The month of April 2020 in New York City still lingers in my mind like a washed-out, black-and-white flashback. COVID-19 cases, and deaths, were creeping upward on a daily basis and the streets were eerily quiet save for the constant wailing of sirens from passing ambulances. One Sunday morning as I joined the line outside a neighborhood market, I caught up with a friend of mine who was standing the required six feet behind me. He is a chef and partner at one of New York’s best-known restaurant groups and he confided that his team wasn’t even considering bringing in a skeleton crew to begin the reopening process until late July—at the earliest. That seemed so far away on that rainy spring morning. In the weeks to come, however, the time frame on when things might return to normal shifted to “by midsummer,” but even now the mistaken optimism of “maybe by fall” already has us flipping the calendar ahead to 2021.
I spent most of 2018 visiting countless bars with photographer Ed Anderson, chasing last calls from Seattle to Oxford, Mississippi, chronicling the late-night culture of bars and bartenders for my latest book. Last Call was published in October 2019, yet it’s already taken on an unexpected layer of poignancy, acting as a time capsule of sorts, telling a story of how things used to be. This research took its physical and existential toll on me, and even with the usual low points of traveling factored in, the relative ease of being on the road—booking a flight, rental car, train, Airbnb—now seems like something I took for granted.
On my bookshelf I have a wooden bowl filled with branded matchbooks from many of the bars I’ve visited over the past two years in the process of researching, writing and touring: Screwdriver Bar (Seattle), Palizzi Social Club (Philadelphia), Bamonte’s (Brooklyn), Ticonderoga Club (Atlanta). Looking at these mementos every day, now that bars are branded as the most dangerous places out there, sends me into a tailspin of nostalgic despair. To me, and so many others, bars are essential. They’re where we go to gather with friends, to meet up on first dates that we hope turn into second dates, to watch a playoff game among strangers, to celebrate good news, to mourn those we’ve lost, to forget about bad times for an hour or two.
This is constantly on my mind, as I was supposed to once again be traveling with Ed this summer, researching my next book, Dives. While many dive bars have endured through the decades, they were already facing a sobering future on the endangered species list due to gentrification, escalating rents and an older generation of family-run owners dying off. There’s an undeniable romance to them; I want to cherish them for all their complicated charisma and do what I can to keep them in business. The memory of walking into a neighborhood dive is like slipping into that favorite sweater tucked away in the back of your closet—the one whose collar is a bit stretched out, still has that unidentifiable stain on the front, and an ever-expanding tear where your left elbow pokes through. It’s the sweater that you should have Marie Kondo-ed years ago, but once you pull it on over your head it makes you wonder why you ever stopped wearing it in the first place.
Of course, the question often arises of what exactly makes a dive bar a dive bar. For one thing, a dive bar is one that has always been there. You cannot open a dive bar. The bar has to become a dive on its own time. And while each one is unique, there are many common elements. Usually it’s a little rough around the edges and sticky in some spots, with a diverse and eclectic mix of regulars. Serious dives have early-morning operating hours that cater to the third shift. Neon beer signs, tacky lamps and off-season Christmas lights constitute the décor. Hopefully you’ll find one with a well-worn pool table or a dartboard and, if you’re lucky, a real-deal jukebox (no Spotify playlists or Pandora stations here). You’re not there for dinner but microwave pizza might be an option, but more likely there’s a metal clipper rack with bags of assorted potato chips and salted peanuts and maybe an open box of Slim Jim loosies for sale. Meat raffles, mystery shots and pull-tabs are a bonus.
I could go on, and I’d much prefer to linger on these memories and observations, but this moment demands attention. It’s important to me, and vital for the book, to visit all of these featured bars in person. As summer slips away, Ed and I realize that our backup plan of hitting the road this fall is likely not going to happen. Even if we could visit a few select spots in the coming months, it’s likely the bar isn’t going to look like it normally would. A dive bar comes to life only when people walk through the door. And what we’re going through right now—when most dives are dark and empty or, if open, tended by bartenders in face masks, customers seated at every other stool at the bar, bottles of hand sanitizer decorating the bar top—further divorces us from the well-worn comfort, and undeniable sense of community, that disappearing into a dive for an hour or two can offer. What lies ahead for these institutions is uncertain, and I don’t have any easy answers right now, beyond “Let’s wait and see.” A future in which the simplicity of being able to stop into a bar remains but a memory, however, is a reality I’m not ready for.
But if things were different, and I could lose myself to daydreams, I’d be back in the saddle with Ed, crisscrossing the country, hitting a punch card of destinations over the course of the summer, with a few people in tow joining us for the ride.
Dive bars aren’t typically known for the quality of their food (hell, they’re not really known for the quality of their drinks, either), but I long to return to the Reel M Inn in Portland, Oregon, for their deservedly famous fried chicken. It’s made to order and sells out nightly, so you state your intentions as soon as you walk in the door. I hope Jeffrey Morgenthaler would be free to join us and we’d have a round of Rainier tallboys and experiment with the trolley of mix-and-match sauces as we discuss the finer points of the seasoned, breaded and deep-fried potato wedges known as JoJo’s.
In California, we would stop by Oakland and connect with my dear friend and former book editor Emily Timberlake for a return visit to the weird and wonderful Cafe Van Kleef. The décor is funky, with an every-day-is-Halloween vibe, while the regulars are friendly, and the bar has a big bowl stacked with a tower of fresh grapefruit, the key ingredient in their signature Greyhounds. (Kindly ask the bartender to add a thick layer of coarse salt to the rim of your glass and you’ve got a Salty Dog.) In Santa Monica I’m dying to fritter away an evening at Chez Jay, the famously frozen-in-time, beachside, nautical-themed Rat Pack–era dive bar. It’s on the more-glamorous end of the dive bar spectrum, and the no-paparazzi house rules helped foster a star-studded clientele that included legends like Frank Sinatra, Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Warren Beatty as well as contemporary bold-faced names, such as Quentin Tarantino, Julia Roberts and Sean Penn. I’d invite my good friend Michael Oates Palmer, a television writer-producer—and an excellent storyteller—to join me and we’d drink Margaritas and throw spent peanut shells on the floor and stick around for dinner. Chez Jay’s popular butter steak with herbs and La Jolla potatoes, a cheesy gratin-style side dish spiked with mashed bananas inspired by Leonard Nimoy, seems in order.
And in Los Angeles, I’d want to meet up with Redbird bartender Tobin Shea at HMS Bounty in Koreatown. I’ve got a thing for nautical-themed bars and when I’m in L.A. you’ll find me at this dark, quirky hangout on the ground floor of the historic Gaylord Apartments, directly across Wilshire Boulevard from the former site of the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. It’s the perfect place to while away a couple of hours watching the Dodgers game while nursing a few Cutty and sodas and playing rounds of video keno. (Tobin won big there years ago, raking in $35,000.) We’d likely order a very serviceable $16 baseball steak to help soak up all that Scotch. I’d want to make time for a pit stop with The Varnish’s Eric Alperin, for a round or two of bourbon and gingers at the Foxfire Room, a dimly lit, wall-to-wall wood-paneled Rockford Files–era Valley Village dive on Magnolia Boulevard. The bar was immortalized in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, where, set to the soundtrack of Supertramp’s “Goodbye, Stranger,” William H. Macy’s “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith walked through the door and pursued an ill-fated crush on Brad, the hunky bartender with braces.
I could probably spend a whole week in Chicago exploring dives, but based on solid recommendations from my friends Amy Cavanaugh and Kenney Marlatt, both journalists and serious cocktail enthusiasts, we’d start at Rossi’s Liquors. This cash-only Chicago institution stands out among the posh cocktail bars and steakhouses on the strip of the River North neighborhood it occupies. It opens at 7 a.m., which is either a plus or bad news all around depending on your point of view, but I’d follow Kenney and Amy’s lead and hit it up for several rounds of Miller High Life and some “post-dinner debauchery.” Both Alex Bachman and Paul McGee encouraged me to get to Whirlaway Lounge, another cash-only affair in Logan Square. I want to have a boilermaker and pay my respects to Maria James, a beloved surrogate mother to countless regulars. And a beer and a shot would be my order at Rainbo Club, a gritty Ukrainian Village hangout featuring the legendary photobooth where, late one night, Liz Phair took the picture that became the cover of Exile in Guyville.
Back on the East Coast, I’d have to check in on my guy Brendan Finnerty, co-owner of my favorite South Baltimore corner bar, Idle Hour. They got the full profile treatment in Last Call, but I’d start there for a no-nonsense American beer and a shot of Chartreuse, their house specialty, which they sell by the caseload. I’d ask Brendan to join me at Mt. Royal Tavern. Of all the bars I visited researching Last Call, this place, called “Dirt Church” by locals, was the most, well, unsettling. I visited on the wrong side of midnight and walked into the cavernous room, whose ceiling is covered in a rendition of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, just as the guitar solo of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” blasted from the jukebox at full volume. The room had an off-kilter Lynchian vibe. The few people scattered about the bar all had an angry energy, like we’d walked in on the second half of an argument we weren’t a part of. We didn’t stay long, but I want to go back. And we’d have to stop off at the historic Venice Tavern, a compact basement bar that first opened in 1933, for a cheap pint and an order of coddies, fried croquettes of potato and crab served with a sleeve of saltine crackers and bright yellow mustard.
Back on the home front, I would pack up a rental car and, with a Boz Scaggs–heavy yacht rock playlist to guide me, head out on Route 27 to Montauk, on the easternmost part of New York, for a visit to the Liar’s Saloon, a beloved fishermen’s bar that only closes during the day on Christmas. I’d try to time it to witness the Blessing of the Fleet and then settle in for a rowdy night of karaoke (my go-to number: “Midnight Train to Georgia”) and a few too many of their house specialty frozen Mudslides. The next morning before heading back, I’d drop a postcard in the mail to someone special, “Wish You Were Here” scrawled across the back in my boxy, barely legible script.
But all of this is just a fantasy for the foreseeable future. The reality is I’ve only left Brooklyn once since January and that was to see my dentist in Manhattan. The future of bars and bar culture remains unpredictable, but the outlook is dire. Even as some of our favorite bars are trying to stay alive with to-go “walk-tails” or making the most of outdoor spaces for an al fresco experience, they’re hurting and the list of beloved businesses joining the In Memoriam montage shows no sign of stopping. But there are signs of hope.
Recently I stepped outside my apartment one evening, on my way to meet PUNCH contributing editor Robert Simonson and his wife, Mary Kate, for a safely-distanced drink in the neighborhood. I glanced up the block on Atlantic Avenue, and did a double-take when I noticed that the pink-and-green vintage neon sign at Long Island Bar, which had been shuttered and dark since Friday, March 13, was illuminated once again. I immediately texted co-owner Toby Cecchini (“Is this a mirage?”) who responded: “We’re OPEN! As of two hours ago; get down here. You just missed Simonson.” I might be exaggerating when I admit this felt like a true sign that the world was slowly on its way to correcting itself, but that sight alone was enough to wish it were true.