But with more choices comes the difficulty in actually finding a watering hole that caters to one’s predilections. Take one wrong turn on your way to the meat market and you could find yourself sauntering through the last vestige of Saratoga’s roadhouse past. Conversely, you could be looking for a nice quiet place to imbibe and end up in the center of gay karaoke rendition of Sweet Caroline, or worse yet, the Parting Glass. So here’s bit of a road map to intoxication amid the track season revelry as it explodes across the city.
For the best results, it’s usually a good idea to start drinking once the happy hour deals touch down at 4 p.m. You’ll have time to hit a few races, but will beat the throngs of masticating tourons as they invade anything with a neon sign and an unlocked door. For the city’s best happy hour destination, it’s a toss-up between two gin joints probably better known for their accompanying restaurants. When it comes to cheap eats, the Mexican Connection off Jefferson Street takes the cake: Dollar tacos during the week and the best margarita in the Spa City, as well it should. The head bartender was the longtime tequila slinger from Margarita’s on Broadway. And whenever a bar boasts dessert tequila, it’s usually a good idea to give it a shot, pun intended.
However, some folks might not be into the whole eating thing when it comes down to getting buzzed in the afternoon. For them, there’s Brindisi on Broadway. Rescued from the scrap heap last winter, Andy Brindisi’s Italian bistro returns for another season. For the younger crowd, evenings at the place can get a bit frightening. Lounge-singer extraordinaire Al Bruno leads a sequin-studded, chest-hair showing, Hawaiian shirt-wearing romp of the 40- and 50-something folks through the wee morning hours. If this sort of thing isn’t within your purview, it’s best to show up promptly at the minute happy hours starts and the two-for-one well drinks start pouring.
Similarly, the adjacent Circus Café can be a cheap place to tie one on if it happens to be a Thursday night. Pints of beer are generously priced at $2, which is an abnormality in the Spa City to say the least. Here’s the catch: It’s also open mic night, which can be a good thing at times; Saratoga Springs boasts an incredible array of talented local artists who play the circuit around the city. But at times, a misguided “art student” will plug in and grace the bar with his or her newly found “mixing” skills on the turntable. On Saturdays, the Circus better lives up to its namesake by hosting a karaoke night. While there are no cheap drinks, this night is…well…different to say the least. It’s worth a stop for the shear spectacle of the event or if you fashion yourself as the next Liberace.
These are a pair of places some might not find, as drunks and weekend warriors are naturally drawn like flies to the booze stench wafting up Caroline Street. And there’s no denying it, either. Caroline Street is the uncontested beer-brawling, blood-spilling, chunder-flying champion of Saratoga nightlife. While the businesses along Phila, Putnam and even Henry Street have made inroads into establishing their own bar culture niche, there’s no better place to tie one on than among the watering holes lining the Spa City’s bourbon street.
First, let’s take a look the most obvious ones. Most touristas and high school throwbacks find themselves converging on Gaffney’s for an overpriced drink or six. Goofey’s is good for a drunken hoot or a quick rollick out at its expansive patio. But stay too long, you’re liable to leave penniless, with a black eye and someone else’s significant other. Like most places on Caroline, Gaffney’s is best enjoyed during the light of day, when all three bars are readily accessible and one can gauge the barometer of their intoxication by when the sun dips behind the looming restaurant.
Across the street is the City Tavern. In short, don’t bother. Expounding on this thought, the place is a dump. It gets too busy, the bars get too packed and the crowd is unruly. If you do find yourself skulking through the Tavern’s three levels, make a B-line toward the roof, the only redeeming quality of this joint. It affords folks a roof top view of the glorious Spa City sunset. Outside of that, you’re probably better off buying a 40 ounce at the A-Plus and brown-bagging it at one of the parking garages.
Speaking of sketchy, there’s Clancy’s and Trotters. Or is it Trotters and Clancy’s? No matter, both bars are equally shady and have been for years. They’re separated only by a small cement-laden ally running between the two and might as well be connected, were it not for a somewhat lucrative drug trade that sometimes occurs in this area. Times have changes in the Spa City, and many of the old school Saratoga hovels have been gentrified –take for instance the remarkable transformation of Solomon Grundy’s into The Stadium –Clancy’s and Trotters have remained true to their roots. Clancy’s is the after-hours bar for many restaurant workers because the place never seems to close. Trotters is simply a haven for unsavory characters. But if you can deal with them, there’s always dollar-beer night on Wednesdays.
If it’s cheap you’re looking for, travel no further than the mouth of Caroline, where rests Jim Stanley’s Tin N’ Lint, one of the oldest and most famed bars in Saratoga. Known locally as the TNL, the bar was at the vanguard of the 1970s counter-culture and is best known as the spot where folk singer Don MacLean –then a lowly busboy –scrolled the lyrics to American Pie on a cocktail napkin. Stanley’s philosophy is that he makes enough money without gouging his customers, so his drinks are almost always a dollar or two less than anywhere else in town.
But the real draw of the TNL is Stanley himself. He worked his way from a bouncer during the 1970s to become owner during the mid-1980s. Over the years, he’s seen an impressive array of historical figures pass through his bar; from Abbie Hoffman to the Pointer Sisters. He also had the honor of pitching Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers’ fame through the bar’s front door during the early 1980s. Apparently, Allman tried to cut up a few lines at a corner table, when Stanley grabbed him by the scruff. If you happen to be a late morning drinker, swing by pick Jim’s brain for some stories. You won’t regret it.
Many consider the Parting Glass the end-all and be-all of bars in Saratoga, but these folks are misguided. The Parting Glass is kind of like the Mall-of-America of bars, where it’s just so goddamn big and there’s so much to choose from that it becomes stifling. And because it’s such a draw for tourists, the bar suffers from indecisive drinker syndrome, meaning you could be waiting several hours for an amateur tippler to ask the bar keep about every third beer on tap. Hey, if you’ve got time and river dance is your cup of joe, by all means swing on down to the Parting Glass. You’re likely to find more accommodating bars elsewhere.
Yet on some excursions, atmosphere isn’t on the agenda. Often times, this is at the end of the night, when seeing straight isn’t high on the priority list and walking is on an as-needed basis only. For these folks, there is the Alley. Despite its alley-like appearance, the bar is actually named after the ‘road’ where it is located. Blink too quickly on a walk down Long Alley and you’ll likely miss the bar altogether. This is the place where you can strike up a conversation with non-English speaking Mexican nationals, count the aggregate number of teeth among patrons on one hand and find some choice bed companions overlooked by more discriminating tastes. Needless to say, the Alley doesn’t discriminate, unless of course you happen to look soft in the hands. It’s a working class bar and perhaps the last one in the city.
There are plenty of other bars here that deserve note and have received acclaim as nighttime destinations. But these are some recommended stops few of the tourist guides and diluted newspaper inserts ignore. Give them a shot and remember to tell ’em to keep some bourbon on ice for the slaving staff here at iSaratoga.