If you’re going to spend an evening in New Albany bars, you may want to dress accordingly.
I don’t mean swapping Cardinal red for crimson letters in the shape of an I and a U, or dressing up, or even dressing down. I talking about wearing garments you don’t mind stripping off and leaving outside when you return home, as cigarette smoke will permeate every single piece of clothing you wear.
I’m not putting the friendly little Southern Indiana town down for allowing smoking. In fact, there are some cities in Kentucky that still smoke up. I’m just commenting that when you’re not used to a smoky bar, spending hours in one can be a little jarring.
Also, not all of the New Albany establishments we visited allow smoking, but I wanted to show a range in bar-hopping opportunities — and what a range it is.
Generally speaking, most of the newer cocktail lounges and restaurants do not allow smoking. But if you head to a quaint little dive bar that has been around for more than 50 years, you can bet your ash there will be a thick cloud of smoke wafting about.
To each his own.
Our first stop in New Albany took us to …
New Albanian/Rich O’s/Sportstime Pizza — 3312 Plaza Drive
We could not start a night in New Albany without beginning at Rich O’s, which is what I’ve been calling it since my first visit in 1999. Many people now refer to it as the New Albanian Brewing Co., and there are still others who call it Sportstime Pizza. It is actually all three of those, and it’s one of my favorite reasons to cross the bridge.
Now owned by sisters Amy Baylor and Kate Lewison, the beer-first establishment located off Grant Line Road has been around since 1987. In the early ’90s, Roger Baylor, then husband of Amy, transformed it into a craft-beer mecca, long before craft beer was a big thing around here. And since then, it’s been the spot to try all sorts of styles and brands.
In 2001, New Albanian started brewing its own beer, and the rest, they say, is a reason to return at least once a month. The food also is amazing, especially Kate’s Stuffed Mushrooms — large mushroom caps filled with a cheese blend. I’ve been so obsessed with these, it’s not uncommon for me to consume two orders.
The pizza, pasta and breadsticks are delicious as well, and the next time I return, I’ve vowed to try the Upside Down Pizza, which sounds a lot like Chicago-style pie.
We sat in the old Rich O’s part of the building. There’s also the more sports-bar-like space where Sportstime Pizza once was — or still is — it’s confusing.
But no matter where you sit, you can enjoy the nearly dozen New Albanian offerings on tap, as well as many options from guest brewers. There’s also a list of bottled beers that numbers around 250.
The vibe of Rich O’s is laid-back and family friendly (definitely no smoking here). They’ve also recently converted the front side dining room into an arcade room for kids and adults who still want to be kids.
The room was full of 17 ’80s/’90s arcade games — from Donkey Kong Jr. to Galaga — and three pinball machines.
One of my favorite rooms is known as the Red Room, and it comes complete with Communism references and is dark and seedy in nature. Unfortunately it was full the night we were there.
An Indiana dweller/friend who eventually joined us while we were at Rich O’s wondered why we chose to stop here, with all those “new, trendy places in downtown New Albany.”
I politely yet judgingly said: “Rich O’s will always be my New Albany. This place was trendy before the owners of those new trendy places were born!”
She pointed out that there’s a second, more trendy New Albanian location in that same downtown, at 415 Bank St. Whatever.
She’d have to wait to go downtown, because our next stop was right around the corner at …
Jack’s — 3308 Plaza Dr.
We walked here from Rich O’s, which is literally just a hop, skip and bourbon-barrel mailbox away. This was our first blast from a smoky past, and it was nostalgic to see ashtrays decorating the bar.
It reminded me of a decent college bar — with a stage for live music, five pool tables, one huge IU neon sign, a dozen TVs and cash only.
After having hefty hops at the previous bar, we decided to mellow things out with a few domestic beers.
We went to order and, lo and behold, there was a shot machine with that Spanish liqueur called “43” — the delicious stuff I first tried at Bone Headz on Dixie Highway. Of course, we had to get a round!
Three shots and three beers came to about $18, which I thought was quite reasonable.
“I got this round,” I quickly said, knowing that our next stop was an upscale cocktail bar. Fist bump!
We huddled around the bar and watched several dudes wincing at the TVs. I believe IU was playing a little basketball game, and they did not have more points than the other team. A few older dudes were lugging in band equipment, preparing perhaps for a wild night of dancin’ and drinkin’.
From Jack’s Facebook page and posters on the wall, it looks like they also host karaoke on some nights.
My friend was antsy to get to her familiar downtown New Albany confines, so we limited ourselves to one beer and headed that way to …
Brooklyn and the Butcher — 148 E. Market St.
These neighborhood write-ups consist of four bars and four bars only, which gets tough when faced with covering an area with so much night life. Alas, the one trendy new place we settled on was Brooklyn and the Butcher, mainly because I’ve been hearing good things about their bourbon cocktails and secret speakeasy room since it opened in 2016.
Going from Jack’s to this place was quite a contrast — we almost needed to drive around the block a few times to decompress, like one of those deep-sea divers trying to make his way to the surface. But once we entered the cute little spot that once housed the Monsch Hotel, built in 1871, we were able to inhale (sans smoke) and truly enjoy the charming bar.
I admit I’m more of a dive girl at heart, but it’s nice to treat yourself to a fancy cocktail every now and then. Our bartender Jacob got right to work on a drink I ordered appropriately called Bourbon and Bad Decisions ($10). Any drink that mixes bourbon, rum, amaretto and vanilla, I’ll have to try.
My buddy Laura went with the Yule Mule (vodka!?!), while Courtney settled on the house Old Fashioned.
Apparently there’s a secret little speakeasy in the basement, and if you eat a meal in the restaurant, you get a special key to sneak down there. But since we were just doing drinks on this visit, we bee-lined for the steps and never looked back.
Honestly, I just wanted to check it out for myself, and it is, indeed, a cute little lounge tucked into the basement of the bar.
With several tables and couches, it looked like the sort of place where decisions get made — like who you’re going to marry or where you’re going to go for your 40th birthday. Maybe a good place for a first date?
On this night, we were chatty Kathys, so we wanted to be up at the bar, talking with Jacob, watching him mix our cocktails like a mad scientist, and admiring the couple who ordered two big-ass steaks and tried to eat them politely.
The drinks were delectable and well worth the wait. The bourbon/rum blend in mine felt like I was trying to steady a Derby horse on a pirate ship — in a good way. One moment I would detect the caramels and vanillas of bourbon, and the next a tidal wave of rum’s spice and sweetness would overtake my palate.
I’d order it again.
But unfortunately, we had to get to our last stop, just up the street to …
Hugh E. Bir’s — 324 E. Market St.
This little dive bar situated at the corner of New Albany’s Market and Fourth streets has been around 52 years, and it features live country music every Friday and Saturday night by Hugh E. Bir himself, and a handful of his banjo-pickin’ friends.
There’s not much room to move around inside, but somehow we managed to carve out a space in the corner next to newspaper clippings of Hugh E. Bir and his down-home dive. The cash-only bar was packed with a mix of neighborhood regulars, college kids and country music lovers, and we arrived a few minutes before the band took the stage.
A T-shirt hung from the ceiling that read: “Hugh E. Bir’s: The original Fourth Street Live,” and the room was lit up with neon lights, most of which dated back to the ’80s and ’90s, or possibly older.
One sign I particularly enjoyed was the Bud Dry neon that glowed out front — Bud Dry was the first beer I ever ordered. I was 18 and had just gotten to college in Athens, Ohio, when my roommate whisked me away to a bar that she heard would serve minors. I walked up to the bar and the bartender actually asked me what I wanted. I was so nervous, and the “Why ask why? Try Bud Dry” commercial popped in my head, so that’s what I ordered.
I’ve come a long way since then, but it was fun to see that sign light up the downtown streets of New Albany.
But back to Bir’s.
We were unsure if we should stay or go after having a $2.75 domestic beer, and then a friendly man bought a round of carrot cake shots for half of the bar — which included us. That was our sign that we should stay a bit and really get to know the place.
And not five minutes later, Hugh E. Bir and his band took the stage and played some mean covers of country classics. We were glad we stayed, and we were awarded with another free shot from a different stranger, this time in the form of Fireball.
Sadly, the Fireball came with tasteless jokes, so we quickly relocated to another spot down the bar, where our carrot cake friends kept the man at bay. Hey, it happens.
Even though the smoke was thick at this establishment, we bet it’s a fun place to hang for a few hours, especially in the summer when the party spills out onto the sidewalk. Everyone we met was quite friendly, and we’ll return sometime soon — after Courtney shows me all the other places we missed on this trip.
Here are a few more images of our night in New Albany: