It's been a long day. Hell, it's been a long week. Between the job, the family and now the traffic of evening rush hour, you desperately search for some type of respite from the grind. Blocks away you spot it. The bright glow beckons you. You can see it in the brilliant daylight or the dull city night. It blazes out at you in the heaviest downpours and the clearest sky.
It's the neon bar sign. And to many a weary office warrior or blue-collar working stiff, it's like the welcoming candle in the windowsill of grandma's house. It means the day is through. The serious stuff that consumed the last eight or more hours is over. Now it's time to relax.
To some it seems a trivial kind of happiness. It's just a sign after all. But to many, neon bar signs are more: they are in fact works of art, and whole movements exist to document, photograph and preserve these all-too-frequently disappearing bits of America's past.
The first neon signs in America were installed at a Packard dealership in Los Angeles in 1923. Prohibition on beer ended in April of 1933, so it's safe to assume bar signs didn't exist before then. However, once prohibition was safely over bar-owners flocked to signage and advertising companies with orders for one-of-a-kind neon sculptures that could help them stand out from the other watering holes on the street.
The results are often breathtaking. Sometimes understated, sometimes over the top, but each one unique and harboring a story, either about the sign itself or the establishment it announces.
The following are 10 of the signs we picked from the scores of bars we visited while writing our travel guide. These are some of our favorites, but we're sure you've seen their equal or better. If so, please let us know in the comments or elsewhere -- also make sure to tell us how to find the place so we can see it ourselves.
Originally founded as Virginia’s Cafe in 1945 the Atomic was turned into a bar and renamed <a href="http://www.atomiclasvegas.com/" target="_hplink">Atomic Liquors</a> in 1952 (that's when its colorful sign was also installed). The reason for the change? It became a popular for patrons to grab a couple of cocktails, climb up to the roof and watch the mushroom clouds from the nuclear testing facility less than 50 miles away. The joint quickly became a favorite among the casino workers and performers (none more legendary than the Rat Pack). Atomic Liquors closed in 2011 after the death of its owner and was thought lost. Fortunately a group of local businessmen couldn’t stand to see such an iconic bar waste away. After renovations to restore it to its original luster it reopened June of 2013. A stop here is perfect side trip for any Sin City vacation. When you visit, be sure to enjoy an Atomic Cocktail and revel in one of the rarest of things in Las Vegas: history.
When the Georges family opened the <a href="http://www.esquiretavern-sa.com/" target="_hplink">Esquire Tavern</a> the same day Prohibition ended, it was doubtful the family had any idea the dark road the bar would eventually travel. During its long history it was a known Mexican Mafia hangout, bar wide brawls were almost a nightly occurrence and drugs and prostitution could easily be found. There was even a hidden VIP room where the intimate company of a lady could be had. During one particularly heinous two-year period, police were called to the bar almost 400 times and a regular performer was quoted as saying “the bar attracted people that like chaos, danger, fun and mayhem....” Today the bar is under new management and its extensive renovations accompanied by a new identity, make it the coolest place to enjoy a cold beer or craft cocktail on the San Antonio River Walk.
The oldest bar in Los Angeles was founded by Henry Cole below the downtown Pacific Electric train terminal. It was a welcomed addition for the commuters riding the "Red Cars" to and from work every day. It featured a full cocktail bar, restaurant and even paycheck cashing service. <a href="http://213nightlife.com/colesfrenchdip" target="_hplink">Cole's P.E. Buffet</a> was completely restored and renovated in 2007, but rather than a remodel the owners chose to simply bring it back to period early 20th century. The penny tile, long mahogany bar and period decor quickly take you back in time. They've also created a top-notch bar program with complex cocktails and impressive mixologists.
The <a href="http://www.yelp.com/biz/frolic-room-los-angeles" target="_hplink">Frolic Room</a> started life like many bars did during prohibition, as a speakeasy. Originally opened in 1930 it was a hidden entertainment room within the expansive Pantages Theater used to entertain A-list clients and celebrities. Hosted by a man rumored to be known as Freddy Frolic (hence the name) it eventually opened to the public in 1934. Today it oozes hollywood history: it was one of the last places the Black Dahlia was seen alive, was a favorite hangout of 311 (they wrote a song about it), and has made numerous appearances in movies (like LA Confidential). The Frolic Room is the last real bar on Hollywood Boulevard (maybe one of the few ‘real’ things left in Hollywood) and is a melting pot of patrons. From the bum on your right to the celebrity on your left you never know what you will find at this legendary establishment.
Tucked into what’s known as the James Brown House on 326 Spring Street in Manhattan, the <a href="http://earinn.com/" target="_hplink">Ear Inn</a> carries on a tradition begun in 1816 when the previous bar was catering to nearby sailors and longshoremen. In fact the Hudson River was a stone’s throw from its door when it was first serving. It gained notoriety through the 1800’s, no doubt serving local gangs and villains, and it housed a brothel upstairs. During prohibition the bar continued serving and a number of relics from that period—bottles and such—can be seen above the bar. The story of the sign starts in the 1970's when the new owners wanted to put up signage for their new bar. However laws and codes for historic buildings being what they are, the owners met a lot of resistance. Being enterprising individuals, though, they found a way around their problems: they painted the "B" on the "Bar" sign so it looked like and "E" and called their bar the "Ear" in.
One of the most photographed signs in Philadelphia, a fact noted by McGillin's owner during our conversation. But it's with good reason: it's a beautiful sign. The bar's not too shabby either. <a href="http://www.mcgillins.com/home.htm" target="_hplink">McGillin's Olde Ale House</a> was (as evidenced by the sign) founded in 1860. Irish immigrant William McGillin originally called it Bell in Hand, but changed the name after people kept referring to it as "McGillin's." They have a great beer selection and wonderful restaurant that uses locally sourced ingredients. What's more, throughout the building you'll see signage representing a history of Philadelphia (and arguably of the United States). Be sure to look at the collection of liquor licenses dating back to the 19th century.
Yes, that's a herring holding a martini. In other words, the herring is getting "pickled," get it? Okay, bad joke, but it makes sense considering the heritage of this old place. Opened by Swedish immigrant Simon Lundberg in 1934, <a href="http://www.yelp.com/biz/simons-tavern-chicago" target="_hplink">Simon’s </a>has become a favorite stop for college-kids and Andersonville locals. Actually to truly tell its story we have to start a bit earlier: prohibition to be more precise. That’s when Simon opened his “café” here. The café, of course, had a speakeasy downstairs (the “N.N. Club”) that sold whiskey reportedly purchased from Capone’s gang. The gangs may be gone, but the atmosphere still feels a bit mysterious. The long bar with neon blue lighting (made to resemble a luxury cruise ship) is littered with Viking décor and other nods to the Scandinavian roots of its founder. Try the gløgg, a traditional spiced-wine popular in Sweden.
The twinkling of a few hundred light bulbs surrounding the green, glowing script, greets you as you approach Al Capone's favorite speakeasy, the <a href="http://greenmilljazz.com/" target="_hplink">Green Mill</a>. Originally founded to be Chicago’s answer to Paris’ Moulin Rouge, this jazz club became a notorious speakeasy run by one of the most terrible gangsters of the day, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn. While it was a favorite of Al Capone in the day, it now hosts Grammy-award winning jazz musicians and serves great drinks.
Air Conditioning was less common when this place opened, so at the time it was a real selling point! Though set to open in 1916 <a href="http://www.tavernaustin.com/" target="_hplink">The Tavern</a> was intended to be a local bar, unfortunately though it ran up against Prohibition. Being ever the entrepreneur, the owner, R. Niles Graham quickly turned the establishment into a grocer (by day) and a speakeasy, gambling hall and brothel (by night).
The sign hanging outside the <a href="http://www.oldtownbar.com/" target="_hplink">Old Town Bar</a> has come to symbolize after work socializing for thousands of New Yorkers, and with good reason. Old Town Bar began its life as popular German establishment called Viemeister in 1892. Plowing its way through prohibition (the booth's today still have their false bottoms and storage used to hide booze) the bar survived mostly unscathed likely due to members of Tammany Hall providing support and patronage. The bar and its owners proudly boast the celebration of writers (Frank McCourt was a regular), and a loosely enforced no-cell-phone policy makes this a place to go to for conversation.
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