City Guide: Drinking Your Way Through Dayton, Ohio
The perfect weekend bar crawl
By David Nilsen
Don’t ask us locals why Dayton, Ohio, is called the “Gem City.”
We don’t know, though if you push us, we’re more likely to make up a historically plausible reason than to admit that. It is a hidden gem of a weekend destination, though, with a walkable downtown, eclectic neighborhoods, and plenty of noteworthy places for eating and drinking.
That whole walkable thing? It’s a big part of what makes the city awesome. The entire downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods are compact enough to enjoy on foot, and that makes for the perfect weekend bar crawl (or bar-brewery-distillery crawl). In just a couple day, you can get a true sense of what the locals love about our city without ever getting in a car, cab, or bus.
To start, if you’re into beer, you’ll want to try the nineteenth-century ales at Carillon Brewing Company, a brewery that recreates historical beer styles using equipment and techniques from the 1850s, located just a few miles from downtown at the Carillon Historical Park.
But after that, you can (and should) park downtown or in one of the adjacent neighborhoods. Find a hotel room and ditch the car for the weekend. You’ll find more than enough to keep you busy within walking distance.
The hippest brewery in Dayton runs out of a former auto repair shop in the historic South Park neighborhood, southeast of downtown. Branch & Bone serves some trendy styles—hazy IPAs, fruited sours, adjunct stouts, etc.—but the brewery isn’t chasing fads. Their beers are thoughtful, balanced, and best enjoyed in their small but bright tasting room. Best of all, they often use locally grown fruit and other ingredients in their beers. Look for the Dimmer, a 5.0% ABV Golden Ale brewed with locally roasted Wood Burl Coffee.
Speaking of cool, this underground bar (literally—they had to get permission from the city to put subway stairs through the sidewalk) on the south edge of Webster Station is the kind of place that makes you ask, “Am I cool enough to drink here?” Don’t worry: The staff is friendly and the lights are low. You’ll feel right at home. A thoughtful wine list and quirky-but-classy cocktails like the Ghost Story (bourbon, mezcal, creme de cacao, orange bitters) perfectly match a smart, self-aware space where every corner feels like a private hideaway. The bar made Esquire’s prestigious Best Bars in America list earlier this year.
For a taste of Dayton’s largest craft brewery and the city’s manufacturing past, step into the eighty-year-old former home of the Buckeye Iron and Brass Works, a hulking concrete structure with cavernous ceilings. Warped Wing’s beer list has something for everyone, ranging from the easy-drinking Trotwood Lager—only 4.0% ABV—to the luxurious, high-octane Whiskey Rebellion Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout. Take a seat at the bar in front of the bay door and enjoy the view of downtown.
One of the most revered bars in the city, this downtown establishment has repeatedly made lists of the top bourbon bars in the country. The elegant space offers more top-shelf whiskeys that you can shake a bottle at, and the attentive but efficient bar staff can help you make sense of it all. They can also make you a flawless cocktail. Whether you want to scour the list for single-barrel pours you can’t find anywhere else or just enjoy a perfect old fashioned on the burnished wood bar, The Century Bar is an essential Dayton experience.
If you’d rather feel like you’re hanging out drinking beer with friends in their comfy apartment than reliving the Roaring ’20s in a swanky cocktail bar, The Barrel House is your place. The small beer bar and bottle shop, with a thoughtfully curated beer list, is a living room for Dayton’s craft beer fans, with overstuffed couches and chairs, a small patio, good music, and some of the friendliest staff in the Midwest.
The heart of Dayton’s nightlife is the Oregon District centered around a few blocks of Fifth Street on the southeast side of downtown. Eclectic shops and fun dive bars sit comfortably beside upscale joints like Salar, where impeccable cocktails like the Hickory Torch (bourbon, amaretto, house bitters, and house vanilla syrup in a hickory-smoked glass) share the spotlight with a thoughtful list of wines to complement chef Margot Blondet’s Peruvian fusion menu.
The historic St. Anne’s Hill neighborhood, east of the Oregon District, is home to one of the nation’s only cooperatively-owned breweries. With over 3,500 co-op owners, Fifth Street Brewpub is truly a part of its community, and has the neighborhood pub feel to prove it. The cozy bar is in a building that was built in 1856 (the neighborhood is elevated enough to have escaped the destructive 1913 flood), and has become a community gathering place. The tap list features classic styles—try the Icebreaker IPA—along with tasty experiments like the seasonal Mint Cookie Stout and the Herbivore series, infused with the likes of basil and lemongrass.
This distillery on Wayne Avenue takes its name from a century-old whiskey bottle found in the cellar under a downtown pawn shop during a renovation a few years back. We don’t know much about the original distillery, but the founders of this twenty-first-century operation have made “Belle of Dayton” a household name. The attached Van Buren Room cocktail bar serves classics like the Aviation—made with the award-winning house gin—alongside witty modern drinks like the Vampire Slayer (blanco tequila, ancho verde liqueur, balsamic garlic shrub, lime).
Situated on a bend of the Great Miami River and circumvented by a bend of I-75, downtown Dayton is too often thought of as a place you pass through to get to another place. Stop thinking that. Make plans for a weekend in our beautiful and friendly city, and you’ll discover what a gem Dayton really is, one stellar drink at a time.
David Nilsen is a beer and food journalist living near Dayton, Ohio. He is a Certified Cicerone and a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the North American Guild of Beer Writers. He lives with his wife, daughter, and very irritable cat. You can read more about what he does at davidnilsenbeer.com.