The Perfect Bar: Hamilton’s Tavern

Some people say it’s a myth. Just a rumor whispered by mad men, an apparition in the haze of a hot day, a bald-faced, open tap lie. I’m here to tell you it exists. The Perfect Bar. And I’ve been there.

It’s called Hamilton’s Tavern.

This fucking place.

This fucking place.

I know what you’re thinking.

“Settle down, O’Connor, you’re speaking nonsense.”

But here’s the thing. I am serious. Dead serious. So serious, I’m willing to put this beer down for a minute and stare at you silently without blinking. (Just for a minute, though. I’m liable to get thirsty after that.)

This place is The Balls.

Let’s go down the checklist of requirements for any possible contenders of Most Perfect Bar in the World (Of All Time).

1) Extensive Tap Handles

There can be no doubt that if you don’t have at least 10-15 taps you can’t be considered eligible for The Perfect Bar. Okay, there are some very good places that have phenomenal beers on their 5 taps. That’s great. Good for them. I’ll put them in the top 10.

But seriously? When I come into The Perfect Bar and look at their tap selection, I’d better be overwhelmed. I’d better be thinking to myself, “Shit. Why did I drive? I’m going to wrap my car around three trees, splatter my body for five miles of pavement and cripple every man, woman and child in my way if I do what this tap list is compelling me to do.”

Scratch that. I take mass transit most of the time. I should be thinking, “Shit, why did I take the bus here? I’m going to pass out on the way to the bus stop and the hobos are going to start sucking the alcohol out of my pores.”

If you can’t have that conversation with yourself, you’re not in The Perfect Bar. The first thing that should pass through your mind when looking at the tap list is awe. The second is dread.

PERFECT BAR CHECK-UP: How does Hamilton’s stack up? 

A+: 28 Tap Handles and 2 cask beers. I can hate half of their menu and still get myself into a lot of trouble.

glasses

2) Well Curated Taps

Now, let’s get something straight here for a second. I know what you’re thinking. You just scoffed. Audibly. Loud enough that your coworker or your wife or your roommate glanced at you for a moment and wondered if you were alright.

You’re thinking, “Really, O’Connor? 28 tap handles and 2 casks? Is that it? I’ve been to this place that looks like an Applebee’s clone that has 500 taps. They’ve got so many taps they have to rent out a warehouse across town just to fit all the kegs. Their beer line is running up on phone poles with the cable and electrical lines.

Thanks for bringing this up, you impatient prick. I was just getting to this.

I don’t care if you have more taps than there are countries in the world. It’s what you put on those taps that matters. If most of your menu consists of different varieties of Budweiser (Bud, Bud Light, Bud Light w/ Lime, Bud w/ Margarita Mix, Bud that’s slightly colder than the Arctic, Bud that tastes exactly like regular Bud but has a different color tap handle), that doesn’t count. I want to see beers I’ve never heard of, breweries I don’t recognize, styles that would stump a Cicerone.

Variety is the spice of life, Bud–er, bub.

PERFECT BAR CHECK-UP: How does Hamilton’s stack up? 

A+: Remember how I said I could hate half of Hamilton’s menu? I don’t. It’s got a great variety of styles, obscure choices, and the taps are always rotating to keep things fresh.

Now that's an impressive lineup!

Now that’s an impressive lineup!

3) Clean Taps

Cleanliness is next to Godliness, they say. Well, I don’t believe in God, so I’m going to say Cleanliness is better than Godliness. Let’s face it. You can have the best beers in the world on tap, but if you don’t get your taps cleaned, it’s going to come out tasting like roadkill squeezed into a dirty glass.

PERFECT BAR CHECK-UP: How does Hamilton’s stack up? 

A+: Beer tasted great. ‘Nuff said.

4) The Price is Right

I like beer a lot. But I only have so much money. This is a problem sometimes.

I think most beer should cost $5 or under for a single serving. If it’s going to cost more than that, it better be worth it. We’d better be talking barrel aging, souring, adding exotic ingredients, infusion, high alcohol, etc. Something. If it’s just an Amber or a Pale Ale and you want to charge me $6 or $7 for a shaker pint, I’m still going to order it, because I’m thirsty and too lazy to walk across the street to that other bar, but I’m going to be grumbling into my pint glass the whole time.

Now, here’s the trick. What constitutes a “single serving”? $5 for a thimble of beer ain’t such a hot deal, after all.

I think the absolute minimum amount of beer you ought to be served to truly taste what you’re ordering is 8 ounces, and hopefully, you’re not being charging more than $3 for that unless it’s something really special. In general, I think a fair price is $5 for a 16 ounce glass of beer. If that includes a little foam, no biggie. I consider the foam to be a part of the beer, and I want a finger or two of foam on my beer most of the time.

But the glass better at least be 16 ounces and not one of these stripper shoe pint glasses that only fit 13 or 14 ounces total.

PERFECT BAR CHECK-UP: How does Hamilton’s stack up? 

A+: In a town full of $6.50 pints served in cheater pints, I made it out of Hamilton’s four beers deep and a tab just under $20. Most beers were served in 16 ounce glasses with occasional exceptions (Belgians, Imp Stouts, Imperials) served in 12 ounce snifters.

5) Service

I’m not looking for a best friend when I walk up to a bartender. Take my order, serve me a beer, answer my stupid question without sneering at me, and if I’m sitting at the bar, make an effort every once in awhile to get me another beer if I’m almost out. If you look like you know what you’re talking about and are working hard to serve as many people as quickly as you can, you’re going to get at least a 20% tip from me.

I don’t need you to hold my hand. I don’t need you to try and strike up an awkward conversation with me. Don’t bother me if I’m sitting at a table and my beer is still half-full.

Remember, you’re not the headlining attraction here; the beer is.

PERFECT BAR CHECK-UP: How does Hamilton’s stack up? 

A+: Got served quickly and politely. When I had a question, it was answered. No phony smiles, and by contrast, nothing belligerent and rude. Moving right along.

IMG_0463

6) The Atmosphere

This is a pretty crucial thing, but it’s something that doesn’t immediately come to mind for many of us. What do we care what a place looks like so long as there’s good beer, right? What are you, an interior decorator or something? Just sit down and drink!

But when you start to really think about it, you have to admit, what’s the point of going to a bar if the atmosphere isn’t important? Why not just sit at home and drink? Because a good bar can feel more like home than your own home… and also, the beer selection is better.

The thing about designing a good bar is that less is more… to a certain extent.

I like bars that have some age to them, some character, that feel worn in, like they’ve been around forever and they’re going to last until the end of time. I want to drink somewhere that’s comfortable and dimly lit without it being completely dark. Weathered wood paneling, a sleek looking bar top, a well designed tap system, and some nicknacks scattered around help me feel at ease.

But, look, “worn in,” “weathered,” “dim” doesn’t mean the same thing as “cesspool.” Bars should never look immaculate; if you start to worry that you didn’t wipe your feet on the way in, that’s a bad sign. But there does need to be some semblance of order and cleanliness. I don’t particularly understand the appeal of dive bars with bathrooms that have never been cleaned, sticky tabletops, excessive graffiti, and the artificial glow of neon signs and lottery machines. Those places look like desperation and heartbreak, like one step up from a wino’s gutter or a hooker’s back alley.

A bar has to pull a crucial magic trick. It has to awe you with its humility. It has to be just fancy enough without leaning into pretentiousness. It has to be comfortably ornate.

taps

Two other crucial factors for any bar’s atmosphere:

1) As far as music goes, I don’t really care. I’d prefer something kind of low-key and catchy rather than listen to some rapper talk about how much he loves to kill hookers, but so long as the speakers aren’t dialed up to 11, I’m not that picky. Volume is more important than content.

2) I’m sure your kid’s great. I’d love him if I got to know him. Right. Whatever. But I don’t want to hear shrieking children when I’m decompressing at the end of a long day. You don’t bring your kids into my bar, and I won’t start drinking on the playground. Deal?

PERFECT BAR CHECK-UP: How does Hamilton’s stack up? 

A+: Great balance. Low light, unpretentious, weathered, but clean and well maintained. Good jukebox playing music at reasonable sound levels. Everyone’s over 21. And I love the tap handle stalactites.

7) Do I Work There?

This won’t apply to most of you, but this is a pretty crucial guideline for anyone who works in the service industry. I know this may come as a shock to many of you, but here’s a spoiler: drinking where you work is not all that fun. The price is right, sure. But just try and relax. It’s impossible. Customers who recognize you start swarming around you, the working bartender keeps shooting you jealous glances, you feel compelled to start picking up dirty glasses and help clean up. That old saying, don’t shit where you eat? Well, don’t drink where you work.

PERFECT BAR CHECK-UP: How does Hamilton’s stack up? 

A+: I don’t work there. Well done, guys!

8) Location

Is it convenient to your work? Can you stumble home? Do you need to take a car or is mass transit an option? The best bars are equidistance from your home and work.

PERFECT BAR CHECK-UP: How does Hamilton’s stack up? 

F-: It’s in San Diego. And I live in… Portland, Oregon. For shame, guys! Work on that!

CONCLUSION!

A wise man once said the best beer is the one you’re drinking right now. Well, maybe the perfect bar is where you’re drinking that best beer.

If you ever make it out to San Diego (or happen to live there, you lucky bastard), be sure to check out Hamilton’s Tavern. It’s tucked away in the South Park district, away from the most heavily touristy areas, but it’s easily accessible from downtown by taking the #2 Bus towards North Park.

I guess I haven’t found The Perfect Bar, after all. Oh well, I’ll just have to keep searching. Back to the drinking board!

hamiltons1

 

Full disclosure: Photos above are a mixture of shots taken at Hamilton’s and other fabulous drinking establishments. 

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