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Writer David Wood once joked that college was an amazing time—when parents fork over their savings to let kids go to a strange town and spend four years in a bar.
Seriously, though, the best college bars offer more than cold beers and hot cheese fries. They’re fan headquarters for away games. They’re stages where college bands become national acts. They’re divey, not sleazy, and give visitors an insider’s perspective.
Many of our favorite college bars are steeped in such lore, while continuing to make history and win over newcomers. So here’s a toast to the mayhem of college and those bars that make it a great four years (or, in some cases, five … or six).
The Tombs, Georgetown,
Down in the Tombs, plaques gleam with the names of the 99 Days Club members, who rose to the challenge of purchasing something daily in the countdown to graduation. Early in the evenings, professors and Jesuits can be spotted among tables crowded with beer pitchers, served by waiters, often students, in preppy oxfords and bow ties.
Comfort food options include the Bulldog burger: organic grass-fed beef, slathered in beer-braised onions, smoked bacon, cheddar, and mustard on a pretzel roll.
Proud Larry’s, Ole Miss,
One of Mississippi’s premier live music venues, Proud Larry’s was opened by a few graduates in 1993 and has been going strong ever since. By strong, we mean lines around the block on game days and sold-out shows with musicians like Shannon McNally and Iron & Wine.
The University of Mississippi’s alumni association has an open tab here, and the cooler is lined with state-based labels like Lazy Magnolia Brewery and Cathead Vodka.
UC Berkeley, Calif.
Berkeley’s oldest pub sees a lot of the youngest legal drinkers—along with grad students, faculty, and local book clubs and sports teams. Once called “a community center that happens to sell alcohol,” this is one bar where you can walk in with a stack of pizza boxes and plop down in a booth like it’s your living room. There are even classic games like Scrabble, Taboo, and Trivial Pursuit. While popcorn is the only food sold, the bottled beer list is 60 labels long, and the 14-handle draft lineup has a sweet spot for Belgians.
Duffy’s Tavern, University of Nebraska,
Nirvana, 311, and Drive-By Truckers have all plugged in at Duffy’s, which is famous for getting acts before they’re actually famous. On weekends, this music (and comedy) club is also a big college hangout. Students get their money’s worth with no-cover live music and monstrous Fishbowls. Each serves four, with the drink recipe of your choice mixed into a giant glass bowl. Although Duffy’s is in a fly-over state, for well-known rock-and-roll artists it remains a destination. Morrissey, front man of The Smiths, stopped his tour bus to hang out—no word on whether he finished a Fishbowl.
Rennie’s Landing, The University of Oregon,
Even the president of the university is a big fan of Rennie’s, which has been known to pitch in for charitable causes and events—and to pour seasonal craft beers. Guests eat and drink inside a historic, two-story house, complete with outdoor decks and fire pits for chilly evenings.
To watch a Ducks game on TV with friends, a giant plate of cheesy bacon fries, and boozy lemonade? Well, it’s satisfying in college and all the more so after you’ve graduated.
The All-American Rathskeller, Penn State,
State College, Penn.
When the Rathskeller opened as a beer garden in 1933, students were issued college meal tickets for food and beer; fast-forward about 80 years, and it’s the oldest continuously operating bar in the state. Black-and-white photos of boxing matches, football championships, and the campus, as it’s grown year-to-year, adorn the walls.
When writer Timothy Leary visited, he took a liking to the tables, some of which are covered in patrons’ scrawled signatures, and wanted to buy one. The bar gave him a tabletop gratis, and Leary framed and hung it in his house.
The Flying Saucer, Vanderbilt,
Of the 16 Flying Saucer bars in the U.S., Nashville gets our vote for the killer beer list and loyal student body. “We’re close to the stadium,” explains Marketing Director Gabe Cardinale, “but we also offer beers from around the world and a staff that knows more about those beers than any other bar.”
Meet the Beer Goddesses, waitresses who go through a rigorous training program. To be a member of the UFO Club, you have to taste 200 different brews. “When you complete it, you get a saucer with your name and a quote of your choice,” Cardinale continues. “There are over 1,000 plates in the Nashville location, and the Vanderbilt crowd dominates the wall.”
University of Colorado Boulder
Catacombs is more than a mile from the campus, hidden below the Hotel Boulderado. You won’t find much information on its website either. But none of these things matter in terms of loyal patronage. What you will find in this cavernous watering hole are three pool tables, two ping-pong battlegrounds, and six, old-school video games, including Frogger.
The bar hosts an epic karaoke night, an open-mic night, and, its biggest draw, trivia night. Oh, and the $3 microbrew happy hour probably doesn’t hurt either.
Eskimo Joe’s, Oklahoma State,
“About two weeks after graduation, one of my friends suggested we open a bar,” recalls Stan Clark. “Two days later, we signed a lease.” That was back in 1975 for a 900-square-foot space — Eskimo Joe’s is now a 28,000-square-foot restaurant/bar/retail operation recognizable around the globe.
The university offered to co-brand with Eskimo Joe’s, and game days now feature the bar’s mascots (a plucky Joe and his canine sidekick, Buffy) alongside the school’s Pistol Pete. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush gave the bar’s cheese fries a shout-out on CNN; an average of 7,000 orders have since been sold monthly.
With original neon, cold beer, and affordable prices, Charlie’s doesn’t change much decade to decade, and that’s how the townsfolk like it. Bon Jovi and Ben Affleck have both supped here, and according to the owner, “If Obama came in, we’d serve him the same as everyone else. There’s no pretense at Charlie’s.” There is a stellar two-for-one lobster roll deal for $13, a patio overlooking Harvard Square, a trivia night twice weekly, and live music. Charlie’s also serves as an extended family to regulars. If you go, say hello to 80-something Helen, who’s been a waitress here longer than anyone can remember.
See more of America’s Best College Bars