America's Best College Bars
Writer David Wood once joked that college was an amazing time—when parents fork over their savings to let kids go to a strange town and spend four years in a bar.
Seriously, though, the best college bars offer more than cold beers and hot cheese fries. They’re fan headquarters for away games. They’re stages where college bands become national acts. They’re divey, not sleazy, and give visitors an insider’s perspective and memorable stories, like this one from the All-American Rathskeller at Penn State.
“On a Sunday, when we were closed, someone knocked,” recounts owner Duke Gastiger. “The guy said, ‘Do you mind if my grandfather uses your restroom?’ I let them inside. His grandfather shuffles to the restroom, comes back out and yells, ‘Yep, it’s still there!’ He had carved his initials into the bathroom wall on the bar’s opening day in 1933.”
Many of our favorite college bars are steeped in such lore, while continuing to make history and win over newcomers. Ole Miss keeps an open tab at Proud Larry’s, which stocks local beer labels and celebrated its 20th anniversary in April 2013 with a live music act each day. Eskimo Joe’s in Stillwater, OK, is so beloved that Oklahoma State University recently co-branded with the bar’s mascots, who now take the field on game days.
Football isn’t the only competition that draws folks to college bars. Trivia contests, open mic nights, and retro video games add to the sense of community. Regulars may even be rewarded for their attendance records. At Nashville’s Flying Saucer, those who sample 200 different brews get their names engraved on plates. It’s the kind of quality college-town bar that makes you feel welcome, even decades later and even if you’re not a Vanderbilt alum.
So here’s a toast to the mayhem of college and those bars that make it a great four years (or, in some cases, five…or six). To round out your campus visit, check out the most beautiful college libraries and check in to one of these top college hotels.
The Tombs, Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
Down in the Tombs, plaques gleam with the names of the 99 Days Club members, who rose to the challenge of purchasing something daily in the countdown to graduation. Early in the evenings, professors and Jesuits can be spotted among tables crowded with beer pitchers, served by waiters, often students, in preppy oxfords and bow ties. Comfort food options include the Bulldog burger: organic grass-fed beef, slathered in beer-braised onions, smoked bacon, cheddar, and mustard on a pretzel roll. The Tombs shares a kitchen with 1789, a jackets-preferred, antiques-filled restaurant upstairs that attracts visiting parents.
Proud Larry’s, Ole Miss, Oxford, MS
One of Mississippi’s premier live music venues, Proud Larry’s was opened by a few graduates in 1993 and has been going strong ever since. By strong, we mean lines around the block on game days and sold-out shows with musicians like Shannon McNally and Iron & Wine. The University of Mississippi’s alumni association has an open tab here, and the cooler is lined with state-based labels like Lazy Magnolia Brewery and Cathead Vodka. For its 20th anniversary, Proud Larry’s celebrated with a live band every single day of April 2013.
The Albatross, UC Berkeley, CA
Berkeley’s oldest pub sees a lot of the youngest legal drinkers—along with grad students, faculty, and local book clubs and sports teams. Once called “a community center that happens to sell alcohol,” this is one bar where you can walk in with a stack of pizza boxes and plop down in a booth like it’s your living room. There are even classic games like Scrabble, Taboo, and Trivial Pursuit. While popcorn is the only food sold, the bottled beer list is 60 labels long, and the 14-handle draft lineup has a sweet spot for Belgians.
Duffy’s Tavern, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE
Nirvana, 311, and Drive-By Truckers have all plugged in at Duffy’s, which is famous for getting acts before they’re actually famous. On weekends, this music (and comedy) club is also a big college hangout. Students get their money’s worth with no-cover live music and monstrous Fishbowls. Each serves four, with the drink recipe of your choice mixed into a giant glass bowl. Although Duffy’s is in a fly-over state, for well-known rock-and-roll artists, it remains a destination. Morrissey, front man of The Smiths, stopped his tour bus to hang out—no word on whether he finished a Fishbowl.
Rennie’s Landing, The University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
Even the president of the university is a big fan of Rennie’s, which has been known to pitch in for charitable causes and events—and to pour seasonal craft beers. Guests eat and drink inside of a historic, two-story house, complete with outdoor decks and fire pits for chilly evenings. To watch a Duck’s game on TV with friends, a giant plate of cheesy bacon fries, and boozy lemonade? Well, it’s satisfying in college and all the more so after you’ve graduated.
The All-American Rathskeller, Penn State, State College, PA
When the Rathskeller opened as a beer garden in 1933, students were issued college meal tickets for food and beer; fast-forward about 80 years, and it’s the oldest continuously operating bar in the state. Black-and-white photos of boxing matches, football championships, and the campus, as it’s grown year-to-year, adorn the walls. When writer Timothy Leary visited, he took a liking to the tables, some of which are covered in patrons’ scrawled signatures, and wanted to buy one. The bar gave him a tabletop gratis, and Leary framed and hung it in his house.
The Flying Saucer, Vanderbilt, Nashville
Of the 16 Flying Saucer bars in the U.S., Nashville gets our vote for the killer beer list and loyal student body. “We’re close to the stadium,” explains Marketing Director Gabe Cardinale, “but we also offer beers from around the world and a staff that knows more about those beers than any other bar.” Meet the Beer Goddesses, waitresses who go through a rigorous training program. To be a member of the UFO Club, you have to taste 200 different brews. “When you complete it, you get a saucer with your name and a quote of your choice,” Cardinale continues. “There are over 1,000 plates in the Nashville location, and the Vanderbilt crowd dominates the wall.”
Catacombs, University of Colorado Boulder
Catacombs is more than a mile from the campus, hidden below the Hotel Boulderado. You won’t find much information on its website either. But none of these things matter in terms of loyal patronage. What you will find in this cavernous watering hole are three pool tables, two ping-pong battlegrounds, and six, old-school video games, including Frogger. The bar hosts an epic karaoke night, an open-mic night, and, its biggest draw, trivia night. Oh, and the $3 microbrew happy hour probably doesn’t hurt either.
Eskimo Joe’s, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK
“About two weeks after graduation, one of my friends suggested we open a bar,” recalls Stan Clark. “Two days later, we signed a lease.” That was back in 1975 for a 900-square-foot space—Eskimo Joe’s is now a 28,000-square-foot restaurant/bar/retail operation recognizable around the globe. The university offered to co-brand with Eskimo Joe’s, and game days now feature the bar’s mascots (a plucky Joe and his canine sidekick, Buffy) alongside the school’s Pistol Pete. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush gave the bar’s cheese fries a shout-out on CNN; an average of 7,000 orders have since been sold monthly.
Charlie’s Kitchen, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
With original neon, cold beer, and affordable prices, Charlie’s doesn’t change much decade to decade, and that’s how the townsfolk like it. Bon Jovi and Ben Affleck have both supped here, and according to the owner: “If Obama came in, we’d serve him the same as everyone else. There’s no pretense at Charlie’s.” There is a stellar two-for-one lobster roll deal for $13, a patio overlooking Harvard Square, a trivia night twice weekly, and live music. Charlie’s also serves as an extended family to regulars. If you go, say hello to eightysomething Helen, who’s been a waitress here longer than anyone can remember.
Donn’s Depot, University of Texas at Austin
It opened in 1972 as McNeil Depot—a collection of antique railcars attached to an old train depot that the owners shipped down from just north of Austin. Donn Adelman was a regular, playing piano several times a month until he decided to buy the joint. You’ll still find Donn at the bar, perhaps fixing a broken stool, laughing with a customer, or playing ’50s tunes on the piano. Donn’s Depot is a happy enigma: probably the only bar in the world where college kids dance alongside 70-year-old couples to a 12-piece orchestra, while girls queue up for a bathroom housed in a vintage caboose.
Murphy’s on the Green, Dartmouth, Hanover, NH
This Ivy League institution knows how to party, as infamously captured in graduate Chris Miller’s screenplay for Animal House, based on his time here. For a rather more civilized side of the drinking scene, head to Murphy’s, part English tavern with scattered books and dark wood, and part high-end gastropub, with pork belly and a 28-day-aged sirloin. It fills up with students from the main campus, but also the business school, the med school, and the engineering program. While the experience skews upscale (lobster and scallop sausage paired with a craft label), you’ll get a more than welcoming reception if you show up in a grass-stained lacrosse jersey.
Houndstooth Sports Bar, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
Paul “Bear” Bryant coached the University of Alabama to six national championships during his 25-year career. Always dapper on the field and off, he had a penchant for houndstooth hats. This bar is a shrine of sorts to his legacy, with a museum-worthy collection of Alabama football memorabilia. It’s a community gathering spot for college seniors, grad students, and alums. From the overheard conversations of his greatness to the faded photographs bearing his image, the bar provides a chance to understand what all the Roll Tide fuss is about. And on game days, if you can’t get tickets, you head here, two blocks from the stadium, to watch among the 40-plus televisions and crowd of nearly a thousand.
War Eagle Supper Club, Auburn University, AL
Locals of all ages flock to this bar on the outskirts of Auburn, often hanging around till dawn. (The staff will drive you home for free in their shuttle van.) The building dates back to 1937 and has always been a bar of some sort. The existing War Eagle Supper Club opened in 1954 and, ironically, does not serve supper. It does serve a low-key vibe, with fantastic regional bands, drinks in an old school bus out back, and a sense of tradition. “We have been here for so long, kids come in and tell me that their grandparents drank here,” laughs owner John Brandt. “We have tons of alum visit, and I even have second-generation employees.”
Bar, Yale, New Haven, CT
Sure, Bar is within easy access of Yale’s campus, but there is plenty more to recommend this spot to all comers. You can chill at large communal tables, drinking the English ales they brew on-site or devouring wood-fired pizzas. You can listen to live college bands from Yale and neighboring schools on Wednesdays or dance to DJs in the separate clubroom. The regular clientele includes more than one couple that has celebrated their rehearsal dinner here too.
Green Leafe, William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA
Officially the closest bar to any stadium, anywhere in America, the Green Leafe has a huge following of patrons who turn up long past graduation day. The bar started a Sunday Mug Day back in 1990, offering to refill a purchased logo’d mug for less. It now sells thousands per year, filling them frequently from the 42 taps of craft and American domestic brews. Rustic décor, simple pub fare, and great views of the stadium out the window round out the appeal.
Casey Moore’s Oyster House, Arizona State University, Tempe
On a sunny day, much of the ASU student and teacher population gathers on Casey Moore’s massive wraparound porch—and given the Arizona weather, that’s most days. But the bar is known for more than great people-watching. Focused on oysters in all preparations and fresh daily seafood offerings, it offers a lovely sampling of coastal, Irish culture in landlocked Arizona. It’s also believed to be haunted by the ghost of a young girl and even drew investigators from the West Coast Ghost and Paranormal Society at one point.
Dixie Chicken, Texas A&M, College Station, TX
Don Ganter opened this outpost of Texas A&M back in the ’70s, and it’s now run by his daughters Katy and Jennifer, both graduates. Seniors come in to dunk their school rings in mugs of beer for fun, and the tug of nostalgia draws alums back year after year. “We keep the look the same, because we want it to feel like home,” says Jennifer Ganter. Famous for its cheeseburgers, the Dixie Chicken is even better known for its mascot—a live rattlesnake. “My dad caught several a long time ago and built a snake cage for them,” says Ganter. “This current one has been here for seven years now.”
Trappeze Pub, University of Georgia, Athens
Athens has a long-standing reputation for music and parties, and Trappeze has put it on the map for craft beer as well. The staff keeps everyone updated on the latest taps, casks, and esoteric labels via posts on the bar’s website. Beer dinners are hosted with regional labels like Athens-based Terrapin, and there’s a love of the laid-back in fun menu items like boiled peanuts. Just as craft beer elevated the activity of drinking a brew, the classic, dapper nature of this bar has elevated the collegiate and alum drinking experience.
Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar, Syracuse University, NY
There’s an irony here, given that in winter you have to knock the snow off your boots before entering to sit at a table made from an old surfboard. Yet, that sense of humor is part of the appeal of this place, which has sister locations in New Orleans, Austin, TX, and Baton Rouge, LA. The younger, still-in-school crowd adores the low-priced, giant fishbowl cocktails, and everyone from parents to past alum pack in on S.U. game days to cheer the school teams on the flat screen. Others appreciate the nostalgia of the 1950s movie posters and the beaten license plates hanging on the walls. Proof of its extreme popularity: Lucy’s is the largest account for Corona in upstate New York.
Ashley’s, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
While a second Ashley’s location has opened, we remain partial to the original spot on South State Street. It’s famous for massive beer lists, with 120 taps that feature Scottish ales, wheat beers, Belgians, and stouts. And fun events keep the focus on the beer—at the Cask Ale Festival, the bar tapped 24 casks at once. Given the school crowd, Ashley’s also keeps a sense of humor, recently offering an all-Budweiser tap takeover night. With regular showings on the “best of” lists for national brewing magazines, this spot, you might say, provides a “higher education for beer.” It does on the bar’s website, anyway.
Eastside Club Tavern, Evergreen State College, WA
Pubs near big universities have size on their side when it comes to attracting a loyal following. So it really says something when a tiny liberal arts school has this type of regular fan base. How liberal arts is Evergreen? The school’s mascot is a geoduck, and the motto in Latin translates to: “Let it all hang out.” And they do, at Eastside Club Tavern, where there are more than 40 microbrews and you can purchase kegs and bottles to go. The pool tables are circa 1940, and they’ve seen the likes of Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder.
The Chapter House Brew Pub, Cornell, Ithaca, NY
There’s a serious affinity for New York State craft brews at this dark, brick-and-stone classic pub, which scored a 96 out of 100 from Beer Advocate. While the tables and the walls look slightly worn (past patrons have scratched their names into every surface of the wood) the music acts that take the stage are respected and pretty well known. The layout combines a mix of large open space and tiny nooks for privacy, and throughout you’ll meet a heavy grad student population. They come for the great beer list, the free popcorn, and entertainment courtesy of pool tables, dartboards, Monday night trivia, and a Sunday night music series.
Monkey Wrench, University of Louisville, KY
“Our owner is head over heels in love with this city,” laughs Beverage Director Jared Schubert, “and he’s really targeted the discerning college crowd.” Case in point: Monkey Wrench has introduced a craft cocktail menu and, coming later in spring 2013, an upscale tiki bar on the deck. Downstairs, though, 10 televisions become the focus on game days, when, Schubert admits the normally chill Monkey “turns into a Thunderdome of sorts. During the NCAA, we are basically an alumni association off campus,” he says.
AC’s, College of Charleston, SC
The College of Charleston campus blends in so seamlessly with the city that it can be hard to tell where campus ends and city begins—and occasionally hard to believe that popular AC’s isn’t hosting a class entitled Brunch 101. You’ll have to carry your own plate of country fried bacon (bacon dipped in pork fat batter and deep fried) or huge portion of chicken and waffles back to your table; there are no waitresses here. Pool tables and the $2.25 monthly beer special that goes till late night make AC’s lovable after dark as well.
Delilah’s Chicago, DePaul University, University of Chicago
There’s a lot to love about Delilah’s. For Whiskey Magazine and Whisky Advocate, it’s the hundreds of single malt whiskeys and American bourbons. For those longing to relive their college times, it also earns points for movie nights, rotating exhibitions by local artists, CD release parties, play-your-demo nights and renowned DJs on the turntables. Owner Mike Miller has managed to cultivate a place with a punk rock persona that’s still inviting, friendly, and warm. No wonder the students in town claim it as a home away from home.
Fox’s Sherron Inn, University of Miami
Opened in the 1940s, this lounge remains popular with students on dates from the University of Miami campus, just a half mile away—the only drawback is that they might run into their parents. Patrons young and old are here for a bespoke experience that includes prime rib, lobster, and classic cocktails from martinis to Manhattans. Jazz and rock bands perform once a week, and there’s a fantastic jukebox.