Food & Drink
These six Southern watering holes are changing the meaning of “minibar”
November 3, 2022
photo: Courtesy of Smol
Smol in Savannah, Georgia.
Bigger isn’t always better, especially when it comes to bars. In the past few years, small bars have popped up all over the South, some with fewer than ten seats. At these purposefully tiny establishments, imbibers can get an up-close and personal look at how their tipples are crafted in what can feel almost like a private experience, or at least an intimate one with a handful of new friends. From tropical libations in a South Florida courtyard to an off-the-beaten-path bourbon enclave in the Bluegrass State, belly up to these pint-sized spots across the region.
Despite its unlikely location in a hotel/hostel, Broken Shaker has garnered much praise for its inventive drinks, including a James Beard Award semifinalist nod for Outstanding Bar Program. It opened in the Freehand Hotel in 2012 after a successful pop-up run set outside the Art Deco building in Miami Beach. The bar itself is a small wooden alcove filled with mason jars of herbs and infusions and a few stools, but there is also plentiful patio space with mismatched chairs and recliners. Along with snacks including street tacos and guacamole and chicharrones, expect bright and tropical drinks using the freshest ingredients, like the Thai-Thai Baby, a tequila and cucumber Thai basil concoction, or the Miss Collins, a non-alcoholic drink made with spicy watermelon soda, citrus, and mint.
Charleston, South Carolina
Tucked into its namesake neighborhood downtown, Elliotborough Mini Bar feels like a friend’s living room with its plush couches, dim lighting, and eclectic array of paintings and license plates on the exposed wood walls. Bargoers, many of them neighborhood locals, sit at the handful of tables overlooking the large windows facing Percy Street as they sip on craft beer from Revelry and Munkle and a selection of wines. Or snack on charcuterie and cheeses at the bar for views of the musicians that set up in the corner on weekend evenings. Wednesdays brings open mic nights. If you’re special, you might end up with your Polaroid on the wall.
New Orleans, Louisiana
If you want to go to Cuba without getting on a plane, you’ll find a taste of it at Manolito. Named for the legendary bartender of Havana’s El Floridita, Manuel “Manolito” Carbajo Aguiar, this bartender-owned spot is the brainchild of industry veterans Nick Detrich, Chris Hannah, and Konrad Kantor. The team studied under Aguiar, learning his recipes and incorporating his knowledge into the bar’s excellent daiquiris, pina coladas, and mojitos. The building itself was constructed after the fires that ravaged the French Quarter in the late 1700s in Spanish-style architecture. There are only five seats at the compact bar, though you can also grab a table at the restaurant if you want the same drinks with a Cuban sandwich and cheesy croquetas. “The food is what I’d call equivalent to casual Cuban comfort food commonly found in markets in Havana and Little Havana,” Kantor says, “very similar to what’s served at El Floridita.”
Just over the river from Cincinnati lies a hidden gem of a bourbon den. Opened on Derby Day 2012, Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar occupies a narrow space in an unassuming grey brick building in Covington’s Mainstrasse neighborhood. Grab one of the high-top tables or claim one of a dozen or so barstools to sample from the long wall of more than 700 bourbons. Bartenders might even pull bottles from a private archive. Or ask for a recommendation from the blackboard of frequently changing cocktail specials, like the Final Ward, made with bourbon, lemon, chartreuse, and Luxardo. If you’re looking to bring home a new discovery, the bar also has a small bottle shop stocked with staff favorites.
Even if it is only 900 square feet, O.K.P.B. packs a punch. Visitors enter the speakeasy-style hideout in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of the nation’s capital through a lightning bolt–emblazoned door above a dentist’s office. The 100-year-old space, with its funky red monkey wallpaper, moody lighting, and nattily dressed bartenders, has only twenty-one seats and doesn’t take advance reservations, so you might have to play the waiting game. Show up early on weekdays for a happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. with half-priced classic cocktails. Other offerings change daily, written on a small clipboard and based on whatever inspires mixologist David Strauss and his team. You might find the bar’s take on a gimlet or a creation in honor of Negroni Week.
True to its name, Smol can hold twenty-three people, including staff, in its 300-square-foot space, decked out with books and plants. It opened earlier this year on the first floor of Two Tides Brewing, in Savannah’s Starland District, “in a space that used to be my office,” says owner Liz Massey. The menu includes the brewery’s most interesting batches, such as fruited sours and a Neapolitan-flavored stout, and (what else?) small plates like charcuterie and chips and olives. It’s also where the team lets its creativity run wild with a rotating selection of slushies and “seltzies.” “We were trying to think of a way to attract different kinds of customers and also just dabble in cocktail bartending,” Massey says. The seltzer-based drinks draw both from classic cocktails and the brewery’s own fun riffs, like the One Eye Open (pomegranate, elderflower, cherry, and butterfly pea flower) or a play on Mountain Dew’s Baja Blast. They’re also available in non-alcoholic versions.