Dive In 

The beauty of Atlanta’s shabby bars

Atlanta lost a true remnant of its past when the famed Austin Avenue Buffet, home of the 7 a.m. grits-and-PBR breakfast for the folks coming off third shift, shut its doors on the edge of Inman Park a few seasons back.

Where have all the dive bars gone? And we're not talking about Northside Tavern, Lenny's, Trackside, Buckhead Amusement or even the deathless Clermont Lounge. While suitably grungy, these places became domesticated years ago. Walk into the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club on any given night and, yes, you'll see bikers, but you'll also see twentysomethings with Bettie Page tattoos, frat boys, maybe even a dress shirt -- sans tie, of course.

Truth is, if you can enter a bar wearing an alligator shirt and not worry about provoking a fight, it's not a real dive anymore.

Part of the problem is that Atlanta, as part of the Bible Belt and with its Blue Laws and zoning restrictions, has never had a history of neighborhood bars or corner taverns. And many that did manage to take root have either become yuppie-friendly or are fast disappearing. Just in the last few years, we've lost Moreland Tavern, the Crazy Horse on Memorial Drive, and the time-capsule charm of the '60s-era cocktail lounge in Pilgreen's Restaurant, the self-proclaimed "T-Bone King" and Atlanta's oldest steakhouse, in the West End.

Today, the city's most familiar dives are either self-aware newcomers, such as the Highlander, or hipsterfied relics, like the aforementioned Clermont. Even the so-called "Pirate Bar," the hipster hangout du jour at Moreland Avenue and I-285, is set to reopen under new ownership.

So join us on a tour of the old frontier of Atlanta's undiscovered treasures -- the dive bars.

 

Rocco’s Pub

Fear factor
Not really applicable, providing you're neither claustrophobic nor chili-phobic.

Dear John

Lovingly tended.

Babe alert
It's a sports bar, so if you see a pretty lady, chances are she came with someone else.

Tucked into the corner of an aging Marietta shopping center, this 23-year-old sports bar may be the closest thing to a Cheers-style establishment in metro Atlanta. On any given afternoon, you can find many of the regulars -- all of whom have Rocco's nicknames -- seated at the bar nursing a brew and watching a game.

 

"I've been coming here so long my kids grew up and now they drink here, too," says Earl, aka "King" because he outranks his fellow patrons, having been a fixture here since the bar's second week. Earl also was a longtime member of Rocco's competitive chili-cooking team, which brought home several regional and national trophies in the bar's early years.

Rocco's doesn't appear to have suffered the years of obvious neglect and indifferent housekeeping that distinguish the true dive bar, but it's small and cozy, with a homey, lived-in quality. Best of all, owner Dan Cirrocco hasn't made any of the pesky "improvements" that can strip an old joint like this of its character.

A bear's head overlooks the front room, a boar in a Rocco's cap watches over the bar and a barracuda hangs above the door to the back room. Pennants, plaques, newspaper clippings, TVs and sports memorabilia line the walls from floor to ceiling. Near the boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali is a bat signed by Mickey Mantle, who would drink at Rocco's when he came to town. Behind the bar is a shelf of baseball reference books.

"They're for settling disagreements," says veteran waitress "Sam."

Actually, Rocco's has made one recent change, adding breakfast to an already extensive menu that includes sandwiches, salmon, a 10-ounce sirloin and, of course, the pub's famous chili.

"We've got some people who eat two meals a day here every day," says Sam, who seems a little disbelieving herself.

Rocco's Pub, 1355 Roswell Road, Marietta. 770-971-8806.

 

FJ's Tavern

Fear factor
It depends. Are you black, Asian-American, visibly gay? Then you might want to seek refreshment elsewhere. Although FJ's is located on a strip notorious for prostitution and violent crime, the bar's last triple murder was at least two-and-a-half years ago, so drink up!

Dear John
You're better off holding it. Between the cigarette burns on the Formica and the odes to someone named Heather covering the walls, this makes for one nasty pee.

Babe alert
Aside from the redneck eye-candy barmaids dressed in tight shirts and black leather, the pickings are somewhat lean.

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