Among Atlanta tastemakers, the cocktail is now king. From Peachtree Road to Edgewood Avenue, the city's trendiest bars and restaurants are concocting creative libations using obscure ingredients and flashy mixology skills, and serving them up in ever-hipper, of-the-moment environments.
To be certain, it's a rich and heady time to be a cocktail connoisseur.
But what about nontastemakers? The regular Joe, the average barfly, the working stiff who just wants a cold one after a rough third shift? Fact is, in many of Atlanta's watering holes — the ones tucked away in unobtrusive buildings on side streets or in aging strip shopping centers — the typical drink comes in a can, a long-neck or a plastic cup. And for the regular patrons, they're every bit as satisfying as anything made with imported bitters or herbal infusions, and a hell of a lot easier on the wallet.
Of course, you could drink cheap beer on your couch. But that's where the neighborhood dive bar comes in. These havens provide a home away from home, a sanctuary from domestic concerns and temporary, if inebriated, companionship in familiar surroundings. And, if you're not too picky, they can also rustle you up a burger or a basket of wings.
Because of Georgia's famously backward liquor laws and our city's propensity to tear down anything that's been around more than a generation, Atlanta largely lacks the kind of corner bar that can be found so readily in the blue-collar neighborhoods of Chicago and New York.
Still, dive bars are out there if you look hard enough. To be clear, we're not talking about places like Northside Tavern or the erstwhile Lenny's or even the Clermont Lounge, which were long ago embraced by hipsters and musicians despite — or, more properly, because of — their grunginess. To meet our definition of a dive, it's not enough for a joint to be a shithole. It has to be an irony-free shithole.
Nor can we lend our approval to Five Paces Inn, the Buckhead Pool Hall or other places crowded with frat boys all weekend. Ideally, when you first walk into a dive, you should feel a bit uncomfortable, maybe even a little concerned for your safety, as the regulars turn to see who just stepped onto their turf. Asking for a fancy drink should earn you a funny look. The wrong word could get you cut.
A dive bar should feel lived-in, with rounded corners and well-worn floors. It should indulge no pretensions, follow no trends. It doesn't need to be old, but it helps. Any decent dive should have a timeless quality, as if the outside world has left it untouched. You can't manufacture the kind of unpracticed carelessness that goes into achieving dive-dom. It has to occur organically. A proper dive is a place where a guy can expect to drink at the same barstool for 20 years without worrying that the room will get remodeled or a new chef will overhaul the menu.
Above all, a dive bar should serve cheap, cold beer and have enough spirits on hand to lend some variety.
Let us then salute the holdouts that, in all their casual squalor, serve to enrich and diversify metro Atlanta's drinking scene. Viva la dive bar!
The Beer Barrel
1294 Roswell Road, Marietta. 770-321-1543.
This almost comically tiny bar has been serving drinks since 1957, up until four years ago, also operating as package store, a holdover from when that sort of thing was still legal. At the time the bar's former owners retired, the place was believed to be the last remaining hybrid bar-package store left in metro Atlanta.
When current owner Terri Alvey took over, she renamed the joint, closed up its drive-thru window(!) and started slinging brews to the bar's many longtime regulars, some of whom show a near-worrisome devotion to the establishment.
"We open at 9 a.m. and most days folks are already waiting in the parking lot," Alvey states proudly.
Really? That doesn't quite seem healthy.
"Well, they're mostly retired veterans," she adds, as if that fact makes the thought of a morning beer buzz more palatable.
But there's an American Legion hall up the street. Why don't they just go there?
"The legion hall doesn't open till 11," Alvey says.
There's a limited selection of spirits and a handful of draughts, but the regulars bellied up to the bar seem partial to bottled beers, anyway, which Alvey pulls from galvanized steel tubs filled with ice. But most of her time is spent selling and redeeming Keno cards. With two TVs tuned to the Georgia Lottery and patrons busy scribbling on cards all day, Alvey says she's been told the Beer Barrel does more Keno business than any other bar in the state — a frankly insane statistic considering the place's size. It's difficult to imagine a functioning bar smaller than the Beer Barrel. The rectangular wooden bar seats about 15 and there are another half-dozen stools along a side wall, but any fire marshal worth his saltpeter would likely cap occupancy at 35. Apart from beer-themed bar lamps, the only décor of note consists of hundreds of signed dollar bills stapled to the ceiling. The only food to be had on a recent visit was a Crock-Pot full of complimentary, self-serve hot dogs.
1187 Ira St. at University Avenue. 404-752-7912.
Who says every Atlanta bar has to have air conditioning? Or that every place touting itself as a disco needs an actual dance floor? At Speakeasy, they dispense with the frills and pass the savings on to you!
This hole-in-the-wall in the struggling Pittsburgh community has been going strong — well, surviving, anyway — for around 40 years. The noticeably sloping floors are bare concrete, the seating options consist of small booths and a few second-hand stools, and the painted cinder block walls are largely free of any visual distractions. Near the front door, several square mirror panels have dropped off the wall and no one appears spurred to find replacements.
Speakeasy has added a few upgrades backing the last few years. For one, they now serve real liquor with your choice of mixer in plastic cups — a marked improvement over a selection once limited to 40-ounce bottles in an Igloo cooler behind the bar. A hand-written sign claims that the special of the day in the back kitchen is a pork chop, for those willing to call their bluff.
In recent weeks, the bar has even installed a small bandstand that, on weekends, accommodates a cover band. At other times, there's a DJ or music from the digital jukebox, which is stocked with soul classics by Aretha, Percy, Otis and the Godfather of Soul. Perhaps the most remarkable update is the addition of a projection TV screen for showing sporting events.
And yet, Speakeasy somehow effortlessly maintains the atmosphere of an underground bunker, its windowless walls and curtained doors shutting out most traces of the harsh Southern sun even at noon, when the bar opens for business. Inside, under the glow of artificial light, with a Jack and Coke in your hand and Marvin Gaye competing with the hum of three large fans, you could easily imagine that time has stood still.
And therein lies the allure.
Murph's Lounge & Deep South BBQ
1679 Joyner Ave., Marietta. 770-422-4465.
Located just off South Cobb Drive in south Marietta's bedraggled Fair Oaks community, Murph's opened in the '70s, around the time National Geographic dismissed the area as "the redneck capital of the world."
Occupying a rustic, wood-sided building with no visible marquee, this thirtysomething-year-old tavern can appear a little foreboding on initial approach. Its only welcoming feature is a hand-written sign tacked to the outside wall reading "Biker Friendly."
Inside, the place has the homey jumble of the living room of someone who wasn't expecting guests. On one visit, there was a dirt bike parked on the small dance floor. The stage — barely large enough for a three-piece band or one-and-a-half Italian tenors — and a nearby waitress station appear to be used mainly for storage. In a back corner, behind the pool tables and next to a pinball machine, sits an electric stove that apparently never quite made it out the door to the salvage yard.
The area behind the bar is a joyful riot of bottles, bumper stickers, license plates, girlie calendars and mirrors. Aside from its threadbare carpet, Murph's is relatively presentable for a biker bar, with clean table tops and no discernible mustiness.
According to the barmaid, the hog-riding segment of the clientele has greatly decreased over the past decade. These days, Murph's owner Glen Hickman is trying to attract new customers by bringing in a big smoker and hosting monthly Boston Butt cookouts on the cement patio behind the bar. The rest of the time, the kitchen offers the standard bar food, as well as barbecue sandwiches and even steaks.
Although his bar doesn't feature much live music any more, Hickman, who sports a black leather biker's vest while at work, remains proud of the fact that Marietta native Travis Tritt was signed to his first record deal at Murph's back in the late '80s.
Morris Restaurant & Lounge
2254 Oakview Road. 404-378-9262.
How this dive has managed to survive on a side street in Kirkwood for more than 40 years isn't just a mystery, but a genuine miracle.
Drive by before dark and you'd swear this place closed down years ago. With its brick exterior and stately white columns, Morris looks more like a church or funeral parlor than a bar. But come 10 p.m., the chain comes off the doors, the music begins playing and Morris opens for business. Not that this is a crunk party joint; the owners restrict entry to the over-25 crowd in order to keep out the troublemakers.
Despite its fast-gentrifying surroundings, Morris still attracts a working-class black clientele, folks looking to have a good time, sip a few drinks and listen to the occasional live band.
While Morris isn't filthy, frightening or cramped, it is charmingly outdated, with booth seating that looks like it was salvaged from a diner and a carpet that's seen better days.
The menu is limited to the usual wings, fries and such, and the fanciest drink available is a Crown Royal and Sprite. There's often a large jar of picked eggs on hand for those hard-to-satisfy appetites.
If you drop in on a busy night, you best come ready to dance — the regulars aren't shy about pulling strangers onto the floor to get down to some Al Green.
If friendliness is any key to longevity, Morris will continue to be around for years to come.
As I get out of my car in the parking lot of the Foxy Lady, an unsteady gentleman steps out from behind the low-slung pink building. "I'll keep an eye on your car for ya!" he yells as I hurry for the entrance.
Of all the countless times I've driven past this landmark of decadence, this is one of the few occasions I can remember not seeing a police cruiser or ambulance out front. After a reassuring pat-down by the security guard, I step inside to confirm it's a slow day at the Foxy Lady. Several strippers are clustered together in a corner so dark I can't tell if there's a customer with them. On the other end of the room, a patron is enjoying (I assume) a floor-level table dance. There's no one on the 10-foot-long stage in the center of this small, single-room strip club.
On one wall are dozens of framed photos of half-naked girls, presumably past and present dancers, with stage names such as Cinnamon and Onyx. A card table displays ball caps for sale in front of the DJ booth. Not Foxy Lady-branded caps, mind you. Just regular, blank ones. Still, every revenue stream helps, right?
How long has the Foxy Lady been around? The house DJ, a friendly older man, says at least 27 years because that's how long he's worked there. While I digest this imponderable fact, he steps back into the booth to put on a booty-shaking song lyrically explicit enough to make Rick James blush.
The Foxy Lady isn't without aspirations. For instance, it divides the week into theme nights, kicking off with a Madden NFL PlayStation tournament on Mondays that allows patrons to win free drinks and table dances. And there's a purported VIP area, screened off from the rest of the room by a dark curtain.
And yet, the Foxy Lady still isn't dive-y enough for some. On one local message board, for instance, someone has lodged the complaint: "I think the two-drink minimum policy is bullshit!" Well, you can't please everyone.
As I edge my way toward the door, a tall woman wearing a bikini and several gold caps approaches to ask if I need help. "I'm just looking around," I say.
"Well, how 'bout looking around my body!" she counters.
Headed back to my car, I hear the unsteady lurker call after me: "Hey, no love for the parking lot attendant?"
726 Pryor St. 404-581-1994.
Located across the highway from Turner Field on the edge of Mechanicsville, Pryor Tavern is well-fortified, with a heavy security door and its large picture windows covered by burglar bars. No word on whether it offers seating in the panic room.
If ambiance is your thing, keep driving. Pryor Tavern is basically a short-order grill that somehow got its hands on a liquor license. The single room contains maybe eight booths, a jukebox and the counter. The menu includes such standards as fried whiting, wings and pig's ear on toast. Nom, indeed.
The bar, if it can be called such, consists of canned beer and a handful of economy-sized liquor bottles grouped on the counter. Asked what kind of drinks they offer, the cook pauses a second, then says, "We can give you a shot."
The tavern lets its hair down Thursday nights, when it hosts karaoke. But don't look for a stage. Aspiring American Idols can either sing from their seats or stand in the middle of the floor.
On one visit, a Corvette, a shiny new Hummer and a Ferrari F430 with a glass hood over its rear-mounted engine sit in the asphalt parking lot. Yet there's no one inside who looks like a professional athlete or a hedge fund manager. Perhaps there's more to this tavern than meets the eye.
730 Concord Road, Smyrna. 770-434-2432.
You gotta love the positive attitude of any bar that still has a condom machine in the men's room.
First opened in the late '60s, Timbers claims to be the oldest bar in Smyrna. Its exterior is all old-school retro, with natural wood siding and jigsaw-cut lettering across the front — next to the window-unit A/C.
Several years ago, a then-new owner planned all sorts of renovations and improvements but, thankfully, none of those changes seem to have taken place. The interior still consists of a horseshoe-shaped bar, several tables and a low stage, though there's now the seemingly obligatory bank of video gaming machines against one wall.
The new management is trying to liven things up by hosting karaoke, Texas Hold-'em tournaments and a Tuesday "bike night," as well as bringing in live metal bands on the weekends. But let's face it: The real reason people come to a dive like Timbers instead of a more upscale joint is to drink a cheap beer in a laid-back atmosphere where they can relax, smoke a few cigarettes and strike up a conversation about local high school football or reality TV shows. Some things don't change.
Next: Other dive-y must-do's
The barbecue smoker shaped like a giant Colt revolver out front may scare some folks away, but on the inside, this 36-year-old watering hole is invitingly rustic, with wooden booths built into the walls. The bar itself is round, occupying the center of the hexagonal building. Aside from its age and unself-conscious down-hominess, the Rusty Nail is probably too clean to qualify as a genuine dive bar. But the vibe is right.
This 40-year-old pub is a little frayed at the edges — worn vinyl barstools, missing linoleum tiles — but it keeps plugging on. For several years now, it's held its own "Shooting Star" singing contest with weekly eliminations, as well as pool tournaments and karaoke four nights a week, emceed for the past decade or so by the same hostess. Explains a waitress: "People who come here tend to stay."
Occupying a sprawling old bungalow on the edge of Marietta's historic district, Nik's is really several places in one. It's a dive bar, of course, with plywood floors and a gnarly fiberglass drop ceiling. There's even a blow-up doll tastefully displayed atop the beer cabinet. But it's also a restaurant serving a full menu of gyros, moussaka and other Greek specialties. Finally, it's a high schooler's dream of what a frat house should be, with ratty thrift-store couches, pool tables and video games.
3766 Lawrenceville Highway, Tucker. 770-864-1985.
Graffiti covers every inch of the walls and ceiling. Cigarettes litter the floor. The video games don't work. Natty Light costs $1.75 a can. This former 1940s farmhouse has had six different names in the last few years, including the Shack, the Other Bar, the Outhouse, the Sea Shanty and, aptly, the Shack is Back. But don't worry: It's still a dive, only now catering largely to gays, bikers and gay bikers. The owners also say they've purged the drug dealers and ne'er-do-wells who helped the saloon achieve near-legendary status as a place to look for trouble. Consider that a challenge.
243 McDonough Boulevard. (Phone unlisted and perhaps non-existent)
I admit to long being fascinated by Club Smokeys, with its windowless, cinder block exterior painted hunter green and adorned with lively if amateurish representations of burgers, chicken baskets and pool tables. Is it a bar and grill, as the hand-lettering promises? Is it really open 24 hours? When I tried to stop in on a recent afternoon, some guys hanging out in the parking lot assured me the place was closed, even though the parking lot was full of hoopties. Here's what I do know: Smokeys was busted a few years ago for hosting illegal gambling and serving liquor without a license, yet somehow still attracts a busy daytime trade. Earlier this year, its kitchen failed a county health inspection.
Could Club Smokeys be the most hardcore dive bar in Atlanta? Tell you what: You check it out and get back to me.
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