In 2016, The Dead Rabbit, an Irish cocktail bar in New York City, was named the World’s Best Bar, according to the World’s 50 Best Bars, an enterprise devoted to making such pronouncements. It had made the list every year since it had opened — 5th in 2013, 2nd in 2014, 2nd again in 2015 — but this was a turning point.
“The recognition is exponentially higher if you’re No. 1 on the list versus No. 7,” says Jack McGarry, the bar’s co-founder and owner. “It just went into another stratosphere.” Then came what he calls “the operational challenges.”
No matter how successful a bar already is when it wins, making the 50 Best list can be an immediate game changer. And not every bar, as McGarry discovered, is braced for what happens next.
Anatomy of the List
The World’s 50 Best Bars is less a list than an industry unto itself. Like its more established older sibling, World’s 50 Best Restaurants, World’s 50 Best Bars is both absurd and wildly influential. The project is inherently impossible — 50 best in the whole world? — but the ambition is the point.
And so every year, a committee of 650 anonymous drinks writers, bar professionals, and “well-traveled cocktail experts,” divided into 28 global regions, is tasked with ranking their top seven “best bar experiences” from the previous 18 months. They cannot have a financial stake in the bars they vote for, to prevent “I-vote-for-you-you-vote-for-me” back scratching, and they are required to attest that they have actually been to the bars they rank. The organization does not require judges to submit receipts by way of proof. This, 50 Best’s content director Mark Sansom explains, is for “myriad reasons,” chief among them: the reality that some drinks may be comped. Instead, the consulting firm Deloitte, independent adjudicator of the list, does spot checks designed to make sure judges have actually been to the bars they nominate as Best.
Best is a fuzzy concept, though. Bestness is like pornography: You know it when you see it. There are no particular criteria for what might make a bar “the best,” which means there is no particular roadmap to becoming one. “Just make the best version of the bar possible,” Sansom tells owners, which is infuriatingly mushy and also an accurate reflection of reality. A four-dollar-sign hotel bar and a dive can both be very, very good.
This makes 50 Best somewhat different from its competitors. When Michelin inspectors score a restaurant, they are working with particular criteria (“quality of the ingredients,” “the personality of the chef in his cuisine”). As many restaurants as deserve three stars can have them, and moreover, can keep them until inspectors decide the quality has dropped.
The World’s 50 Best doesn’t work like that. There can only be 50. The Artesian, in London, had a historic four-year run as No. 1 between 2012 and 2015, but nobody stays on top forever. Once you’ve reached the pinnacle, the only way to go is down. “It’s why our list stays so fresh and keeps regenerating itself year after year,” Sansom says, at the same time pointing out that there is no reason a bar couldn’t keep its spot, if it got the votes. For the most part, though, they don’t. Bars bounce around the list, and then, sometimes, they fall. However good you are, tastes change, and trends evolve.
Making the List: The Immediate Aftermath
The fruit of this process is: The list. Or rather lists, plural, because in addition to The World’s 50 Best, which launched in 2009, there are now also Asia’s 50 Best Bars, North America’s 50 Best Bars, and also the World’s 50 Best Bars: 51-100.
World’s 50 Best, when it comes out, is published everywhere, not just in drinks publications, but in major global media: CNN, Bloomberg, The Guardian, The Evening Standard. “The PR team behind it makes sure the results of the list go out,” says Alastair Burgess, owner of Happiness Forgets, in London, which made its debut on the list at No. 12 in 2012. “What’s the point of doing it if you don’t tell the world?”
Making the list, and especially making it high up on the list, and especially making it to No. 1, sets off an ouroboros of events, at least for a while: You get attention, so people come, so you get more attention, and so on, and whatever else you want to say about the list, you can’t ignore its effect. “I want to be there as long as I can,” says Martin Hudak, co-founder of Maybe Sammy, in Sydney, which has ranked every year since opening in 2019. (Of all the owners I contacted for this story, Hudak is the only one who responded who is currently on the list.)
When Dead Rabbit won, the team was determined to make the most of it. It wasn’t as though the bar was a well-kept secret by the time it won — it had already been named Best American Cocktail Bar by Tales of the Cocktail in 2014, among other titles — but now, it had a banner they’d hung outside advertising “World’s Best Bar.” In peak season, McGarry says, a tour bus passes the bar every two minutes. “It got to the point where you could hear guys on the bus talking about it,” he recalls. “We made sure to really maximize it.” And even so, they weren’t prepared.
“I certainly anticipated that there was going to be an uptick,” says McGarry, “but you’re talking an extra $700,000, $750,000, a million dollars in revenue.” It was a 20 to 30 percent increase in business, and it happened all at once.This turned out to be both a blessing and a stress test. In hindsight — Dead Rabbit finally fell off the 50 Best list in 2020 — McGarry rates the experience as 60/40: 60 percent good, 40 percent caveats.
The Challenges of Being the Best
Part of the issue was expectations. When you’re named Best Bar, you’re supposed to be the best, even if nobody can quite agree on what that means. “For some people, that means a five-star hotel bar or a speakeasy. It certainly doesn’t mean an Irish pub,” McGarry says. But The Dead Rabbit is an Irish pub. And it was also, for a time, the World’s Best Bar, and that created what you might call a mismatch of expectations. The new guests were savvier — they were, after all, the list-readers — but also tended to have more rigid views of what “the best” should be. “Customer complaints were just substantially higher,” McGarry says.
But there were also real problems, places the stress test failed. The bar had no host. People would walk into the taproom — the casual part of the operation — and have no idea the elevated cocktail experience was actually in an upstairs parlor. People were confused, and there were so many people. Meanwhile, the taproom cocktails weren’t great, at that point, and the food wasn’t great either, and the kitchen was overwhelmed, and the bartenders were swamped, and the parlor — the premier experience! — only had 48 seats and did not take reservations. “It became glaringly obvious when we won the award,” McGarry says, “that things just weren’t good enough.”
Once you win World’s Best Bar, you actually have to become it. McGarry and his partners doubled the bar’s footprint, taking over the building next door. They put in a proper kitchen, and instituted a reservation system. They hired additional staff. “You’re talking millions of dollars to remedy the issues,” he says. And in the process, you have to find a way to hold onto the authenticity of what you were, even as the clientele shifts from regulars to tourists, guided by The Lists.
Every bar is different, of course. When PDT topped the list in 2011, co-founder James Meehan says it made essentially no difference to the traffic or the sales. PDT, a speakeasy behind a hotdog shop, only had 40 seats and didn’t allow standing. “By the time we were on those lists, we were packed,” he reports. “Those lists had no bearing on my awareness of our bottom line.” Although, he acknowledges, it’s possible it would be different now. “I would say the value the award created for us was much less than it is now, because it’s way more prestigious now,” says Meehan, who parted ways with PDT in 2019.
But PDT fell off the list in 2017. And that’s the other thing about the list: Nobody stays on top, or in the top 50, forever. One of the more difficult parts of being on the list is that, eventually, you won’t be. Happiness Forgets dropped off in 2020. “Our time had passed,” says Burgess. “There are newer bars, obviously, and there are bigger, brighter personalities. And just being a good bar making good drinks isn’t really enough anymore.”
Still, it stings. “As a matter of pride, it was something we were aware of, but also something we knew we weren’t in control of,” Meehan says. Was PDT any worse in 2017 than it had been the year before? He doesn’t think so. That’s the part that gets McGarry. When it was the Best, Dead Rabbit was nowhere near as good as it is now. “It’s the strongest it’s ever been,” he says.