The dive bar’s obituary probably has been written a thousand times, sometimes with an eloquence that would baffle the average coot who shuffles into these black holes, looking for a shot and a beer before the clock strikes noon.
And yet, the ratio of dive-bar listicles to dive-bar obits must be about 10 to 1. Either the dive bar’s demise has been greatly exaggerated or the definition of such watering holes has become so loose and unmanageable that it encompasses just about any place that doesn’t serve a $20 Manhattan.
Over the months, as we’ve perched on countless stools to contemplate the State of the Dive, a few truisms have emerged, each as irrepressible as a barroom pundit: Gentrification has forced many dives to enroll in beauty school, where they have adopted a refined air that appeals to those who drive late-model Beamers and drink small-batch bourbon.
A dive’s soundtrack may always feature the songs of the disaffected, but the music now leans toward punk, not classic rock or country, as aging Gen-Xers grapple with their own disillusionments with a bottle of Bud in hand. And no dive bar, no matter how grotty, can survive anymore without at least one craft beer on the list.
So, can we characterize the American dive bar in a way that everyone agrees on the definition? In short, we can’t. Even the owners of some of the country’s most beloved dives don’t consider themselves divey. A dive, it becomes clear, is in the eye of the besotted.
Still, we needed a loose working definition as we cruised from bar to bar, searching for the most authentic dives in America. After arguing over their qualities, we agreed that true dives possess a handful of basic attributes:
●They must have history. There is no such thing as an instant dive bar.
●They must have regulars. These loyal barflies will inevitably cast a suspicious eye toward strangers.
●They cannot be expensive. If you pay $9 for a draft, you’re not in a dive.
●They cannot have craft cocktails. If the bartender makes his own bitters, you’re not in a dive.
Practically everything else is gravy. A dive bar, for instance, does not have to harbor rats, hobos or cobwebs. Nor does it have to host fistfights in the alley. These darker qualities are more stereotype than reality. Perhaps you disagree with our operating narrative? No doubt you’ll dislike some of our choices, too, and blast us for the dives we overlooked.
But this is our point: A dive bar is personal. You’re loyal to it for its plain-spoken pleasures and its working-class spirit. A dive bar is where friends gather, drink and argue loudly – and still walk away as kindred spirits.
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Little Longhorn Saloon
5434 Burnet Rd., Austin. 512-524-1291. thelittlelonghornsaloon.com
Beer and ticket in hand, the faithful gathered around the chicken coop at Little Longhorn Saloon to cheer on the contestants, a pair of colorfully plumed hens by the names of Loretta Lynn and Little Ginny. The birds were pecking away at the seeds scattered inside their pen, oblivious to the exhortations of the patrons all around them.
“C’mon, baby girl!” yelled one dude, urging the birds to strut over to square No. 38 on the bingo board, which serves as the floor of the coop.
“Drop the deuce! Drop the deuce!” shouted another as a band cranked out boot-scootin’ honky-tonk music in the background.
Rarely had so much been riding on a fowl moment. Every Sunday at Little Longhorn, patrons lay down their own deuce – $2, that is – to purchase a ticket for what the bar dubs, without a drop of euphemism, chicken s—- bingo. Winners take home $114 each, which isn’t exactly chicken scratch.
This game of bird-drop bingo was first conceived by Dale Watson, the silver-pompadoured Texan better known for producing fine country music. In 2013, Watson and his sister, Terry Gaona, along with her husband, David, bought the former Ginny’s Little Longhorn from Ginny Kalmbach and gave the place a much-needed facelift. The new owners built a stage for their full schedule of bands. They added beer taps. They even installed a window in the once sunlight-deprived honky tonk.
In 2015, Watson sold his share of the saloon to the Gaonas, preferring to spend his time on the road, not inside a dive bar. But Watson left behind his legacy of chicken s—- bingo. (Though he later launched a similar poop-based contest at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, causing a minor controversy in Austin.) “Dale brought up the idea,” Terry Gaona said. “Ginny said, ‘Oh, it’s never going to last,’ and here it is, 23 years later and still kicking.”
Ronna Geisler, a first-time visitor to the saloon, was thrilled at her luck one Sunday. She was there to salute a friend moving to Ireland but became the toast of the Little Longhorn herself when Loretta Lynn dropped a load right on the line, between two numbers. A pair of patrons argued that the bird poop covered more of square No. 21 than No. 51. They had a point. They both also had ticket No. 21. But what they didn’t know is that Terry Gaona sells bingo tickets to cover such controversial dumps: Geisler had one of the winning “line” tickets in her possession.
“I might have to spend [the money] on myself,” the surprise winner said.
Year founded: The stand-alone building that houses Little Longhorn Saloon dates back about 100-plus years, says co-owner Terry Gaona. Before becoming a bar circa 1940, the building was a farmhouse, a gas station and, briefly, a restaurant.
Interior: Family roadhouse. Portraits of Ginny Kalmbach and Dale Watson hang behind the bar, reminders of the people who have left their mark on the saloon. Likewise, framed photos of musicians cover the wall behind the bandstand. The chicken coop is located in the back, under a Lone Star Beer light that would typically hang over a pool table.
Music: A busted Wurlitzer jukebox sits by the door, right across from the stage where bands assemble six nights a week.
Signature drink: Wine-a-rita, a line of wine-based cocktails, such as a combination of wine, margarita mix and “a couple of other things in it to give it that extra yumminess,” says Gaona. The drinks launched in November.
Draft beers: Six taps, including ones dedicated to such Texas classics as Lone Star and Shiner; the bar also offers 50 to 60 other brands, including craft beers.
Worst day: Gaona doesn’t like to focus on the negative, but she does choke up if you ask if any chickens have died under her nurturing gaze. “I’ve had two chickens die. Those are sad days,” she says. “But we know they go to chicken heaven.”
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2644 Harrison St., Detroit. 313-962-4247. www.nancywhiskeydetroit.com
Nancy Whiskey’s history is a microcosm of Detroit in the 20th century. The Irish bar, a converted general store tucked away on a side street of the historic Corktown neighborhood, got its liquor license in 1902. It survived Prohibition, allegedly as a speakeasy. When the city’s economy roared, it became a hangout for Teamsters, including former union president Jimmy Hoffa, who used a phone booth near the front door to conduct private business. Members of the Detroit Tigers baseball team used to come in after games to drink until the wee hours, since the bar was only a 10-minute walk from Tiger Stadium.
When Detroit began its well-documented decline, Nancy’s did, too.
“When I first started here, around 1992, this was a really bad neighborhood,” says bartender Sheryl Grogan, who grew up in the neighborhood with her brother, Gerald Stevens, the bar’s current owner. Things got worse in 2000, when the Tigers moved to a new stadium across the city and a neighborhood full of large, vacant parking lots began to languish. “But this is a big city cop-and-fireman bar, so this bar would be full all the time, with the shift changes,” Grogan says. “Through the rough times, I think that’s what kept the bar.”
Boarded-up windows and caved-in roofs appeared on houses on surrounding streets. A devotion to R&B, blues and Motown, with jam sessions and live bands on Fridays and Saturdays, continued to bring crowds to the bar, propping up the slow nights. And during the past few years, as Detroit has begun to rise, Grogan says, she has begun to see a change.
“All the young people are moving back, buying up all the houses, redoing them,” she says. “Our night business has changed. It’s young professionals, hipsters – just a big difference. We sell more craft beer now.”
Drop in to Nancy Whiskey on a Tuesday and business is brisk, with regulars greeting friends as they walk in the door and groups meeting at the bar to watch baseball. Visit on a Saturday, and the whole place is sipping whiskey and grooving as one to a Temptations cover. Whether you’re a 20-something newcomer or a 65-year-old with memories of Briggs Stadium, “everybody loves cheap beer,” as Grogan rightly points out.
Year founded: Nancy Whiskey’s liquor license is from 1902, and the bar boasts that it’s the oldest continually operating liquor license in Detroit. The building is actually a few years older, having opened as a general store in 1898 before turning into a saloon.
Interior: Standard unpretentious Irish bar, with walls covered with signs advertising beer and whiskey – including an award for selling the most Tullamore Dew in America – and old photos. Look for the shot of former owner Nancy McNiven-Glenn posing with a Tommy gun during the filming of “Hoffa.”
Music: An Internet jukebox plays a lot of Irish music and classic rock, but R&B, blues and Motown bands take over on weekends.
Signature drink: Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey. First-time visitors to the bar are given a free shot as a welcome gift.
Draft beers: Guinness. (Well, it is an Irish bar.)
Worst day: An electrical fire in October 2009 destroyed much of the first floor, and kept the bar closed for almost a year. Restoration became a community effort: A regular who teaches wood-shop class at a high school built the bar counter; the daughter of another regular painted the pressed tin ceiling.
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Lone Star Saloon
1900 Travis St., Houston. 713-757-1616. No website
Squatting on the corner of Travis Street and St. Joseph Parkway, the Lone Star Saloon, you could argue, is a barnacle on the gleaming ocean liner of downtown Houston. The bar is a small brick structure, the color of Texas ruby red grapefruit. A pair of wooden signs, each cut in the shape of Texas, are affixed to the facade. The signs look like they were made in shop class, circa 1980.
The Lone Star is a rare fossil from mid-20th century Houston, a town not exactly known for preserving its history. The bar’s drab rusticity is easily overshadowed, not only by the modern Metro transit center across the street but also by the tall field of striking, sun-dappled skyscrapers on the north side of downtown. How the Lone Star has avoided the wrecking ball all these years is a mystery – until you meet the owner, Joe Lee Thomas, a man with three first names.
If you had to develop a prototype of the classic Texas male, he’d look a lot like Thomas. He’s lean. He speaks with a drawl. He’s indefatigable. He sports a gray beard that reaches to the middle of his chest, ZZ Top-style. He’s also 83 years old and not above installing a new door on his old saloon.
Trained as a barber – he still works three days a week at Joe Lee’s Barber Shop around the corner – Thomas got into the bar business in the late 1960s with a place (eventually) called the Roll-N, now history itself. Thomas bought his second bar, the former Duffy’s, in 1979 and started his slow campaign to transform it into the Lone Star Saloon, a Texas-themed dive complete with longhorn skulls on the wall and Lone Star beer on tap.
Over the years, Thomas has made some concessions to gentrification and the modern drinker. He has added craft beers. A bartender has, sort of, created a list of “specialty cocktails,” several of which are merely classic drinks slapped with an Old West name, such as the Cattle Drive (a whiskey sour) and the Chisholm Trail (a margarita). But Thomas is not yet ready to let developers bulldoze his place in the name of progress.
“You got to stay busy. You got to keep that mind active,” he says.
Does that include drinking at your own bar?
“I drink every day,” says the octogenarian. “I’ll drink maybe one shot, maybe two. But that’s it. I don’t get drunk. No hangovers.”
Year founded: The bar opened in 1945 under the name Duffy’s. It was re-christened the Lone Star Saloon in 1979 when the business changed hands.
Interior: Texas dive, heavy on beer signs and steer skulls. An electric barber pole glows on one wall, a reminder of Thomas’s other business.
Music: Internet jukebox. The weekly karaoke nights are now toast, partly due to lack of interest. (Not to mention terrible singers.) They’ve been replaced with a Saturday night jam session.
Signature drink: None, unless you consider Lone Star on tap a signature drink.
Draft beers: Five taps, including two craft beers. The joint offers 24 beers in bottles and cans.
Worst day: Two of them, actually, both tied to drivers who rammed their vehicles into the saloon, knocking serious holes into the building. The first was an attempted robbery. The second was a reaction – an overreaction – to a slight. “He was upset with the bartender. The bartender had cut him off,” Joe Lee Thomas says. “He was on drugs.”
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Double Down Saloon
4640 Paradise Rd., Las Vegas. 702-791-5775. doubledownsaloon.com.
James Messina is perched on a stool at the Double Down Saloon, the dive bar equivalent of an open wound, a place that has been poked and probed so often it remains raw and angry. It’s late afternoon, but Messina has not rolled into the Double Down to lose himself in the permanent midnight of the bar. He’s not knocking back a mini-commode filled with Ass Juice, the sweet house drink of unknown ingredients. Messina doesn’t even drink anymore, a casualty of his misspent youth.
A bassist in a local punk band, the Gashers, Messina is not checking out the competition, either, which won’t even assemble on stage for another seven hours, maybe later. He’s come here to be among his kind, the Vegas-area punks who consider the Double Down their second home.
“I’m just a local. I know half the people sitting here,” Messina says. “I got to get out of the house every once in a while, just talk to some friends.”
Owner and renaissance man P Moss (author/musician/bar proprietor/tiki mixologist) didn’t set out to cater to Sin City’s underground punk community. He backed into the scene in 1993 when Man or Astro-Man? – a sci-fi surf-punk band from Alabama – needed a venue and the Double Down reluctantly stepped in. Since then, the bar has embraced its uniquely Vegas mission to mix video gambling, punk rock, cheap drinks and a DIY-bumper-sticker aesthetic in an round-the-clock operation that attracts both hardcore punkers and tourists with soft underbellies. The Double Down even serves as a black-ops party zone for celebrities, including Prince Harry or comedian Dave Attell, who either want to hide from curiosity seekers or promote the bar’s noisy, sticky appeal.
But even a punk bar has its limits. The Double Down used to have a mechanical pony, the kind of slow-galloping kiddie ride once found outside department stores. Female patrons would pop in a quarter and saddle up, stripping off their shirts and bras in the process. The bar once hosted an all-female mechanical pony rodeo. Sin City officials eventually frowned upon the unlicensed nudity.
“We took the pony to New York,” Moss says about his second Double Down location in Manhattan’s East Village. “Nobody understood it in New York… .We had the garbage men trying to ride it.”
Year founded: Started by P Moss, then a “struggling writer’” who decided to enter the bar business, in December 1992.
Interior: Sticker shock. Practically every square inch of the place – the once-white walls, toilets, sinks, stage, everything – is covered in stickers and/or graffiti, save for a wall by the bandstand where a sign reads in large block letters: “SHUT UP and DRINK.” It’s perpetually dark in the place, no matter the time of day.
Music: CD jukebox and live bands, heavy on punk. The Double Down rarely, if ever, charges a cover.
Signature drink: Ass Juice. The fruity cocktail has no set recipe. (Though, it does have a U.S. trademark.) For a price, the drink can be served in a miniature souvenir toilet. “We use white liquors,” Moss says about the base spirit. “The main urban myth is that we would take what’s in the spill mat [at the bar] and pour it in a glass and sell that. But that’s obviously not true.”
Draft beers: Nothing on draft, but more than 20 bottles and cans, including six rotating craft beers.
Worst day: In 1995, before the Double Down hired professional bouncers, Moss asked a patron not to bring package beer into his bar. The owner ended up in a hospital. He says he nearly died. “I’ve given blood and a lot things to this place,” Moss says. “It would have been very easy to say, ‘F—-, I’m never coming back,’ but I did.”
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The Frolic Room
6245 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 323-462-5890. No website.
The first time owner Robert Nunley restored the Al Hirschfeld mural inside the Frolic Room, he was perhaps overly optimistic about how patrons would treat the touched-up caricatures of Chaplin, Groucho, Marilyn and others from Hollywood’s heyday. Nunley opted not to cover the restored mural with glass.
The customers at his legendary watering hole on Hollywood Boulevard did what dive-bar dwellers have always done: They defaced those famous faces. “It was real bad,” Nunley remembers. “The language wasn’t very nice.” So the second time he decided to refurbish the late Hirschfeld’s mural, the owner ordered a pane of glass to protect the reproduction of the artwork that has graced the Frolic Room for a half-century.
In 21st-century Hollywood, a gentrified landscape with million-dollar condos, millennials have little connection to the old matinee idols and starlets, let alone the many ups and downs of this historic community. In this void, the mural helps the Frolic Room trace a line back to the Golden Era of Hollywood, when movie studios ruled the town, not developers. Established in 1934, the Frolic Room has survived all of Hollywood’s peaks and valleys, often reflecting the prevailing culture at each point along the way.
The Frolic Room began as an elegant bar with soaring, 40-foot ceilings. It was a private watering hole for celebrities during the Academy Awards, which the neighboring RKO Pantages Theatre, as it was called when Howard Hughes owned the venue, hosted from 1949 to 1959. It eventually added a drop ceiling and devolved into a biker bar during the 1980s and early 1990s, when drugs and prostitution took hold of Hollywood.
Now, it’s an elder statesman of the neighborhood, an institution not about to cater to the craft-cocktail movement.
The place doesn’t even have a drink menu, and never will under Nunley’s ownership.
“If you changed the Frolic Room, I think it would ruin the business,” the owner says. “It works this way.”
Year founded: Officially licensed in 1934 as part of the Pantages Theatre, but the bar was reportedly a speakeasy for several years during Prohibition.
Interior: Narrow, dark and nostalgic. The Hirschfeld mural adorns one wall, complete with a legend to identify the long-gone glitterati. The bar dominates the other side of the room; behind it are framed photos and posters, each revealing a small piece of Frolic Room history.
Music: Internet jukebox, heavy on classic rock and jazz.
Signature drink: None. “For the most part, people like your very simple, straightforward drinks,” says bartender Abby Hansen, daughter of veteran Frolic Room bartender Gita Hansen.
Draft beers: Only two. Budweiser and Blue Moon.
Worst day: Bouncer Pete Rodkey recalls a drunk woman who “got really angry at a guy who would not go home with her.” She got into Rodkey’s face. “She looked like she was going to swing, and I decked her,” Rodkey says. Turns out, she met up with the guy anyway, the bouncer says. “We found out a day later that they got into a fight. She had punched him. He hit the ground, he hit the concrete, he fell into a coma and died.”
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925 N. Robertson St., New Orleans. 504-906-5877. www.facebook.com/Candlelightlounge925
The white-haired woman in the loud tropical shirt is a regular at the Candlelight Lounge. Someone tells me she’s 92 and lives nearby in the historically black Treme neighborhood, but I can’t verify any of this. The woman may be elderly and frail, but as she sits on an old brass dining chair outside the Candlelight, she’s primed for a fight. She declares that I’m just like all the other white writers who visit Treme: I’m here to make everyone look stupid.
“You make money off of them and what do they get from it?” she asks me, her rhetorical skills sharp. “Nothing.”
Her anger is pure and clear, if slightly misdirected, and I respect it. Treme is changing before her eyes: Many of her neighbors never returned after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters ravaged their homes in 2005. Landlords and developers have, in turn, jumped at the opportunity to redefine the neighborhood located so close to the French Quarter: Rents and home prices have skyrocketed, which has slowly altered the complexion of Treme. Who could blame an old-timer for being ticked off?
Candlelight Lounge owner Leona “Chine” Grandison, who grew up in Treme, knows what role her bar plays in the neighborhood. It’s not just a cheap watering hole. It’s the place where neighbors and friends gather to celebrate life’s major moments, like when former president Barack Obama was first elected. It’s the place to dance to the horn-driven heartbeat of New Orleans brass bands, which once pulsed so strongly in Treme. It’s the lounge where the displaced can return and still recognize their old stomping grounds.
“When you see these people come back, everybody says, ‘My God, Chine, things really have changed.’ … I have a lot of people I missed that didn’t come back to this city, can’t come back ‘cause they can’t afford the rent,” Grandison says. “They always got a place to come here.”
Theodore Joseph Jarreau doesn’t need a special occasion – or a tease from the “Treme” series, which aired for four seasons on HBO – to make a trip to the Candlelight. He’s a frequent visitor. He shuffles into the bar, one hand clutching a bag and the other shaking uncontrollably. Grandison invites him to grab a beer from the cooler. When I ask him to recount his early days at the bar, he offers a demonstration instead. He stands up and starts scratching his feet across the concrete floor, chicken-style. Then he breaks into “Little Red Rooster.” And sings every verse by heart.
Year founded: Circa 1979 as a bar called Grease. Current owner Leona “Chine” Grandison started running the bar in the early 1980s and purchased the place around 2002, about three years before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Interior: Grandison began to renovate her bar in 2015 but ran out of funds before it was finished. The new plywood roof gives the place a barnlike quality, while the cinder-block walls, painted midnight blue, suggest cooling Gulf waters, which is good. During renovations, thieves swiped the Candlelight’s air-conditioning units. Grandison has been soliciting funds to complete her renovation, including a new kitchen.
Music: Internet jukebox, and brass-bands every Wednesday. Grandison hopes to add more bands on the weekend.
Signature drink: None. You better know what drink you like when you approach the bar.
Draft beers: None. The Candlelight trades mostly in major commercial beers, though it also sells many different Abita bottles.
Worst day: August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina landed and the levees were breached. Grandison evacuated to Texas, where she lived for many weeks. When she finally returned to the Candlelight, “it looked like a tornado had just passed through and ripped it.” She had no flood insurance.
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1140 Second Ave., Manhattan. 212-758-0900. No website.
When the Subway Inn was forced to leave its home of 77 years for new digs two blocks east, its owners tried to make the new spot feel like the old one. The large neon sign, a landmark near the corner of 60th Street and Lexington Avenue, was cleaned up and hung outside of 1140 Second Ave. The Salinas family copied the black-and-white checkerboard floor and brought over parts of the bar and some tables, including the booth where Marilyn Monroe and her husband Joe DiMaggio would sit in the 1950s. They even covered up a wall of windows, so that the bar would retain the dark, divey atmosphere that drew celebrities, working stiffs and barflies for generations.
For all of their hard work, the new location isn’t quite the same.
“It’s a sanitized version of the old place” says John Holmes, an Irish bartender who was a regular at the original before getting a job at the new location. “The old one was a bit dingier, with holes in the ceiling, and if you went in the bathroom …” He breaks off into a laugh, remembering how the men’s room at the original bar didn’t have a door. But the lack of grittiness is fine with co-owner and bartender Steve Salinas. “It took 77 years to get to that point,” he says. “We just made it to our second year. That dirt and grime came with time.”
The original Subway Inn was never a fancy place – it faced the side of Bloomingdale’s that is pockmarked with loading docks instead of display windows – but it was a piece of old New York. It was evicted in summer 2014 to make way for a condo tower planned to be almost as tall as the Empire State Building.
Owner Marcelo Salinas, who worked his way up from busboy over four decades at the bar, and his family fought their landlords, gathering thousands of signatures (including one from singer Tony Bennett) on a “Save the Subway Inn” petition. They received stays from the courts but eventually moved the Subway Inn in March 2015. Marcelo passed away 19 months later, in October 2016.
While the Subway Inn’s theme and cheap drinks have relocated, not all of the customers have. Steve Salinas, Marcelo’s son, estimates that only about 40 percent of the lunch crowd still regularly returns. Things are better at night, when the vinyl bar stools are full of couples chatting loudly over drinks.
More than the grime and weird vibe, Salinas says, “the heart and soul of the Subway Inn was that it brought everyone together, whether you were a celebrity or just a plain old New Yorker. Nobody felt uncomfortable. No matter where you worked or what your status is in life, we’re all the same at the Subway Inn.”
Year founded: 1937 (60th Street and Lexington Avenue); 2015 (60th Street and Second Avenue).
Interior: An attempt to recreate the Subway Inn of old: vinyl booths and a checkerboard tile floor, with neon beer signs and diamond-shaped mirrors hanging on the walls.
Music: A mixed bag during the day – anything from “Volare” to classic rock. At night, there are up-tempo tunes by the Clash, Prince and ’80s rock bands.
Signature drink: A draft beer and a shot. The bar’s policy is to keep highballs around $5 and draft beers around $5 or $6.
Draft beers: A dozen, including local products Brooklyn Lager and Sixpoint, as well as Bud Light and Stella Artois.
Worst day: The closing of the original location, on Dec. 2, 2014, after one last party.
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Bob and Barbara’s Lounge
1509 South St., Philadelphia. 215-545-4511. www.bobandbarbaras.com.
A recent Thursday night at Bob and Barbara’s Lounge starts like any other night at the landmark 48-year-old bar on Philadelphia’s South Street. Some sun peeks through the stained-glass front window, shining onto the huge, diamond-shaped bar. At happy hour, a diverse crowd of regulars chats in groups, greeting familiar faces as they walk through the door.
“I can’t tell the number of friends I’ve met here,” says Lauren Mulhill, who started coming to Bob and Barbara’s while a student at Temple University and now lives around the corner. “If you’re having a bad day at work, you come to Bob and Barbara’s and it makes it better.”
Music from the Ohio Players and R. Kelly thumps from the speakers; some customers snap their fingers and dance. Standing at the end of the bar is Barney Richardson, a dapper 78-year-old who was born a few streets away. He boasts that he’s been coming to this bar (and its predecessors) for 60 years, including Boots House, which had a separate “ladies entrance” and “a trough on the bottom of the bar here, where people would spit in it.” Naturally, Richardson knows everyone, joshing with the bartenders and the guys on neighboring stools as they buy each other “the Special” – a shot of Jim Beam and a cold can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
A few hours later, only the decor is the same.
“Put your hands together, pussycats!” yells the emcee before host Lisa Thompson, better known as Lisa Lisa, bounds onto the stage to the sounds of Natalie Cole’s “Mister Melody,” then whirls around the floor in front of the stage, lipsynching and collecting dollar bills from the outstretched hands of patrons.
Since 1994, Bob and Barbara’s has hosted a Thursday night drag show, which owner Jack Prince says is the longest-running one of its kind in Philadelphia. It started low-key, with performers changing behind a curtain and dancing behind the bar, but it has grown into something much more.
Lisa Lisa has the crowd – a mix of gay men, lesbians, bachelorette parties and college students – in the palm of her hand: She brings birthday boys and girls up to the stage, where she encourages the audience to wish them both happiness and things that can’t be printed in a family newspaper; she introduces an array of “entertainers,” who perform to the music of Natalie Cole and Macy Gray. Jill Scott’s “It’s Love” turns the bare-bones room into a dance party.
“Our crowd here is very diverse,” says Lisa Lisa. “This is a straight bar, and I think people just want to come out to have fun. When people come here – straight people, gay people, transsexuals, whatever – everybody feels welcome.”
Year founded: 1969, named after owner Robert “Bob” Porter and bar manager Barbara Carter. Current owner Jack Prince purchased the business from Porter in 1994.
Interior: Pabst Blue Ribbon memorabilia covers the walls, including globe-shaped lights and pre-Prohibition signs, framed ads from Ebony magazine and posters featuring Rosey Grier, Joe Louis and other sports icons. The bar counter itself is unusual: Its edges are cushioned by a thick upholstered red pad, which is perfectly placed for you to lean into. Or, after too many drinks, crash into.
Music: On Friday and Saturday nights, the house bands play funky soul-jazz cuts driven by the bar’s original Hammond B-3 organ. The jukebox (when it’s working) is stocked with Teena Marie, the Spinners, Charles Earland and Motown compilations.
Signature drink: The Special, a $3 pairing of a PBR can and a shot of Jim Beam, which is known elsewhere in Philadelphia as “the Citywide Special.” Prince credits music promoter and bartender Rick D. with the original idea, back in 1994. These days, Prince says, they can go through 400 on a good Saturday night.
Draft beers: None, even though there are two old PBR tap handles poking up from the bar. “Just decoration,” Prince says. “I tried it, but it didn’t work out.”
Worst day: “It was the night that Rick D. died, in April 2007,” Prince says. “He was a young man, in his early 40s. He died at home, and it was never clear exactly what [he died of]. It was very, very somber. The whole bar community was in shock.” There was music at some point, Prince says, through he doesn’t recall exactly what it was. “Nobody would have wanted the music to stop, especially Rick, but it was a very sad mood that night.”