The last few posts have been distractions from one of the primary objectives of this year of rambling – ferreting out dive bars across the states. Despite stamina built up through significant practice, there are limits on the number of establishments that can be subjected to an extensive test. While I’ve sprinkled my findings throughout early posts, there are gems from Arkansas, California, Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas that have yet to be flagged.
I won’t subject you to a list of all the duds and run-of-the-mill purveyor of drinks. Instead I’ll flag the true dive bars. But first – what do I mean by a dive?
- A dive doesn’t need to be dark and dingy although a little grit helps. Your feet don’t need to stick to the floor but if the wood is “distressed” rather than simply reflecting normal wear and tear you are not in a dive bar.
- If PBR and Bud Light are selling for $3 or less, you are hitting the mark. If there is an array of bitters or drinks festooned with fresh cucumber and mint, you are not in a dive bar.
- Back out the door quickly if the bar is called a “speak easy” or has the term “dive” as part of its name or has a line of growlers ready for you to buy.
- For me, the key factors are:
- Locals – Watch the bartender. Are most people that walk in greeted by their name (even if they simply mumble a response)? Do they quickly walk over to a group of friends and sit down to pick up a long-running conversation? Are you as likely to see a 70 year-old engaged in a lively exchange with a 30 year-old or are their gaggles of 30 somethings dressed alike?
- Drinking – Is the primary activity drinking? There may be an old television or two but there are not banks of flat screens playing sports (or even more frightening – screens of news shows and pundits).
So here we go:
- Alpine Saddle Club in Alpine, Texas. When I’m staying in a metropolitan or touristy area, one of my tricks is to always seek out a small nearby town to grab a drink. Alpine was near Marfa (see below) but didn’t have the perplexing mix of the New York art scene shoehorned into a backwater Texas town. The Alpine Saddle Club was filled with locals and some of the friendliest bartenders I met on the road.
- Blackbird on Pearl in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa was such an unanticipated joy. Great on many levels and this small street offered a number of fun bars. Blackbird on Pearl, however, stood out on the dive rating scale and had a great local group, the Red Dirt Rangers, that have been breaking ground for over 25 years.
- Chopes Bar in La Mesa, New Mexico. This may well be the highpoint of my dive bar adventures. Founded by the late Chope Benevidez, this beloved bar has been serving outrageously good food since its founding in the early 1900s. The bar itself is a dark and cluttered building, standing squat off of Highway 28 in the rural chile and pecan fields of southern, New Mexico. The day I arrived was a sunny Saturday afternoon and the bar was filled with bikers. It took me a while to navigate through the packed bar and get oriented but what great people watching.
- The Hoppy Monk in El Paso, Texas. A little more polished than most “dives” but you have to appreciate the extensive selection of beers. Sometimes you want a nice offering of craft beers.
- Joshua Tree Saloon in Joshua Tree, California. I had spent the day hiking through Joshua Tree National Park and returned to my room in a rustic AirBnB exhausted and dirty. In response to my request for a local place to grab a beer and some food, the owner, a carpenter, and his girlfriend, an artist, half-heartedly recommended a few local places. Then they brightened and suggested I drive 25 miles to a true Western saloon filled with locals. It was the last thing I wanted to do after a day of heavy exertion but it couldn’t have been a better evening. Great energy, food and beer.
- Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis, Tennessee. I have been to Memphis a few times but never hit the sweet spot on Beale Street. It always seemed too touristy to me with more cover bands than is my cup of tea. Well I found my spot. The Overton Park neighborhood offered great music venues filled with residents of Memphis and nearby towns. Lafayette’s has music seven days a week. The night I went I was mesmerized by Marcella and Her Lovers.
- L&J Café in El Paso, Texas. My friends Cristobal and Tai tipped me off to this hometown favorite since 1927. The bar and restaurant were packed but I tactically maneuvered into an open bar stool and just soaked it all in (including some great Mexican food).
- Levi’s Gastrolounge in Rogers, Arkansas. Another time I employed the strategy of leaving the tourist center where I was staying, in this instance Bentonville Arkansas the home of WalMart, to visit a less popular setting. Rogers Arkansas has a number of interesting bars and Levi’s offers a relaxed scene with local music.
- Lost Horse Saloon in Marfa, Texas. In the midst of the high desert in far West Texas, Marfa consists of less than 2,000 people that became an unlikely arts hub when a New York artist moved into Marfa and began creating huge indoor and outdoor permanent art installations on an old army base. One of the highlights of my visit was an evening at the Lost Horse Saloon, the perfect dive where tequila shots and local beers were accompanied by banter with locals smoking in the backyard with their packs of dogs.
- Shevek’s Casuals Oh My, Silver City, New Mexico. Okay this is not a dive bar but it is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and I had a lovely lunch so I feel called to throw it in the mix. As an example of how casual it is – the chef takes your order and serves you the dishes he lovingly prepares.
- Swampy’s Bar and Grille in Dunnellon, Florida. Great Florida bar on the banks of the Rainbow River. Grab a brew and relax watching otters, birds and local residents floating down the river in canoes.
- Toucans in Clearwater, Florida. I do have a sweet spot for the third bar on my pub crawls and this small bar on a side street captured my heart because I’d had a great evening with family and friends. As we walked up, the bar was virtually empty and we took up all the bar stools. Great place for that last drink of the evening.
I’m so excited to be heading back to Arlington this week but damn – these dives really call me back to the road. I’d be grateful for any tips on dives I can hit the next time I’m rambling.