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11 Bars That Used To Be Other Things

Drink in a little history at these bars around the world.

Bars are inherently nostalgic. Or perhaps humans are—hence songs like “Piano Man” and shows like Cheers and everything Hemingway ever wrote. But in some watering holes around the globe, the nostalgia surpasses a warm place to gather on a rainy night, nurse a broken heart, sip whiskey, and get teary-eyed about the way things were. Sometimes the place is physically built into the memory. Here’s a list of bars that pay tribute to the past. They used to be other things…and they still kind of are.

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Alibi

Alibi in Boston, part of the Liberty Hotel, was once the “drunk tank” of Charles Street Jail, super slammer to the stars. Celebrities that did time in Charles Street (though not necessarily in the overnight holding cells) include the Boston Strangler, Babe Ruth, and Malcolm X. Before the bar opened, a shaman performed a cleansing ceremony to clear all the dark, imprisoned energy from the space. Alibi’s cocktails are aptly named: Try the Cool Hand Cuke, the Single White Female, or the Blood In Blood Out. Alibi is a chichi “business casual” joint that offers bottle service, VIP tables, and outdoor patio seating (site of the old prison workout yard), but they’ve kept the bluestone floors from the old days, as well as the brick cell walls.

Bars-That-Were-Something-Else-Alma-De-Cuba
PHOTO: Alma De Cuba
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Alma de Cuba

It is perhaps miraculous that the 229-year-old building that houses Alma de Cuba in Liverpool, originally Saint Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, is still standing. Neither time nor the Blitz of 1940-1941 managed to level it. Liverpool got the worst of it, but though the church was badly damaged, it kept running for over 30 more years. Today Alma de Cuba, “soul of Cuba,” keeps the church vibe alive by offering its own Ten Commandments, including “Thou shalt know one’s complete drink order before approaching the bar.” Pop in on a Sunday for “Gospel Brunch.”

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The Apartment

The Apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria used to be a block of apartments. And if you didn’t know you were in a bar, you would think you were in…well…someone’s apartment. You can wander in and out of different rooms, including a kitchen (you’ll have to go there to place your order), where you’ll find a kettle on the stove and a stocked fridge. Specialties include strawberry wine and Himalayan tea. You’ll find board games, comfy sofas, people smoking and making out, living room-like art on the “living room” walls—it’s all quite convincingly domestic.

Bars-That-Were-Something-Else-Chevycheria
PHOTO: W Punta de Mita
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Chevycheria

WHERE: Punta de Mita, Mexico

Picture a blue 1950s Chevy truck with the back hacked off and replaced by a long wooden bar, topped by a thatch roof. Now stick the whole thing on the shore of Banderas Bay in the Pacific Ocean and you have the W Punta de Mita’s Chevycheria, a ceviche bar worthy of a Jimmy Buffet song. You can belly up to the Chevy, eat seafood straight from the Pacific (try the shrimp aguachile), drink a local craft beer or a mezcal cocktail, take in the sparkling sea hugged by the Sierra Madre Mountains, and then hit the waves. The resort—decorated with cool Mexican art, including a life-size drawing of Frida Kahlo with a surf board–offers surfing camp to surfers of all levels.

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El Avion

As the name suggests, El Avion in Costa Rica used to be a plane. Its history can be traced back to the Cold War: During one of the U.S.’s most famous scandals, the Iran-Contra Affair, Reagan’s administration, working with the CIA, used some of the money earned from arms sales to Iran to buy this cargo plane. It was eventually abandoned at the International Airport in San Jose, where it sat until 2000. Now, it’s a bar and restaurant near Manuel Antonio National Park, a place famous for its sunsets. You can still see rough patches on the plane’s skin, the result of Sandinista gunfire when the plane was performing arms delivery missions in Nicaragua in 1985. Bring a date and kiss in the cockpit.

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Hello Penny Bar

When Scott Mosteller and Gabby Murphy decided to get married in 2016, Murphy wanted a mobile bar for their wedding. Since nothing of the kind seemed to exist, Mosteller decided to build one. He scoured Craigslist and bought a 1946 Mobilglide trailer to use as the foundation. The project took six weeks and Gabby got to live out her wedding-day boozing fantasy. So began Hello Penny Bar  (“Lucky Penny” is Scott’s pet name for Gabby), a working bar in a trailer. The couple’s story went viral and the Mobilglide developed something of a cult following among romance junkies. Now, Mosteller hitches the thing to his Subaru and tows it around southern California, renting it out for weddings and functions. He even provides the bartenders.

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Kennedy School

Kennedy School  in Portland, Oregon, once an elementary school, is now something of an adult playground–each former classroom is a tiny restaurant or bar, including Detention Bar, Honors Bar, and, for the thespians among us, Kennedy School Theater Bar, where you can grab a slice of pizza or a beer before catching a movie (the movie theater is also on “campus”). Since this is Portland, the beers are no joke: Think “Terminator Stout” and “Sunflower IPA.” And in case that’s not Portland enough for you, the city runs a community garden behind “school” property, where neighborhood residents can maintain their own plots.

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Ladies and Gentleman

The food and drink scene in London is ever-growing and the city is chock-full of culinary hot spots and classy bars that overturn the stereotype about the unrefined palates of the English. Today, London is something of an eating and drinking capital. And yet: It also has an abnormal number of public toilets converted into bars. One is an underground cocktail bar called Ladies and Gentlemen. I mean “underground” literally—the sign for the place resembles a Tube stop sign. Their website boasts “locally sourced ingredients” and “sausage rolls prepared daily,” which would sound enticing just about anywhere else.

Bars-That-Were-Something-Else-Sails-Bar
PHOTO: Baros Maldives
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Sails Bar

WHERE: Baros, Maldives

Before tourism arrived 45 years ago, there wasn’t much happening in the Maldives, a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean, but there were always coconuts to spare. Maldivians used them to participate in the maritime trade route, exchanging them for spices and silks from India and Sri Lanka. Sails Bar is a repurposed coconut grove, set on a resort called Baros, a “romantic getaway” writ large–paradise so far removed from the world, the isolation feels palpable. Guests can sip drinks from coconuts and smoke cigars on day beds, shaded by palm trees that were never hacked down–there are professional “climbers” who shimmy up the trunks now and then, removing coconuts so no one gets knocked on the head.

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Qespi Bar

WHERE: Cusco, Peru

Cusco, Peru is one of the most interesting cities in the world to learn about Incan culture, as well as the Spanish conquest that aimed to destroy it. The history of both are stark in the cathedrals and convents and city streets. Walking around Cusco, you might, for example, just happen upon a 4,000-year-old wall. Qespi Bar , part of Cusco’s JW Marriott, was a 16th-century convent where you can still see some of the original walls and flooring and where you can order dozens of different pisco cocktails. You can also order guinea pig off the Qespi Restaurant menu, if you really want to get into the local spirit.

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The Vault

Beneath Cleveland, Ohio’s Cleveland Trust Rotunda, an architecturally stunning old bank headquarters building that is now a grocery store, the old vaults have become The Vault , where employees are slinging five types of rye, not guarding wads of cash. The bar features the old numbered bank lock boxes, where customers stashed their loot–fur and household silver in the storage vault, Andrew Carengie’s and John D. Rockefeller’s assets in the Carnegie vault. To soak up that old money mood, try a Net Worth (Knob Creek Rye, Crème Yvette, honey simple syrup, and lemon juice) or a Millionaire’s Row (Green Spot, Chartreuse, ginger beer, lemon, lime, egg white, apple cider, chili powder, and rosemary).