Deep Dives

Why these bars are Reno-Sparks’ best-kept secrets.

Dive bars. Their windows are optional, yet smoking is permitted, meaning it may take days to get their lingering scents of cigarettes and stale beer out of your clothes and hair after you’ve spent any time in one. But drinking at a dive bar can be oh so satisfying, like living a scene from a pulp fiction novel, or perhaps a movie such as The Godfather or Barfly. In keeping with the genre, signage usually is decades old, with flickering, winking bulbs, tempting passersby with the promise of a stiff drink poured by a pro — no measuring needed.

Step inside any local dive bar, and it’s like entering a time capsule. Customers divulge their problems to a wise, vault-like bartender, knowing — when among their fellow regulars — what is shared there will remain there.

Often the last vestiges of hearty and affordable drinks, dive bars are appreciated by those who know the money isn’t poured into hip, modern aesthetics, or keeping it classy. It’s put into its patrons.

That’s just how they like it.

Peek around any Reno corner and you can find a modern bar serving up $15 cocktails while surrounded by eye-catching interiors. Sure, the smoke-infused concoctions crafted by magicians behind the bar often are eclectic, fascinating, and, of course, tasty. Sometimes the ambience even evokes days of yore thanks to clever décor.

Dive bars are all about the atmosphere as well, but less about aesthetics.

In such an establishment, you may get two or three drinks for the price of one in a new, trendy counterpart. It just may be poured by a surly or sassy bartender with a cigarette hanging from their lips … a bartender you may grow to adore.

“I love dive bars because they’re not just places to drown your sorrows, they’re places to connect with other people. I feel safe, even solo, and can walk in … and have conversations and good times without expectations,” says Sparks resident and dive bar aficionado Effie Pappas. “Some bars can feel pretentious with bartenders who make you feel small or ignorant. In dives, what you see is what you get, no frills; most drinks have two ingredients max, and there’s no judgment, just connection.”

From left, Jeff Olin, Jesse Krise, and Alan Roberto at Shooters Saloon in Reno. Photo by Alan Roberto

Often emanating from dive bars are vocal strains from the house karaoke machine beckoning thirsty wanderers, those seeking solace, or people on liver-challenging marathons of a different sort. Inside, regulars imbibing tightly guarded locals’ specials from their usual perches are serenaded by songs from the speakers of what might be called a “vintage” jukebox at a different bar. The clacking of pool balls is accompanied by smiles, laughter, and obscenities.

In the dive’s dark corners, bad decisions can be mulled over, sometimes implemented shortly thereafter (note the proximity of many dives to tattoo parlors). Their bathroom stalls are peppered with pedantic poetry, fleeting thoughts, and deep professions of love and hate. Forever will they endure.

And that’s half the fun.

Sidle Up in Sparks

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Johnny Eastwick, owner of the Victorian Saloon in Sparks for the past 15 years.

This dive bar credo was impressed upon him by his steady stream of regulars.

“Hey, Johnny, if you fix this place up too nice, we’re going to start hating it,” a longtime visitor to the bar once told him when Eastwick tried to update the barstools.

Really his philosophy for The Vic, as locals have christened it, is “heavy pours at a light cost.”

Johnny Eastwick, owner of Victorian Saloon, right, enjoys a drink with a friend. Photo by Asa Gilmore

Eastwick says dive bars are a dying breed, but he and his customers love the cool, laid-back environment and broad spectrum of people who gather there to put grins on each other’s faces. They’ve become a family.

“It’s a neat thing to see,” he says. “I’ve been to the homes of 75 to 80 percent of my regulars, and they’ve been to mine; I really actually care about them.”

Pool is shot here consistently, games played amid an often-bustling bar. Smoking is allowed inside, as with most watering holes dubbed dive bars. It’s their customers’ biggest complaint in the winter.

But Eastwick states, “If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be here, and those who don’t smoke don’t care because we’re the best bar on the block, and often the busiest.”

Online reviews, such as one from Kathe B., share why The Vic is treasured: “It’s an honest to God, no frills, no sissy-fied bulls**t BAR. Want smooth jazz and stuck-up people … go elsewhere.”

Farther down Victorian Avenue is The Elbow Room Bar, its longstanding neon sign a beacon to imbibers seeking stiff drinks, a game of pool or video poker, and sometimes live music. Inside, its patrons provide a human snapshot of Sparks. It’s one of those second-home-type places to many residents and has been for decades.

Outside of The Elbow Room in Reno. Photo by Asa Gilmore

Diving Downtown

Walk, run, or preferably ride a horsepower-driven, two-wheeled machine — and show it off in the parking lot, of course — to Davidsons Distillery and see what decades of dedication to a dive bar looks like.

Owner Steve “Shoeman” (last name withheld upon request) opened Shoeman’s Custom Cycle on Fourth Street in Reno in 2003, deciding he wanted to open a bar next door.

“It’s the best waiting room I’ve ever had,” Steve jokes. “It worked right from the gate. We called it Davidsons Distillery, playing off of my partner Dave’s name and the Harley Davidson name.”

The aromas of stale cigarette smoke and eons of spilled booze hit you upon entering. A stripper pole invites spontaneous performance. You can catch a game of Naughty Bingo, margarita night, or a live band at times.

Bartenders such as Alex Walls are beloved — Davidsons’ maestros behind the bar sling beverages such as $7 shots of Cazadores and $6 Tito’s and sodas.

This is a no-holds barred bar.

Patrons at Davidsons Distillery in Reno. Photo by David Muskin

Regularly, motorcycles are bumper to bumper in the parking lot, their riders populating the inside. Yet, the atmosphere is generally one of familiarity and friendship. Everyone is welcome and treated as such.

Being a dive bar owner appeals to Steve. And he prefers “dive” over “biker bar.” There’s a stigma with that term, he believes. He gets far more than bikers imbibing. College students, service industry folks, and many others also come in.

“It’s always exciting; you never know what’s going to come next,” he says. “Everybody that may or may not be afraid to come in, once they do, they realize what a cool bar it is, and they always come back.”

But he spends most of his time at the shop over Davidsons.

“A good friend of mine years ago told me, ‘A bar owner is his own worst customer,’ and I took that to heart, so I try to stay out of there,” he shares.

Leroy Virgil plays live in one of the frequent music event at Davidsons. Photo by David Muskin

Among area dive bar owners, a kinship has formed. Steve says they get together once in a while, such as when the Reno Brewery District was formed, and, “if any of us need help, we’re there for each other,” he says.

Not far away on Mill Street, a man sits at a crowded bar with his harmonica, playing along to Lynyrd Skynyrd on the jukebox. Amid The Swiss Bar’s packed house, guests are shooting pool on a table that owner Erin Maddox claims is the “oldest in Reno.” It’s not a sprawling bar, but the clientele is cozily packed in, some accompanied by their four-legged friends.

The majority are sporting heavily poured and inexpensively priced libations, or cold beers. It could be light, it could be night — you’ll never know. As with many casinos, windows are scarce here, so the time of day doesn’t interrupt your experience.

A sing-along spontaneously erupts as a classic song comes on the jukebox. Newbies come in wide-eyed, welcomed by the regulars as if they’ve been visiting for years. Some of the sidlers have been patrons since the ’70s, when it first opened, but The Swiss also has a regular stream of new customers.

Maddox worked for The Swiss Bar before the previous owner turned it over to her in 2010, desiring to retire from the biz. She says it’s still daunting daily to own a business.

She explains the term “dive bar” isn’t a derogatory term. Bars don’t need to be fancy. It’s “about everyone getting along really well, which has a lot to do with the bartenders.”

Some bartenders, such as Michelle Holman, always have a crowd.

“Everyone just gets along, is friendly and nice, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Maddox says. “Most of the people there and employees are my extended family; everyone helps each other out with anything they need, inside and outside of the bar.”

On North Virginia Street, Shooters Saloon has long been a small but often raucous rendezvous for Renoites. A bit of the Old West greets guests at the door, celebrating Nevada’s history. Once you’re inside, a friendly bartender acknowledges the newcomers. A dart board, pool table, and jukebox provide entertainment for abundant regulars, including many service industry workers, especially from nearby casinos.

Similar to an alleyway, the bar stretches down the length of the small building, offering more of a mental getaway than social hour.

At Shooters in Reno, you are sure to find a wacky bunch of characters such as Jason Hinshaw (top) and Phyllis McCracken and Blue Bird (bottom). Photos by Alan Robert

A Wondrous World

All of the wonders of dive bars are captured in Reno’s Wonder Bar on Wells Avenue. Here, longtime bartender Theresa Finelli — affectionately called Mama T — or self-proclaimed Wonder Bar “boss” Kathy Eastland warmly welcomes frequent visitors and new ones alike. The duo and their team pay attention, and that’s what Kathy says makes a great dive bar.

Kathy Eastland, self-proclaimed “boss” of Wonder Bar. Photo by Asa Gilmore

“If somebody comes in that’s never been here before, our return rate is easily 90 percent,” Kathy says. “One of our favorite things is we have no gaming in here. It’s a small bar so everybody talks; no one’s in the corner getting mad because they just lost their rent … we’re one of the few bars that don’t have it, and we don’t want it.”

Mama T agrees. When too many customers are digitally consumed, she’ll slam her hand down on the bar and yell, “Get off them damn phones!” Inside, it’s a wonderful, sociable world where modernizations are given little credence — including debit cards, so bring cash.

On Wednesdays, Abby the bar mascot — an Australian cattle dog and border collie mix that Mama T recently rescued — greets all who enter. This dog-friendly (if the dogs are friendly) sanctuary offers your basic selection of booze, poured liberally and priced affordably. But dog owners need to sit tight until Fido gets a treat here. Pooches receive preferential treatment, getting biscuits before their parents get their drinks.

Mama T and her dog, Abby, at Wonder Bar in Reno. Photo by Asa Gilmore

Karaoke is performed at Wonder Bar frequently, or as Mama T calls it, “scary-oke.” When it gets too loud, she pulls out her antique ear horn and requests customers “speak into the microphone” when ordering so that she can hear; it’s a performance in itself.

Best friends after meeting at Wonder Bar in 2012 and fellow motorcycle enthusiasts, Mama T and Kathy keep the place impeccably clean, consistently receiving an AAA rating on their annual health inspections. It’s so clean, in fact, they sometimes picnic on the floor when patrons aren’t there.

History in pictorial and written form haunts the walls within, Kathy herself having quite a story after years working at Mustang Ranch and Old Bridge. She still serves many “ranch girls” after their shifts. She used to come into Wonder Bar herself, which is how she ended up taking it over from the previous owner who “handed it to her on a silver platter” in January 2004.

Among all local dive bar owners and bartenders, the term is embraced positively, including Kathy. In fact, she loves the term.

“Dive bar is a state of mind; there are people back in the day that thought dive bar meant … it was a skeezy bar, but not anymore. Everybody I know in this town that owns a dive bar is proud to have a dive bar,” she says. “[Dive bars] are your small corner locals’ bars. Everybody knows everybody. If someone new comes in, they immediately feel comfortable because we include them in the conversations. Everyone that’s behind this bar is amazing.

“The majority of people that come in, we know what they drink and have their drink ready for them. We just pay attention. No matter what the bartender is doing, when somebody walks in the door, they’re immediately greeted, even if they can’t be served right away … If you don’t acknowledge people the second they walk in, it gets awkward; they might not be comfortable, and it’s a huge deal to us that everyone is comfortable. And as far as the clientele goes, this is an everybody bar.”

As you cruise down Casazza Drive in Reno, the eye-catching neon of the Alibi Lounge beckons. With not a window to be found within the red brick walls, the bar’s moniker seems fitting. What alibis have been crafted within its walls?

Outside Alibi Lounge in Reno. Photo by Asa Gilmore

Towering behind the bartender is a virtual city of spirits. Small tables seat those sequestering themselves away from the bar. Many stories have been shared and many secrets revealed here in its decades of existence, being open 24/7.

Rebirth of a Dive Bar

Recently, longtime owner of Abby’s Highway 40 Donny Schwartz sold the iconic pub to husband-and-wife team Piper Stremmel and Chris Reilly. (See related story here.)

They’ve maintained reasonable price points, with something for everyone, says bar manager Kristin Inman. Showcased behind the bar are locally crafted spirits, “celebrating everything that is Reno,” Inman says.

Stremmel and Reilly are striving to keep the integrity of the legendary Reno bar along with the name.

To this day on Fourth Street, originally the renowned Lincoln Highway, diversity is celebrated. It essentially features a glimpse of all walks of life in Reno.

“It’s a love of the bar, but it’s really a love of the street and neighborhood,” Stremmel says.

The team has invested in several properties along Fourth Street, such as The Jesse Hotel & Bar. “Without a doubt, the street has the best buildings and architecture in town. The buildings are larger … a lot of them are on the historic register … and all of the owners are down here all day everyday pouring their hearts into it.”

Outside the City

Dive bars aren’t relegated to Reno-Sparks. In Truckee, you have the Tourist Club, where undergarments hang from the ceiling, locals play dice games at the bar, and visitors can grab many a different drink for under $10. Adventurous imbibers can try the Shot Ski or sample the Fluffer, a mixture of marshmallow vodka, coffee liqueur, and Bailey’s, to warm winter bones. Locals also are privy to secret specials here.

“I like walking into Pastime or the Tourist Club knowing I’ll see a familiar face, get a cheap drink, and miss the ‘tourist’ aspect of Truckee,” says Floriston resident Veronica Coleman.

Nearby at the Pastime Club, a historic establishment that originally opened in 1896, patrons can amuse themselves with shuffleboard or pool, checking out the many murals on the walls or observing the motorcycle behind the bar, with affordable drafts or bottled beers, wine, or perhaps a locals’ specialty in hand.

And Carson City sports The Blue Bull, a watering hole filled with festivities, friendly bartenders who know how to pour generously, and loyal locals.

Wherever you go in the Reno-Tahoe area, local dive bars aren’t just iconic watering holes. They serve as confessionals, therapy corners, community centers, reunion venues, and places of ultimate relaxation from the relentless reality outside their doors.

Within the region, countless dives exist, each with a flavor of its own. These are merely a few of my personal favorites. We’d love to hear about yours.

History itself creates a dive bar. Time marches on, neighborhoods gentrify and diversify, yet the dive bar is that old hat that fits just right.

 

Once upon a time, when her liver was youthful and spry, freelance writer Natasha Bourlin used to do dive bar marathons and is all too familiar with these spots. Now in her 40s, she prefers to write about them, but she treasures the bountiful memories. 

 

R.I.P.

We’d like to honor the fallen … dive bars. Many a cherished dive has closed in recent years, so, in memoriam, we hope that Reno’s Doc Holliday’s, Foxy Olive, Hideout Lounge, Jub Jub’s Thirst Parlor, and any others — near or far — that have recently departed rest in peace, with our thanks for their decades of service.

 

RESOURCES

Abby’s Highway 40
Abbyshighway40.com

Alibi Lounge
Find Alibi Lounge on Facebook

Davidsons Distillery
Find Davidsons Distillery on Facebook

Pastime Club
10096 Donner Pass Road, Truckee • 530-582-9219

Shooters Saloon
Find Shooters Saloon Reno on Facebook

The Blue Bull
Find Blue Bull Carson City on Facebook

The Elbow Room
Find The Elbow Room Bar on Instagram

The Swiss Bar
501 Mill St., Reno • 775-324-9966

The Victorian Saloon
Find Victorian Saloon Sparks on Facebook

Tourist Club
Find Tourist Club Truckee on Facebook

Wonder Bar
Find Wonder Bar on Facebook

Natasha Bourlin, founder of Passport & Plume, loves nothing more than to convey inspirational stories and travel the globe. Reach out to her, and reach your readers. Dog lover.

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