By Lukas Harnisch
When for three-quarters of the year it is too frigid to lounge comfortably on the beach, opening a beach bar isn’t top of a northeastern entrepreneur’s mind. What Bostonian, New Yorker, or Rhode Islander thinks to themselves, on a Friday night in February, “You know what would be great? A couple of drinks on the icy Atlantic Coast, fighting off frostbite.”
A handful of wild barkeeps decided to post up on the coast, and thank heavens for them. Because when those glorious three months of sunshine finally do come around, and the masses of pent-up Northeasterners can peel the down jackets off, this collection of dives, inns, and wharf restaurants serves a noble cause.
They’re the gathering places where the usually serious and hardworking folk of this region can finally let their toes wriggle free of steel-toed boots and claustrophobic leather loafers.
And sure, it’s not Cancun, but Cancun’s overrated anyway. There’s nowhere else that you will find the genuine gruff-yet-friendly people you meet in the Northeast. And there’s nowhere else that you’ll eat the quality of oysters, lobster, and haddock that you can get at this assortment of bars.
Let’s start with my undeniable favorite on this list. Ocean Mist is an establishment, operating since 1988, and any visit to Rhode Island warrants a stop at this divey bar and venue right on the water. I will always defend Rhode Island as having the best beaches on the northeast coast. Watch Hill, Misquamicut, and East Beach have plenty of soft sand and crashing waves, and great food abounds in the coastal towns.
You might be thinking, what about the Cape? To that, I say, too many damn sharks.
Another great feature of these beaches is that they’re in proximity to Ocean Mist! The large bar is nothing fancy. In fact, their slogan is, “Just a beach bar,” but there’s good reason for it being a favorite among locals.
The classic New-England-shore-style building features a porch that juts out on the water where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served. Their beer list is dominated by classic refreshing lagers and ales like Narragansett and Corona, much preferred over those cloying, heavy IPAs. Local music acts populate the semi-regular calendar of the venue attached to the bar, and more often than not, the bands are loud – a perfect pairing with a can of cold Narragansett.
It’s the perfect representation of beach culture in the Northeast, from the likelihood of needing a hoodie in late June to salt-of-the-earth patrons, the indie rock, and the delicious seafood. What’s not to love?
895 Matunuck Beach Rd, South Kingstown, Rhode Island 02879
There’s nowhere quite like Provincetown. The coastal village, out on the very tip of Cape Cod, has been a historic safe haven for LGBTQ, and it’s perhaps because of this that it is one of the most unique places in the world.
It’s a favored hideaway for Massachusetts writers, poets, and artists, and a visit there makes it obvious why. The town itself, teeming with life, consists of ramshackle colonial-style buildings and a long main street, Commercial Ave., lined with restaurants, bars, clubs, and art galleries.
On the other side of Route 6 is Race Point Beach, possibly the most picturesque beach in the entire Northeast, complete with an old lighthouse. It’s not uncommon to see herds of seals close to the shore, their small brown heads popping up just two arms’ lengths away from where you’re swimming. That’s of course because they’re avoiding the sharks in deeper waters, so I wouldn’t go in too far.
And there’s no better place to meet, or simply be among, people than at The Red Inn. The historic building has welcomed guests since 1915, and it features one of the best bars and restaurants in town.
The views from the porch jutting out into Cape Cod Bay are stunning, especially as a long summer night begins to wind down over the ocean.
There is no better way to enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail, and the dinner served there is some of the best on the Cape.
Compared to Ocean Mist, it might be pricier, but it is no less authentic and well worth a visit.
15 Commercial St, Provincetown, Massachusetts 02657
Back to Rhode Island, right off the coast, to a classic summer vacation spot, is Block Island. The small chunk of land is surrounded by 17 miles of pristine beaches, lighthouses built in the 1800s, magnificent bluffs, and a wildlife refuge that is a great spot for birdwatching.
The metropolitan Northeast is characterized as hustling and hardworking, but that ethos hasn’t subsumed Block Island. The harbor town is reminiscent of a working colonial port town, but residents and visitors are very much on island time.
And the place to stay (if you like lively), drink, and eat is Ballard’s Beach Resort. This is the first location on the list that falls most in line with what most people probably envision when they hear “beach bar.” Drinks — including the tropical ones you crave — are served right on the private beach, and cabanas and chairs are available to rent for those who want to imbibe and sunbathe in style. The inside bar is the size of half an airplane hangar and is perfect when it’s either too hot or too cold outside.
They also regularly host live music with a focus on reggae, rock, and country.
42 Water St, New Shoreham, Rhode Island 02807
New Englanders and New Yorkers often skip over Connecticut when thinking about beaches, but that’s a shame since Connecticut has some gems. As you get away from the oily shores of New York City, Stamford, and Bridgeport, and head north, you’ll find small historical coastal towns like Mystic and Stonington.
Mystic has really committed itself to its history with the famous Mystic Seaport. But a 10-minute drive east brings you to Stonington, where you’ll find Breakwater, a peaceful spot to enjoy the sunset on an expansive porch jutting out onto Fishers Island Sound.
Kick back and watch fishing vessels return from a day’s work while sipping martinis and enjoying oysters and impeccable service.
Although the building could easily fit in a colonial setting, the restaurant and bar are airy, cozy, and contemporary. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the still waters of the Long Island Sound and a cocktail.
66 Water St, Stonington, Connecticut
Downtown Portland’s restaurants and bars are not only high-quality and affordable compared to some of what Boston and New York offer, but they’re also in a conveniently walkable area, huddling upright against the coast. If you’re in Maine, you’re probably looking for some lobster, and Luke’s Lobster is the place to get it.
Located in an A-frame at the end of a pier, it’s as close to the source as it’s going to get, barring being on a lobster trapper’s sloop. Views of Portland’s bustling harbor — with “360-degree views of the lobster industry” as they like to put it — through the restaurant’s giant windows are unrivaled, the cocktail and beer lists are long, and the seafood is delicious. It’s a great bar year-round.
60 Portland Pier, Portland, ME 04101
The Hamptons are rife with great places by the shore, but none equal The American Hotel’s bar. Around since 1846 and only steps away from the harbor, the bar offers a unique coastal drinking experience.
Their award-winning wine list is a staggering 85 pages, with 1,700 selections and 30,000 bottles in the cellar. Of course, if you’re having option paralysis, the expert staff will help you choose a bottle (or cocktail).
And you’re going to want a bottle because once you sit down, you won’t want to leave. The bar’s a classic — it feels like it could be in Havana or Hemingway’s Paris, with its sophisticated and bohemian vibes. The interior is quaint and timeless, crammed with landscape paintings, ornate light fixtures, antique wicker chairs, and a taxidermied moose’s head.
If you’re in the area, stop by this watering hole that has hosted the likes of Bill Murray, Roger Waters, Billy Joel, and Bono, and it was a staple for some great American writers and artists post-WWII. The drinks and ambiance are special and gloriously unfazed by the typical Hamptons’ trendiness.
45 Main St #3012, Sag Harbor, New York 11963