What makes a good bar? It’s as difficult a question as “what makes a good trail?” or perhaps even “what makes a good spouse?” But we’ve all asked it. We’ve all pondered that deep, philosophical question, trying to quantify the quintessential characteristics that separate an average bar from an awesome bar. A deep beer list heavy on local brews? Certainly. A spacious patio? A hot bartender? It doesn’t hurt.
One thing’s for certain: we’re all looking for that perfect place where we can sit in the sun, sip a local beer, and rest our shaky legs or gripped forearms. Because, ideally, The Good Bar is located near some epic adventure that will at least give us the illusion of earning our carbs. The staff at BRO is on a never-ending search for the quintessential Good Bar, scouring pubs near mountaintops and river valleys throughout the Southern Appalachians. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. Here’s a list of our favorites.
Devils Backbone Brewery
Whatever is on your mental checklist of Good Bar characteristics, Devils Backbone probably has it covered. DB won the Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year award at the Great American Beer Festival in 2012. As for a cool space to drink beer in the sun, how about a patio with views of Three Ridges? Located at the base of Wintergreen Mountain, for many people, Devils Backbone is in the middle of nowhere. To us, the brewpub is in the epicenter of awesome, with quick access to the aforementioned Wintergreen as well as Three Ridges and the Appalachian Trail. What really sets DB apart, though, is the Devils Backbone Adventures race series, a collection of off-road running and biking events that begin and end at the brewery and use the growing network of trails located on the brewery owner’s adjacent land. Or sign up for the more casual, monthly nighttime events where you’ll run with glow sticks beneath a blanket of stars. Drink your post-race beer on the side patio while listening to the sizzle of bratwurst and burgers cooking on the grill.
Vibe: Western lodge—lots of wood, glass, animal heads in the pub, and wicking layers on the clientele.
First, hit the…Race course. Take your pick of mountain bike or trail running races sponsored by and held at the brewery. If you’re not competitive, the A.T. and Three Ridges Wilderness are just a few miles away. And a road bike climb up Wintergreen Mountain is short but brutal.
Pull up a chair next to…Weekend warriors fresh off one of the brewery’s races, just like you. Swap stories about bonking mid-race and soul-crushing mechanicals while waiting for the burgers and brats to cook.
Order the… Wintergreen Weiss. Named for the formidable mountain behind the brewery, this Hefeweizen is as refreshing as the slice of orange you’re probably going to ask the waiter to put in it. This is the style of beer that inspired DB owner Steve Crandall to start his own brewery.
Legend Brewing Company
Before there was a craft beer scene in Virginia, there was Legend, the oldest brewery in the state, and one poised to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. Even if you have no respect for your elders, you have to respect Legend’s patio. The brewpub sits in Old Manchester, a warehouse and railroad district on the south bank of the James River that’s slowly converting to condos and lofts. From the 200-seat patio, you’ve got a shot of the rail yard below (not impressive), the James River beyond the trains (kind of impressive), and arguably the best view of Richmond’s downtown skyline anywhere in the city (very impressive). If it’s sunny, and anywhere near happy hour, the patio will be hopping.
Vibe: Industrial chic, minus the chic. But in a good way.
First, hit the…James River. You’ve got options. If you’re a boater, tackle the drops and play waves of the Lower James, in the heart of downtown, just a shuttle-bunny hop away. If you’re a biker or runner, hit the Buttermilk Trail on the 54-acre Bell Isle Park on the edge of the river.
Pull up a chair next to…just about anyone. Legend is a popular post-session pit stop for boaters and runners alike, and if it’s sunny, it’ll feel like the entire city is crammed onto the deck trying to catch some rays and soak in the view.
Order the… Lager. We love Legend because they have the balls to brew a lager, a beer most craft brewers dismiss because of its mass-production connotations, but the beer has a crisp finish and, at 4.8 percent ABV, is built for drinking in the sun after a day on the river.
The Pourover Pub
The Pourover doesn’t just have a big deck. The whole pub is one big deck. This open-air bar feels a bit like an ocean side tiki hut, only it’s next to a river, and there are lots of people with Southern accents. The Pourover is the designated pub for the Nantahala Outdoor Center and sits right on the mighty Nanty overlooking the newly enhanced NOC Wave, the site of the 2013 Freestyle Championships. The NOC’s pullout for the class II-III river is just a short stroll across a pretty footbridge, which means this pub sees a lot of post-river action with rafters high on their first experience in rubber. On weekend nights, expect a more local crowd, as the pub is filled with resident boaters and gorge-dwellers who are psyched to finally have a proper pub to call their own.
Vibe: Raft guide hangout meets German beer garden meets island tiki bar. It’s confusing, but it works.
First, hit the…River. Duh! Yes, you can pick up the A.T. inside the gorge and the NOC has its share of mountain bike trails, but if you’re in the gorge, you should be boating the brutally cold Nantahala.
Pull up a chair next to…Olympic boaters and families from Atlanta. The NOC is a breeding ground for some of the best paddlers in the South. It’s also the most popular river for family-friendly rafting trips. It makes for an interesting mix at this bar that overlooks The Wave.
Order the…Pabst. Sure, the Pourover has plenty of local beer to choose from, but you’re in paddler ground zero, and when in Rome…
First, there are actually three Universal Joints (or U-Joint in the local vernacular), each located in a separate hip town (Decatur, Ga.; Asheville, N.C.; and Clayton, Ga.). Each restaurant has been installed into a renovated garage, so similarities between the three spots abound. But make no mistake, Clayton’s U-Joint comes out on top in terms of location, thanks to its proximity to the Chattooga River. The bar itself is worth the trip. Picture a huge patio on Main Street USA with big garage doors that are thrown open during the summer, blending inside and out. Add the killer burger menu and deep beer list, and you have a combo that’s unparalleled. Boat the Chattooga, drink at the U-Joint: that’s a summer-day bucket list all on its own.
Vibe: Small town hipster hangout meets waterlogged river rat hangout
First, hit the…Chattooga River. No other river in the Southeast offers the Chattooga’s drop-and-pool whitewater and pristine wilderness setting. Want something more alpine? Check out the views from the peaks in Black Rock Mountain State Park.
Pull up a chair next to…fun-loving river guides. Buy them a beer (or two) and get them to tell you their favorite stories from the trenches of guiding tourists down one of the burliest rivers in the South.
Order the…Sweetwater 420. The beer list is varied and changes frequently, but you can always count on this (relatively) local pale ale on a hot day. If you’re hungry, you can’t go wrong with a burger, preferably covered in pimento cheese and topped with bacon.
Bring your own meat. That could be the slogan for The Bywater, a tiny pub with a massive lawn that stretches toward the French Broad River. On that lawn, you’ve got your cornhole, your horseshoes, your bonfires, your boat launch, and your grills. Bring your own burgers or brats or whatever, and feel free to fire it up. Food trucks show up most weekend nights, and the Bywater has become a popular takeout for boaters and tubers paddling a calm two-mile stretch of the French Broad. On weekends, you’ll find Asheville hipsters mingling with young families and boaters still wet from the river.
Vibe: Neighborhood barbecue in the backyard we all wish we had, complete with boat launch.
First, hit the…French Broad. There’s a calm two-mile stretch that takes you by The Wedge Brewery, if you’re looking for an extra pit stop. If you’re not a river rat, check out the relatively new singletrack at Richmond Hill Park, which twists and rolls on a knoll above the Bywater on the other side of the river.
Pull up a chair next to…hipster families with kids named Tallulah and Stellar. The expansive, open lawn is irresistible on warm summer days.
Order the…Pisgah Pale Ale. Local, hop forward and thirst quenching, Pisgah Pale is the unofficial official beer of summer in Asheville.