Monday, June 01, 2009

Dive bars I have known and loved

Patricia Smiley here…

I like dive bars, the seedier and more atmospheric the better. The lights are dim and the ghostly aroma of banned cigarettes still leaches from wood-paneled walls. The padding on the bar’s rub-rail is pockmarked with cigarette burns and battle scars that have never healed. Good dive bars draw real people of every age and socio-economic group and employ bartenders with a sense of humor and a nose for trouble. Dive bars make me want to pen noirish tales of roads not taken and lives gone terribly wrong.

One of the favorite hangouts from my misspent youth is the Lock Spot in the Ballard district of Seattle. It had a jukebox and a pool table housed in a dark stale room that promised mystery and perhaps a bit of danger. I don’t remember much about the food, but I can vouch for the pitchers of Olympia beer. As a bonus, the pub was adjacent to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. After tipping a few I could wander out to watch boats make weigh from interior lakes to Puget Sound and see farmed salmon fight their way up a "fish ladder,” in training for the real world.

In a former life, I worked in juvenile detention at the King County Juvenile Court in Seattle. After my shift ended at 11:00 p.m., 10-20 friends and I would party together. One of our favorite watering holes was the Golliwog tavern in the Central area. We stayed until the bar closed at 2:00 a.m. Then we headed to somebody’s house to talk trash until the wee hours of the morning. One night (I wasn’t there), some bad guys robbed the bar and locked several of my friends in the walk-in refrigerator. Nobody was hurt but what a great story it made.

It’s been a long time since I visited a dive bar. So Friday night I went with a detective friend of mine to the Cozy Inn in Culver City, one of her favorite haunts. A former cop once owned the place and law enforcement types from various departments are still among the regulars.

I arrived around 6:45 p.m. and claimed an open space in the free lot adjacent to the building. As I sauntered inside, I saw dive-appropriate signs hanging on the walls. “Be good or be gone” and “There will be a $5.00 charge for whining.” Cigarette smoke pierced the still air. Apparently, the Cozy Inn is one of the last places on the planet where you can still light up inside a public building. Customers watched the Lakers game, or played pool, darts, or shuffleboard. Bartender Tommy greeted my friend with a hug as we bellied up to the bar for a drink.

The patrons appeared to be a close-knit community of locals and regulars with a laid back convivial vibe. A woman named Suzanne interrupted her pool game to walk over to the bar and introduce herself. The drinks were cheap and strong. Cash or debit cards only, thank you very much.

You can bring your own food to the Cozy Inn from a variety of local eateries within walking distance, including Cinco De Mayo, Johnnie's, and one of my personal favorites, Tito’s Tacos.

The coolest of all cool things was the hook under the bar where I could hang my purse.

We watched the Lakers win, played our favorite songs on the jukebox, and laughed each time Tommy changed into a different logo shirt and ball cap to mark events as they unfolded, i.e., an LAPD get-up when we arrived, a Lakers jersey at game’s end. When I left, I knew I’d be back. I felt like Ernest Hemingway.

Online reviewers have called the Cozy Inn “rad,” the “best dive bar ever,” “This place rocks!” and “A true gem in LA,” even though one habitué warned away those who “have no understanding of dive-bar, shuffle-board, jukebox, and shit-talking etiquette." Right on, sister!

Do you have a favorite dive bar, pub, funky neighborhood hangout we should know about?

Happy Monday!


  1. i love the idea of salmon training for the real world.

    you don't find me hanging round in bars much. probably because i grew up in that sort of enviroment. my grandad bought an inn in 1922 which is now run by my oldest brother. when we were kids there were so many drunks around and my father had to throw out all the time. that put me off places like that. and the smell of alcohol, mainly beer put me off drink right from an early age.

    i do like to go out and eat though. chinese, indian, greek, italian and the occasional kfc with the kids. and i go to my brothers restaurant which has gradually improved down the years.
    ( if ever you're in the area.


  2. Sybille, wow! I love the idea that your brother is still running the inn. You must have a million stories in your arsenal. I'm putting the place on my "bucket list."

  3. yes patty, it is a nice little place. it was built in 1672 and every generation has added new bits and pieces to it. my shop is on the premisses just on the right of the gate. unfortunately it is not on any of the pictures.


  4. Somehow a bar that's reviewed online doesn't seem like a proper dive, which I think should be anonymous and for the locals only.

    I used to hang out at a place called King George's throughout college, and for some reason it went out of business (there were always people there, so I have no idea why) so we all moved over to the Lobster Nest, which was even worse and more dive-y.

    I passed a bar recently while taking my daughter to her orchestra rehearsal. It was called The Alibi. Now you know that everyone needs a dive bar that's an alibi!

  5. Can an outdoor bar under a tiki hut be a dive bar?

    If so, the "Tiki Bar" outside Islamorada, FL qualifies. Bikers, tourists from Ohio, and probably Jim Born drinking bushwackers, shipwrecks, and roadrunners.

    Also, "Skelly's Tavern" in the boonies west of the Turnpike in Miami. Besides the atmosphere, a terrific sauteed dolphin in a potato-chip crust.

    Here in Studio City, the "Oyster Bar," an ancient watering hole where regulars get free homemade peach shnapps after dinner. (I mentioned the joint in "Illegal.")

    And just down the road in Sherman Oaks, "The Chimney Sweep," old fashioned dartboard bar squeezed between a discount dentist and a pita/gyro restaurant.

    I could go on and on. The absolute best was the late, lamented "Taurus" walking distance from my old homestead in Coconut Grove (FL). It was torn down and replaced by, first a fancy wine bar, and then a fancy restaurant. I weep.

  6. Karen, we have a dive bar in LA called The Alibi, too. What an irony that you noticed a dive bar on the way to orchestra rehersal.

  7. Paul, I had no idea you were such a dive bar expert. Maybe we should organize a national tour. In any event, I'm adding all those suggestions to my "must see" list.

  8. ^....... and i'll be the driver on your naked bus. as i don't drink you'll be safe with me.

    the duck logo was designed by a designer friend of mine for my fathers 60th birthday in 78. my nephew made it move when he made the homepage. unfortunately daniel will not step into my brothers footsteps. so the golden duck will probably cease to exist when he retires.


  9. James O. Born6/01/2009 11:20 AM

    My bar days are mostly behind me but Paul is correct, I like the Tiki bar near mile marker 80.

    I have a couple of places I like. Both Irish themed. After book signings for other writers we often go to The Blue Anchor. Jon King usually comes with me. Nothing like a 6'8" friend to shut up drunks.

    I go to the trendier Silante on occassion but it's hard to call it a dive.

    Next time I'm in LA I'm going out with Patty. I know it would be wild.


  10. Ah, I'll be sorry to see the logo go.

    James O, I promise to show you a wild wild time. Gehaw!

  11. Go-Lo.....your reference to salmon and their ladder climbing reminds me of days I have spent in Alaska.............
    The Red Dog Inn in S Naknek,'s an extremely rough and tumble bar at the crossroads of hunters, who have been out in the wilds for weeks, and fisherman, who are out in the Bering Sea, and now home for some hell raising......NOW add the fact that there are virtual NO woman in the area [in fact the ratio of men to woman in ALL of AK is quite high] you can imagine.

    My "observations":Readers Digest version--------One night, a fight breaks out.... a man hits another man with a pool cue which shatters and "ricochets" back and impales the original assailant's eye.....immediately several men join in to hold the guy down, whilst someone "carefully" removed the pool cue sticking out of the mans eye socket.....

    Paul,now there's a bar scene for you!


  12. Wait a minute, my bad.....that story actually happened at the Parrot Lounge back a few years ago around New Years.......something about "FSU rules".....or "Paterno has 'lost it' " and talk of Seminole Nation....something like that and the next thing you know.......

    Just kidding Jim and Paul...we know that for FSU or PSU alumm, somethings are fightin' words


  13. Ah, shuffleboard. The ultimate are you a real American or are you a Soviet spy passing as one test.

  14. I've been to the Red Dog, Jon. It's awesome.

    Okay, Mims. I'll admit I've never played shuffleboard. I guess that means I'm a Russian spy, eh?

  15. Oops, I've only been in the Red Dog in Juneau, which is a bit touristy, especially in the summer.

  16. yes...Red Dog in Jeaunau is ENTIRELY different.....Hey, with as much a looker as you are, Go-lo, I'm sure you'd NEVER have to pay for a drink at either Red Dog !


    salmon laddering revisted..... in Bristol Bay, where Naknek is, the Department of Fish and Game use those ladders to extrapolate "escapement" [meaning enough spawning salman make it up river] before commercial fishhing is allowed.

  17. Jon, whatEVER were you doing in AK? Sounds more mysterious and dangerous than any dive bar I can think of.

  18. from Jacqueline

    Oh dear, I seem to have lived a sheltered life. I don't think I have ever been into a dive bar, but I've been in a few pubs in my time - you know, oak beams, horse brasses, twenty-five types of real ale on tap and big bread and cheese lunches.

  19. Not to worry, Our J. I've been in a few pubs in my life and more than a few were a bit divey.

  20. As per usual, better late than never, right, Patty?

    Having spent the better part of twenty years in the college town of Ames, Iowa, the only "dive bar" that I know of that belonged solely to the locals was the Tip Tip Lounge, a little unprepossessing place with a '50's exterior decor the college kids avoid like the plague. Of course, that means everyone else loves it.

    Similar to "The Alibi", one popular bar when I was a student offered the Saturday morning phone call reply, "Mom, I was at The Library all night!" Of course, back in those days prior to e-mail, Mom couldn't see the capital letters involved.

    Not too much later on, under new ownership that bar morphed into Welch Avenue Station (named for the Post Office across the street), a Campustown hangout carefully shared between the locals and the students. Each knows full well what time and what nights the other is supposed to be there. Well, at least the locals have the awareness to carefully abide by "the rules".

    I have to say that this is one of my favorite places, especially after the smoking ban meant that the plastic plants weren't washed of nicotine every couple of months.

    Lots of memories, good people, good parties, great place for football or basketball, the first place that a certain young lady ever decided that she really needed to show me her...oh, did I type that out loud? Well, she was fun anyway.

    So if you're ever in Ames, drop into W.A.S. You'll recognize it by the really happy puppy painted on the wall. Matter of fact, I think that pup's been really happy for about twenty years now. an't say that I blame him.

  21. Welch Avenue Station is definitely on my list.