Monday, March 28, 2016

The Dive Bar Challenge

"We don't grow when things are easy, we grow when we faces challenges." That is a random quote I found online after googling "quotes about challenges". I am not going to bother looking up who to attribute it to because frankly, I don't think it is that great of a quote. I only bring it up as a prelude to bringing up my latest project (or if I want to sound really aspirational and stick to the theme of this post, my latest challenge).

Having put to bed the goal of reaching 100 countries, I was looking for something new to focus on. They say inspiration can come from unlikely sources and it did. This time, it arrived via the click-baity newsletter, Thrillist. For anyone unfamiliar, this is a newsletter that is mainly aimed at guys but that happens to include a lot of lists on the best restaurants, bars, architecture, etc in x city, thus my subscription. The article that caught my eye was a list, published this past January, of the 21 best dive bars in the US. As someone who (a)travels (b) likes dive bars and (c) was heading to one of the cities on the list that very same week, this seemed as good a challenge as any. Therefore, I am now going to try to hit all of the best dive bars in the US (2016 edition).

1. My first check off the list was the Rail Pub in Savannah, GA.  This would be the one to decide if this list was credible or not.  To be a legit dive bar, it had to have cheap drinks, non-pretentious surroundings and a regular clientele.  Looking around, I was pretty confident that meeting the first two criteria would not be an issue but since this was in downtown Savannah, right off of a very touristy square, I wondered about the third. 

I sat down at the bar, ordered a beer and began eavesdropping on conversations. Sure enough, there were some tourists, carrying the same map I had in hand, but they/we were easily outnumbered by the steady stream of locals who were coming in and greeting the bartender by name. My plan had been to have a one drink and then follow a haunted tour that I'd downloaded on my phone.  Predictably, this plan was quickly waylaid by a couple of factors.  First, there was a $10 credit card minimum, which is not much but with really cheap drinks, this was not going to be reached quickly.  Second, and this is where I determined that this was a worthwhile quest, I began meeting the locals.

There was a guy who had lived in Savannah all his life and worked as a pest control exterminator. All I had to do was mention my ghost tour plan and he began telling me about different things he had encountered in his work-related visits to many of the city's oldest homes and businesses.  He had had equipment moved around, had been poked in the side by unseen forces, had felt dramatic temperature fluctuations and on more than one occasion had come face to face with ghosts. It is possible that he was pulling my leg but I honestly don't think that was the case.  This guy had seen things.  And I was benefitting from it in the form of a personalized ghost tour from the comfort of a bar stool.

This conversation went on for awhile until he learned of my wandering ways and now wanted to discuss hotel rooms and the bed bugs that inhabit them.  That to me is much more terrifying than anything the undead can unleash.  Say what you will about poltergeists but no one has ever had to wash and bag up every single item of clothing they own in order to get rid of a ghost. 

I was ready to go but two drinks and a bag of chips in, I had still not hit the minimum amount.  That is when the bartender asked me a question that you just don't hear often enough.  "Would you like to take a beer in a to-go cup?"  That's right.  Savannah does not have open container laws, so you can stroll around with your PBR in Solo cup as the genteel south intended.   

Of course, all that happened is that I ended up drinking my third beer out of a plastic cup while still at the same bar, talking to a woman about her cats but the point is that this place was really cool.  My quest would continue.

2. This is one that I really should have been to already.  It is Vazac in NYC's East Village, where I lived for a short period of time.  It is entirely possible that I have in fact been here during one of many Alphabet City pub crawls but nothing about it looked familiar so I am going to assume this was my first time.

Once again, all the basics- cheap drinks, locals, unpretentious- were indisputable. Where this bar gets bonus points is in its varied film and tv history.  The exterior was used in the movie version of Rent. The interior was used for everything else. According to the obligatory kooky bar regular who bemoaned, without irony, how hipster Brooklyn was- while drinking in the East Village!!-scenes from Godfather 2, Crocodile Dundee, Serpico and the Verdict were all shot on site.  For some others, check out this out compilation:

7B: A History in Motion Pictures from Flight Crash Companion on Vimeo.

Another plus, a friend who lives in NY and is the unofficial fact checker and editor for this very blog met me there and has since been back on his own. One more visit and he officially becomes a regular and can hang with the hipster-hating Trump supporter.

3.  Based on their location alone, there is a chance I would have eventually stumbled across the first two bars on this list.  Not so with #3.  This one required my 3 friends and I to Uber it. Set on a semi-industrial street near downtown Dallas, Lee Harvey's is a place you kind of have to know about. From the size of the crowd that gathered as the sun set, it is clear that a lot of people do.

It is small and perfectly dive-y inside but has a large patio outside, outfitted with heaters and fire pits, and as the night progressed a stage where a band was setting up to perform.

Being Floridians, the heat lamps were not cutting it, so we stayed indoors where the bartenders kept us contented with a steady stream of $3 happy hour beers and menu recommendations.  Among the highlights were the onion rings, which have been voted best in Dallas and the Jalapeño Chicken Sandwich (which they modified to a Jalapeño Portobello Sandwich at my request).

Based on the vibe, the food and the crowd, this bar has the potential for becoming my favorite one on the list, which is odd considering that it is in, by far, my least favorite city on the list. Side note: Dallas sucks.

Some places have a red light district, Dallas has a red light bathroom.

4.  Set in between the city of Oakland and Berkley University, the Kingfish Pub and Cafe was  the busiest of all the dive bars I've visited so far.  This probably had more to do with my timing than with any kind of fair head-to-head comparison.  It was a Wednesday night and the Golden State Warriors were annihilating their latest victims a few miles away, so the young-ish crowd was out en masse.

One thing I found interesting about them was their level of support for the Warriors.  The game was in the final minutes.  Curry and crew were beating the Jazz by over 20 points and yet every time the home team scored, the crowd went nuts.  But like "crazy shot winning at the buzzer" nuts. It was so strange that I thought maybe they were watching something else.  I checked out the other tv's and there were no other games on.  The only other possibility is that they were cheering a particularly satisfying Bernie Burn re: Hillary and her corporate donors.

Same hat, different bar

Bonus points for the Kingfish on their free unlimited popcorn, which was both perfectly salted and not too oily.  These things are important.

5. St. Patrick's Day in Pittsburgh kicked off, predictably enough, at an Irish bar.  It was full of little children dressed in green; the only food options all ended with "..and hash" and I was beginning to suffer from fiddle overkill.  Dive bar list to the rescue.  We sought refuge at Gooski's in Polish Hill.

Another success story. The music was good, the drinks were crazy cheap and the bartender was amusingly surly.  He was somewhat perturbed that they had been placed on a list of best dive bars, feeling that once you make the list, you are no longer dive enough.  I see his point, but I think Gooski's is safe for now.

Crying should never be permitted at the bar, that's just a fact.

They had excellent pierogis, vegetarian kielbasa and most importantly to my wounded ears, nary a Danny Boy was played, even on this the greenest of days.

I'm loving this challenge. We are only three months into the year and I've already managed to check off almost a quarter of the list.  I know it's only going to get trickier from here. I can see exactly where the roadblocks are going to be- Homer, Alaska?! Yankton, SD?!!! Perdido Key???  I've never even heard of the last two.  But I'm up for it and will continue to update this list.  After all, as some other crap internet philosopher once said "Don't limit your challenges, challenge your limits"

UPDATE 4/11/16:  The first bust of the list.  I was just in Honolulu, where I attempted to go to the Hideaway bar, only to find out that they lost their lease and closed right after Super Bowl Sunday (which is right around the time this list was released).  5 bars down, 1 bar out, 15 more to go...

1 comment:

  1. Bert, I must join on some of these challenges.