What Drink Do You Order at a Bad Bar? 25 Food Writers Share Their Safety Drinks

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: The Kitchn)

What do you drink at a bad bar? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, I know, but we’ve all been there: stuck in a tired airport lounge, or at a restaurant hundreds of miles away from an artisanal cocktail menu, eyeing a bartender who doesn’t look old enough to drink. What do you order when you just don’t trust the bar (or the bartender)? What’s your safety drink? I asked 25 food writer friends what they go to when they want a drink but don’t trust the bar.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

My own personal “safety drink” is a Godfather, a venerable old classic involving 2 parts (or 3 parts) Scotch to 1 part amaretto, stirred over ice. It’s really satisfying and somehow exceeds the sum of its parts — and more the point, nearly everyone knows it, and there isn’t even a garnish to screw up.

Read on for 25 professional food-lovers’ own safety drinks. And while this may sound like a menu born from desperate times, these drinks are also really terrific inspiration for those of us who want a quick cocktail in the evenings but aren’t up for, you know, brewing our own bitters. These picks are great reminders of how simple and yes, foolproof, a good drink can be.

What’s Your Safety Drink?

  • If I’m unsure, I just stick to beer. Someone else has already done the work there and as long as the bartender can pour a draft, I’m good with that. – Casey Barber, Good. Food. Stories.
  • A good vodka shaken straight up with a twist and nothing else – no vermouth. 95% of the time I’m safe. Although last Friday I ordered it at the Irish Bank in SF and got my Belvedere swimming in vermouth, sent it back and received a Tanqueray with a vermouth float. I gave up and drank my husband’s rye on the rocks and switched to beer. – Robin Carpenter of Hunt and Gather Girl
  • Gin and tonic. With enough lime, I can tolerate a bad one. – Sheri Castle, cookbook author
  • My safety drink is to ask the bartender to make me something he or she likes. Even an inexperienced bartender will have at least one drink that they know and love. I’ll take that one! – Emma Christensen of The Kitchn and Emma Elizabeth Christensen
  • Usually something simple — Wild Turkey bourbon on the rocks. Or a beer. – Melissa Clark, cookbook author and columnist at The New York Times
  • Vodka on the rocks. I’ve had many a bad vodka + tonic. – Karen Covey of Gourmet Recipes for One
  • Gin, grapefruit juice and bitters..though a recent trip through the South rattled my expectation that every bar has bitters. – Brenda Crow of FoodShed
  • Jack & Coke. The more I drink, the less I care. – Tara Mataraza Desmond of Crumbs on My Keyboard, Almost Meatless
  • Vodka tonic but I think it can be messed up – in a bad bar the tonic’s often flat or off. Maybe for now on… Scotch on the rocks? – Jenni Ferrari-Adler, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant
  • Vodka iced — straight up! – Judy Witts Francini of Divina Cucina
  • If they have good beer I ask for that with a ton of limes. If there’s decent gin I’ll ask for a gin and tonic – again, lots of limes. They can’t screw that up. Right? – Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan of The Kitchn
  • Campari and soda. With lime. But not all bars have it! – Kathy Gunst of Kathy Gunst.com
  • I say, “No, please, really, make me the drink that is the truest expression of your creative self.” – Francis Lam of Gilt Taste
  • I go for vodka tonic. – Andrea Lynn of Andrea Lynn Food Writer.com
  • I order based on the look of the bartender. If he/she is older than dirt, I’ll get an Old Fashioned or a Gimlet. If he/she is under 30, I get bourbon with ONE ICE CUBE. – Ivy Manning, cookbook author
  • Sweet vermouth (red, like Lillet) on the rocks with a twist. Or Campari in the same way. – Domenica Marchetti of Domenica Cooks
  • When in doubt: 1) Draft beer 2) Club soda. – Nancie McDermott, cookbook author
  • Bourbon on the rocks – I mean how can you mess up one ingredient? Or a bottle of beer… always leery of dirty taps….yuck! – Maureen Petrosky of The Kitchn and MaureenPetrosky.com
  • I used to think gin and tonic, until a very suspect bartender gave me one that tasted like flat 7-Up. So now I’ll order an Americano (1:1 Campari and vermouth, club soda), or if things are really grim, bourbon on the rocks. Or a beer. – Anjali Prasertong of The Kitchn and Eat Your Greens
  • Gin and tonic is an easy solution, I mean the worst they can do is forget the tonic and that wouldn’t be all bad. Sometimes I do venture to a shaken dirty martini, but in that you sometimes get bartenders who either assume vodka (I’m a gin man myself) or add way too much olive juice (olive juice with a splash of gin anyone?). – Adam Salomone of Harvard Common Press
  • If I really don’t trust the bartender? Simple, just give me the best beer on the menu, of course I would pick. Or the wine of my choice. If I had to pick spirits, bourbon, with a splash of soda. I could live with any, although Maker’s Mark is hard to beat. – Bruce Shaw of Harvard Common Press
  • Gin and tonic with a splash of cranberry and a lime. I like it because I’ll drink it weak or strong, because it still makes a conversation piece at a party, and because when I’ve had enough, I can switch to soda with cran and everyone thinks I’m still drinking. – Jess Thomson of Hogwash and Pike Place Market Recipes
  • A Greyhound has never failed me (yet!). – Tara Austen Weaver of Tea and Cookies
  • I have sent back so many G&Ts because they use the tonic from the gun and 9 times out of 10 it is flat and syrupy. I only order Gin and tonics from places that use bottled/canned tonic water and sadly very few places do. – Bethia Woolf of Columbus Food Adventures
  • I think you can’t mess up a gin and tonic too badly. – Grace Young, Grace Young.com

What’s your safety drink — out, or at home? And why?

Related: Favorite Cocktails: What Are Your Top 5 Picks?

(Image: Peter Kim/Shutterstock; Nancy Mitchell)