a café in Denver, Root Down boasts impressive, frequently changing food and drink menus. The space is also well-decorated, says Briars, with touches including lamps made of old globes and vintage suitcases.
Center Bar in Zurich
Leave it to the Swiss to design such a simple, sleek bar in their airport. With what Briars calls a “slightly old-money feel and old-money bling,” Center Bar’s genius, he says, is that it’s effectively a long island bar that sits directly in the middle of the Zurich airport. He loves that barkeeps face the drinkers, and that they, in turn, can gaze out at the planes coming and going—a reminder of the romance of travel itself.
The Buena Vista Café in San Francisco
The bar itself, with its “overharried” staff, isn’t going to knock your socks off, admits Briars, but he loves that the Buena Vista (an offshoot of San Francisco’s own) makes the same fabulous, famed Irish coffee. When done right, he notes, “an airport stay extends your adventure in a city by another hour.” So tuck into an Irish coffee here—it doesn’t really matter whether your trip is in the morning or at night—and remember that travel doesn’t have to be a grind.