Booze or Lose: Where to Drink in Bloomington

So the cat’s out of the bag: most of you know that I’ve spent the last eleven months or so in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University and a relatively high sleeve-to-man ratio compared to the rest of the Hoosier state. We were here so that B could get his ducks in a row, and while I rather dreaded the move from Paris to cornfields, the year been much better than I imagined it could be. Evidence, in fact, for my feel-good theory that I can be happy just about anywhere if some nice folks, yummy food, and a decent library surround me.  Serious cinemas also help, as do convivial bars. While I abandoned our Booze or Lose feature relatively quickly in my Paris coverage—frankly, I ran out of different pithy ways to say “There’s wine! And beer!”—I thought I’d resuscitate Clarence’s alcoholic alter ego and tell you where you should be drinking in Bloomington should you find yourself here.

If you’re like me, or at least enough like me to want to read this here blargh, you probably want to skip the bars that have a decidedly rapey-frat boy vibe. This unfortunately includes most of the beloved IU watering holes, including Kilroy’s (or as I call it, “Kill Me Now”) and Nick’s. Hoosiers will probably argue with me on the latter count, and I’ll admit that I’ve spent some enjoyable evenings at Nick’s in good company. But let’s get real: tradition aside, the place smells weirdly like antiseptic and old chewing gum, and the draft beer selection isn’t the best. B, the old man on the mountain here in B-Town, councils that while the upstairs can get kind of rough on the weekends, the downstairs area is always a great place for a drink if you want to have a real cream and crimson kind of experience. If it was good enough for Dylan Thomas, it’s good enough for him. B also advises that Hoosier-history lovers should make a stop at The Bluebird, where local legend John Cougar Mellencamp got his start.

If you like a bit better craft beer selection and a hipster grad student crowd (it is a university town, after all, and in Bloomington the Wayfarer-wearer is king), there are effectively five bars remaining in town.  I’ll rank them in order from hate to love.

The bar I inexplicably-go-to-sometimes-but-nevertheless-hate-the-most in Bloomington is The Rail, a relative newcomer to the scene. No standing, leather couches, Edison bulbs, small plates of ‘heirloom’ and ‘artisan’ things, and tiny, too-sweet, ten dollar cocktails. You know the drill, dear reader, because places like this have cropped up in every city across the county. Regular readers know how much I generally hate cocktails and cocktail bars. I have a pretty unabashed “learn to drink, loser” attitude towards people who spend their time watering down excellent booze with elderflower soda and key lime foam. The Rail is the kind of place that gets my bile up for precisely that reason: it’s fussy, it’s expensive, and yet it’s lousy. You can’t get out of alive for less than fifty bucks, and yet your wine is the wrong temperature, your cocktail is syrupy, and you’re still hungry after eating six different things. The Rail’s specialty cocktails all involve things like crème de lavande or Saint Germain, as nouveau-cocktail bars often specialize in liqueurs that sound Gallic but that no self-respecting French person would ever be caught drinking. Moreover, for a place that sells itself as a place for seated conversation (they are real sticklers about the no standing at the bar rule), it has quite possibly the worst acoustics in the world. You can barely hear the person sitting next to you, much less have some kind of conversation. All you can do is shout and throw pained glances at your companions when the bill arrives by a waiter in a too-tight leather vest who looked at you blankly when you pointed out that the wine he served was two years younger than advertised. I’d skip the whole affair, if I were you.

The second bar you’ll-hear-about-but-that-I-suggest-you-skip is The Root Cellar in the basement of the overplayed, underwhelming restaurant Farm.  Come to think of it, the name might be F.A.R.M., as these type of places are often clever, undisclosed acronyms. The Root Cellar looks like some place where you may have hung out in the mid-90s, a dingy basement with ratty couches and wobbly benches that will snag whatever you happen to be wearing. The booze is fine enough, I guess, but weirdly overpriced for the vibe of the place. Not to again sound like an old lady here with a hearing problem, but the acoustics are as terrible as the ones at The Rail. Don’t expect to hear anything at The Root Cellar besides somebody else’s sorta-boyfriend’s experimental noise trio. If that’s your bag, I wish you well, but I’m a social drinker myself. I either want to chat or dance, and you can’t seem to do much of either in The Root Cellar.

When B moved to Paris, the only game in town for his ilk was The Vid, a giant bar that manages to attract a wide variety of people on any given night. It’s a pretty good bar if you want to hang out with a big group of people and not spend too much money on pitchers of craft beer. You can also play pool and darts, which I particularly enjoy in a kind of talentless way. The Vid is best on weekday nights, when you can colonize a giant table and wile the evening away. On Fridays and Saturdays it’s louder, but still a generally friendly and unpretentious place to hang out. The bartenders are really nice and there’s usually a great local beer from Upland at a special pitcher price. One caveat: don’t sit next to the punching bag game, otherwise you’ll have to listen to the banging of testosterone-bulging boys all night long.

While B was away in Europe, however, the hipster hoards migrated down the street to Atlas (209 South College, Bloomington, Indiana, 47404), a newish place that is just starting to have that lived-in vibe. If you’re in your late twenties or early thirties, read some Foucault and have a masters degree or two, wear horn-rimmed glasses and an inordinate amount of American Apparel, name-drop obscure bourbons, and get excited when New Order comes on the jukebox, Atlas is the place to be. It’s loud, which I obviously don’t like, but it’s a pretty fun place to spend an evening. There’s good DJs on the weekends, and I sloppily danced my birthday away there last winter. The free agents I know report that it is the best place in town to mix and mingle with other single folk. One of the doormen is the crush-object of practically every lady I know. Some of Atlas’ conceits are silly – the oft-broken down photo booth and chalkboard list of songs banned from jukebox come to mind. But it’s a bar that has hit its stride, and I’ve had many good times there.

My favorite part (and this is Clarence talking now) is the fact that The Happy Pig food cart parks outside on the weekends, offering their succulent Notorious P.I.G.G. sandwich:  toast, crispy-gooey Gunthorp pig belly, Indiana maple syrup, and a perfectly fried egg.  Now that’s an undisclosed acronym I can get behind, as the P.I.G.G. is the ultimate in drunk food, and the best game in town at 2 a.m. on a Friday night.

For those of you that are still awake, with four down, we have finally arrived at the best bar in Bloomington. And the winner is…

The Bishop (123 South Walnut Street, Bloomington, Indiana, 47401). Hands-down. The bar, which is always without a cover charge, has an amazing rotating selection of regional craft beers on tap for totally reasonable prices. Recently, with the acquisition of a liquor license, the bar added a serious selection of the hard stuff, including one of the most varied and interesting bourbon lists I’ve ever seen. Moreover, the bartenders know their stuff, and given some information can clue you in to things you’ll really like. The crowd is a little older, with a mix of university folk and townies. The Bishop also houses a great small music venue, and all the best bands seem to make The Bishop their one stop in Southern Indiana. I caught Nat Baldwin there, along with an excellent Pogues cover band called the Fauxgues. Local favorites The Vallures made my New Years Eve one of my best ones yet, as I danced to their sweet Motown covers until the early hours of the morning. Finally—and here’s the cranky old lady motif again—while the room with the stage is loud, the bar itself is pretty quiet, making the booths a great place to chat with friends (or, in our case, play over-zealous games of Euchre). I’ll miss The Bishop, and hope you make a stop there should you find yourself in Bloomington.

Sing us out, Tom.

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4 comments

  1. Noelle

    I must say I completely disagree about The Rail. It serves per-prohibition style cocktails and they make all of their sweeteners and syrups from scratch. They are by far the LEAST sweet, most unique cocktails you can find- and with integrity. If you have frequented many cocktail bars around the country you know this is a relatively cheap bar. They support local growers and businesses and have educated staff. It’s the type of place you usually have to go to Chicago or New York to experience, but it is owned by local people and supports local growth. SO maybe you need to give it another shot. It’s where I take people with discerning taste.

  2. lesbonsbonsdesraisons

    Noelle, I no longer live in Bloomington, so I’m not going to be in any position to rescind my (admittedly harshly-worded) review of The Rail anytime soon. I think I was probably irrationally upset about the wine thing when I wrote it, but that was surely just a blip in what is ordinarily good service. I’m happy to hear that it’s a place you enjoy taking your friends, and of course it’s great to support locally-owned businesses that support area vendors and growers. I know a lot of people that really love the place, and it’s great that there are so many good bars in Bloomington for all different tastes. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. The Accidential Expat

    Wondering if you caught the Paris ep of Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover” from a few weeks ago. The premise is basically “if I had 48 hours to spend in this city, I’d do the following…” Not bad recommendations from Tony, though his mention of Shakespeare & Co. was eyebrow-raising. Plenty of ways to view this online, legitimate and otherwise… what’s your take?

  4. saabista

    Wondering if you caught the Paris ep of Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover” from a few weeks ago. The premise is basically “if I had 48 hours to spend in this city, I’d do the following…” Not bad recommendations from Tony, though his mention of Shakespeare & Co. was eyebrow-raising. Plenty of ways to view this online, legitimate and otherwise… what’s your take?

    – G, aka The Accidental Expat

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