Recently, Style Weekly’s ‘Best of Richmond’ named Bamboo Cafe, “The Best Dive Bar Where Everyone Knows Your Face”.
I like Bamboo Cafe. Bamboo Cafe is a nice, dark place where I can meet friends, have a pizza (seriously, their pizza is lowkey one of my favorites), and maybe walk to another bar. Probably a less classy bar. Bamboo is never the first stop of the night. Bamboo has nice big windows.
Bamboo is not a dive bar. The food is too damn good, and this also weeds out so-called dives like Sidewalk, Cary Street Cafe, and so on.
Thanks to the perfect storm of rising property values, the Richmond food scene becoming internationally known, and lower crime rates, hole in the wall bars and restaurants have been supplanted by establishments that suburban couples have on their bucket list for anniversaries and birthdays. Richmond is now a town where we can Have Nice Things. And as such, dive bars are in very short supply, especially in the Fan.
As much as you want to think of yourself as a person that relishes a good dive bar, merely going to an establishment that hasn’t been renovated in 20+ years doesn’t qualify. Joe’s Inn has a lot of things going for it: huge beer selection, family friendly, great breakfast, dank sandwiches. One thing Joe’s Inn is not – is a dive bar – and I’ll die on this hill.
Dive bars are not Nice Things. Nature abhors a vacuum, and dive bars are the vinyl-clad, neon detritus that get sucked into small, old strip malls. They’re frequently near post-war housing where people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s can stumble from crackerbox houses paid off before 9-11 into a dimly lit room with a glowing door into a kitchen that maybe has a fryer and a grill top. A friendly bartender will slide you the American Light Lager of your choice in a brown bottle. Maybe a TV is showing sports, or re-runs of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’. The ‘Best’ dive bar isn’t the one that’s the classiest, it’s the one that hews closest to the platonic ideal of what a dive bar can be.
If I learned one thing, it’s this: Dive Bars are a spectrum. There are common aspects to all of them, but to weed out the merely tacky from the divinely dive-y, I devised a patent pending system from 0-5 Jello Shooters, with 0 being The Jefferson Hotel and 5 being perfection.
Along with some dive bar aficionados, I compiled this handy reference guide you can whip out next time you’re asking yourself “Am I in a Dive Bar?”
- Limited/Bad Food Menu
- Indoor Smoking
- 12 oz beers $2-3 always
- Jukebox or loud, un-hip music
- Little/No natural light in barroom
- Pool, Darts & other bar games/Low Stakes Gambling
- No Call Liquors/Limited-to-No Cocktail options
- Median age of patrons >35
- Unintentionally kitchy, retro, or ‘vintage’ decor
I scoured Yelp, Google, and asked the experts (read: industry lifers) to give me their opinions on the true dive bars in the Richmond Area. I’m sure there’s some candidates left off this list, and I relish your hate about why I’m an idiot and wrong.
Here’s where I went:
Satellite Restaurant and Lounge
I rolled in to Satellite Lounge with a friend during an early NBA finals game. Five or six middle-aged men were watching a very large TV. You can legally smoke in the area where we sat since there’s a huge dance floor beyond the restaurant side. Being a lounge/dance establishment, there’s plenty of strong drinks that would fare VERY well on your next ladies night out. Maybe a bit TOO well, if you know what i mean. Mr. Lee, the owner, and another bartender served us a few of his concoctions. While we chatted, probably ten customers came in and picked up to-go orders or ate wings. We could see into the kitchen, which looked immaculate, and ordered a wings/oysters sampler. I’m not even sure how to describe the oysters except for maybe like a fried Oysters Rockefeller. It was dope and I would go back in a heartbeat, and now’s the time to admit that I never thought Satellite Restaurant was a dive bar, I just really wanted to take a picture of the amazing neon sign out front.
Dive Rating: 2 Jello Shooters
The Locker Room
The Locker Room is such a dive bar that it’s a recurring joke/meme on Reddit’s /r/rva. But the thing about the Locker Room you need to know is that to the people that go there on the regular, it’s just a bar. You are on *their* turf until otherwise notified, and believe me, when the Locker Room becomes YOUR bar, you’ll know. It has everything: indoor smoking, old dudes, a jukebox, pool and shuffleboard, jello shooters, food that I would recommend you not eat. You’re more likely to find Jello Shooters than Gin Tonics at a dive bar. Jello Shooters are the shibboleth of dive bars. Babe’s, Locker Room, and Bubba’s all pass this test hard. The Locker Room is the standard by which all other local dive bars should be judged.
Dive Rating: 5 Jello Shooters
Wing Command is so far from the Fan that I felt like I was on a Safari. But it’s worth the trip. It combines a large sports bar atmosphere with wings and Filipino food. They have daily happy hour specials, and the bar area was mostly filled with groups of men wearing similar shirts from various electrical, air conditioning, and other building trade contractors. The restaurant area was lively with someone celebrating a birthday and several couples on ‘date night’. There’s a jukebox, several seats for computer bar game machines and a patio with a great view of Hull Street Road. It feels more like a kooky Applebees than a dive bar.
Dive Rating: 3 Jello Shooters
Daisy Dukes and Boots
I was assured by my coworkers that Daisy Dukes would blow my jean shorts off. The music was on brand for a country bar with a good mix of new and old. The bartenders and servers looked the part and do Coyote Ugly-style dances on the bar. There’s a dartboard and some pretty dank looking shrimp specials. On Saturday nights, there’s a live DJ. About the best thing I can say for country bars like this is there are absolutely no neckbeards. I wouldn’t go back, but it’s fine for what it is.
Dive Rating: 3.5 Jello Shooters
I have to admit that what I have been *told* about The Forest and the reality I experienced seemed pretty far apart. I’m not sure if there’s been an ownership change, or what. About five booths and a pretty narrow bar area are all there is (apart from a larger, empty restaurant floor off the front of the building). It’s dark, but in the way Joe’s Inn or The Village are dark–a cozy darkness. The one thing everyone does get right about The Forest is that the restrooms are not attached to the building, but rather in a separate location toward the back of the parking lot. Apparently, at some point, a Camaro smashed thru the building, because the T-shirts staff were wearing memorialized this event. I asked the manager and he confirmed it really happened. The booths were full of folks in the later stage of date night, and the bar crowd was subdued, yet cheerful. The food coming out of the kitchen looked and smelled great, and my companion assured me that the Friday Prime Rib special is a perennial favorite.
Dive Rating: 2.5 Jello Shooters
I had high expectations for Bubbas and TBH they were wildly exceeded. This joint out by the airport has the tagline ‘Home of Country Music,’ and they weren’t lying. The jukebox was kicking out awesome retro country and then someone started playing an entire Wheeler Walker Jr album (if you haven’t listened and you don’t have delicate ears, definitely look it up).
I was surprised to have to pay a $5 cover, but was assured a band would be starting soon. Soul Patch kicked off with a rousing cover of Stone Temple Pilots’ ‘Plush’ and with that, we were diving headlong into 90s trash nostalgia. We had some awesome burgers, sang along with the band, and were mostly sad to leave.
The Craft Beer Revolution™ means folks are a lot more used to paying $5-6 or even more for a pint of IPA. This is fine, but not really what I’m looking for in a dive bar. Decent happy hours can be found in the city proper (I’m partial to Barcode and The Local), but your dive bar basically has a limited selection of items at all times that are appealing to those of limited means and conservative palate. Since Stone Brewing is right up the road, I’ll give Bubba’s a pass for having a damn IPA on an otherwise very ordinary tap selection.
I’d like to pause a minute and talk about whether dive bars carry with them an inherent segregation. On the one hand, all our public spaces are somewhat segregated, be it by denomination in church, the brand of grocery store you shop in, and, yes, the bar you choose to drink at. A middle-aged gentleman, Curtis, bought my companion and I jello shooters and in the same breath explained that back in the 70s and 80s, the clientele at Bubba’s was decidedly NOT diverse, but now it’s 2018 so my African-American friend and I were more than welcome. Thanks, I think, buddy.
Dive Rating: 4.5 Jello Shooters
Walking in from the oversized parking lot, you can hear a symphony of frogs from creeks and woods nearby. Were it not for the suburban parking lot, you could imagine you’re at a little roadhouse in the country. By far the most memorable aspect of the Sportsman Lounge is the GIANT Confederate flag under plexiglass. This felt more than a little uncomfortable, so we finished our gin and tonics and left the dartboards, indoor cornhole, and pool tables behind. The patrons were actually pretty young for a dive bar, and you can definitely smoke indoors, so if you like a side of Confederate apologist with your ribeye, check it out.
Dive Rating: 4 Jello Shooters
Rose Marie Inn
Rose Marie Inn has been in Richmond since 1959. It’s small, cozy, and set into a strip mall. Didn’t see any jello shooters, and there’s a patio for smoking. The old-timers were friendly, but it was fairly boring, so we finished our pitcher of Vienna Lager and bounced. A fun aspect was the jukebox. In the year of our Lord 2018, we have been blessed with the TouchTunes. I guess they must be practically free, because even the otherwise most run-down establishments had an internet-enabled jukebox. Now you can play ‘Cut to the Feeling’ anytime you feel like it! Which, let’s be honest, is always. For those places without TouchTunes, the bartender needs to have access to a Pandora/Spotify station that’s very, very on brand. 90’s dad rock should be prevalent.
Dive Rating: 3 Jello Shooters
Daddios was such a great dive bar that one of my friends is still mad at me that we left it to check out other places. The bartenders didn’t make you wait for a drink, a bar band full of talented dads was playing classic rock covers, and the pool tables were hopping. There’s apparently a very large nonsmoking side as well, but the action was on the smoking side. I’m already making plans to go back some day after work.
Dive Rating: 4.5 Jello Shooters
This turned out to be an OTB. We bet the ponies and lost, of course, had a basket of very mediocre chicken fingers and fries, and left. Somehow all the boxes are ticked here yet this was not a good time. Perhaps it’s because everyone is grumpy from losing money on horse racing. The over-abundance of televisions alone is too distracting and bright to make this a proper dive bar.
Dive Rating: 3 Jello Shooters
I had actually written a draft of this article before a friend INSISTED that we go to Bear’s. My usual spot was overrun with folks doing Burger Week, so I was happy to decamp to the other side of the river. I had a good feeling when I saw the gravel parking lot backs up to a trailer park. The outside of the building reminds me of the snack bar at the drive-in I went to as a kid. The plate glass windows have marvelous handpainted slogans. There’s a banned list with one entrant earning “call 911”. It’s dark and has NASCAR banners everywhere. The ceiling tiles are yellowing and brown from years of secondhand smoke.
Immediately upon entering, the regulars started heckling us (not quite “trying to start a fight” heckling). We sat in a corner booth with our Miller Lites, found an ashtray, and listened to the band start tuning up. A group of rockabilly-punk kids rolled through and correctly pegged us as total squares. The Last Chance Band opened up with a pretty solid cover of Jimmy Eat World’s ‘The Middle’, laid down some additional late 90s’/early 2000s cuts, and played plenty of classic rock covers for the regulars. I wanted to stay all night but my friends were begging to leave because it was excessively loud. My ears were ringing and I was probably yelling when I spoke for at least half of the next day. Chased out of a dive bar because it’s too loud: ultimate dive bar status unlocked. I ordered some mozzarella sticks and we ate them in the parking lot.
The band honestly made the evening but even with no band, all the boxes are checked. It’s not terribly far afield from downtown Richmond. I almost don’t want to blow up their spot but you owe it to yourself to go check it out.
If I could give Bear’s Hideaway 5.5 Jello Shooters, I would. You know what? It’s my rating system. Rules be damned.
Dive Rating: 5.5 Jello Shooters
Being the potential Dive Bar closest to my house, I wanted to finish up this exercise at Lakeside Tavern. I frequently drive by and see the parking lot full of motorcycles and late model American sedans. We arrived around 11:30 expecting it to be rocking. Instead, we were told they closed at midnight. A bar band was finishing a set. About halfway through their rendition of ‘Purple Rain’, they finally all decided on a key. The drinks were cheap, and there was a separate smoking/non-smoking area, but on that night there was zero charm to Lakeside Tavern. When I first moved to Richmond I was legit scared to go to Lakeside Tavern. I’m still scared to go there, but now it’s because I’m scared of wasting my time.
Dive Rating: 3.5 Jello Shooters.
Quasi Dive Bars:
I see GWARbar on a lot of ‘dive bar’ lists. Same with Wonderland. I guess people confuse “has an alternative vibe and edgy decor” with ‘dive bar’. These are perfectly fine places to spend an hour or an evening but they’re not dive bars.
After the 2008 indoor smoking ban, bar owners were forced to make a hard choice. Go smoke-free, comply with the law and have a separate smoking/non-smoking area, or just flout the law. Many, many places I visited were in the latter two categories (Daddio’s, Bubba’s, Locker Room etc). Indoor smoking is perhaps the strongest indication you are in a dive bar. Babe’s misses the cutoff because the expansive patio/volleyball court makes smoking outside relatively comfortable. Babe’s has a long history of being a welcoming spot. The DJs spin 90s dance music, you can catch a drag show, and dance the night away with the cutie of your choice. Zero Michelin stars for the food, but that’s beside the point.
Dive Rating: 4.5 Jello Shooters
A late entry to this list, I realized that there’s an almost-dive bar right under our noses: Emilios. The food is reportedly “fine” (nobody at press time would go to bat for it being any more than this). Drinks are affordable, the lighting is dark, and the music is LOUD. If you could smoke inside and felt a little more like your personal safety was at risk it would be a lock for a true dive. My apologies to forgetting about the good people at Emilio’s.
Dive Rating. 4 Jello Shooters.
There you have it, Richmond. Give me all the jello shooters you got.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly aged Rose Marie Inn. It has since been updated.