A record store employee playing pinball, a grad student reading in the corner and a married couple smoking on the back patio may not be aware that they are perched within the best bar in Kansas.
But they are, according to Esquire magazine, which launched the second annual Best Bars in America piece as its June cover story. This year the article decided to select one bar per state in honor of "those harmonious and radiant places that serve us drinks, keep us company and put up with our regrettable behavior."
Esquire picked The Replay Lounge, 946 Mass., to represent Kansas.
"It's one of my favorite bars in Kansas, that's for sure," says Nick Carroll, owner and founder of the Replay.
"I've been to different cities, and people say they love the bar because it's inexpensive, the price is right when you get in, the drinks are right, they like the patio, the type of music we book is excellent."
Those things also seemed to impress the honchos at Esquire, the venerable New York-based publication devoted to men's interests.
"People love to drink and gather in bars in every state," says Buddy Kite, an assistant editor at Esquire.
"One of the things we wanted to set out and do was line up places that were representative of that state's culture and character. But we also wanted to do surprising bars. Take a place like the Replay - when you think of Kansas, it might not totally represent an outsider's idea of Kansas."
Kite calls the project an "ambitious undertaking" that took nearly 40 writers (and several editors) to compile.
"We started off doing our own research, and pulled from our own background and travels. We reached out to our writers, stringers and friends for ideas. We scrutinized all the nominations, then sat around and pondered what it is that makes a bar great," he says.
None of the Esquire staffers were very familiar with Kansas, so they consulted entertainment and nightlife writers from throughout the state to offer suggestions for the best bars. One that kept coming up was Lawrence's Replay.
"It seemed like a fun, vibrant, happening place," Kite says. "The vivid painting, cheap drinks and 'their great enthusiasm for pinball' we thought was really interesting. And they had a real strong music booking that nurtured the local music scene and got some impressive acts in there."
New and different
Replay patrons were offered 20 different live music shows this month alone, ranging from national indie rock bands to local bluegrass acts.
"It's great to be able to go to a place and pay a dollar or two to see a band that you've never heard of. They're bands that are excited about playing music and playing in Lawrence for the first time," Carroll says.
Carroll, who first came to prominence locally as singer-guitarist of the popular band Nic Cosmos in the early 1990s, says the Replay has a track record of attracting name acts. This is all the more impressive considering the cozy (i.e., limited) capacity of the indoor area that is home to the stage.
He lists acts such as The White Stripes, Elliott Smith, Spoon, Blonde Redhead and Dead Moon as musical highlights.
"The beauty of it is the timing. There are a lot of bands booked right now who in three years may be the biggest band we've ever had," he says.
He points to The White Stripes as an example. When the then-unknown duo played the club in 2002, only a handful of customers saw the performance.
Bartender Dana Wiseman is reasonably sure she worked the night of that show. But then again, she's seen so many stellar performances that they all tend to run together.
"The bands who get encouraged to jump up and perform on the pinball machines and on top of the bar, that's always the most fun," says Wiseman, who has been employed at the venue for eight years.
"Most of the people who frequent the Replay are band musicians and artists," she says. "They live downtown. They work downtown. They're interested in promoting that kind of thing. It's their home when they're off work. They want to see things that are new and different. We always try to provide that."
Suprisingly, music was not the original focus of the Replay.
When Carroll opened the bar in 1993, in the space occupied by a former downtown convenience store, the live entertainment aspect was more of a side note.
"The idea wasn't really to have bands. We were more of an arcade that had food," Carroll recalls.
Because the kitchen space was so tiny, the pizza-based menu eventually faded away.
Carroll also removed the back parking lot and put in a spacious patio area - a spot that has served him well since the city's 2004 smoking ban.
"The one thing about the Replay is we always listen to our regulars," says Carroll, who admits folks are shocked when they learn he's the owner of the bar. ("I don't know if I fit the mold as the Replay guy. I think they're expecting someone a little more mysterious," he says.)
"It grows organically. We ask people, 'What do you think about this and about that?' One time I had nine pinball machines, and we were going to take three out to increase the stage. There was a petition drive to fight it."
Carroll and company will be celebrating the 15-year anniversary of The Replay Lounge in January. Even though the place is considered one of the best bars in America, he realizes the local watering hole is always changing.
"We've remodeled about five times on the inside because we could never get it quite right," Carroll says. "The location of the bar was always too close to the window, so we kept moving it back. That's another thing about Replay: If it's not quite right, we'll do something about it."