Raising a Toast to Some of Our Favorite Dive Bars, Just in Case They Disappear

Raising a Toast to Some of Our Favorite Dive Bars, Just in Case They Disappear

Were it any other bar and maybe any other city, the news back in the spring of 2014 would have trickled through the real estate page and nightlife underbelly quietly. But this wasn't just any bar; it was the Harbor Inn. And when Cleveland found out that King Wally (real name: Vlado Pisorn) was putting the legendary and immutable dive up for sale, there were eulogies and celebrations for the century-old Flats joint even though nobody had stepped up to buy the property yet and there were still many nights of cheap booze and cold beers to enjoy.

A little over a year later, the Harbor Inn is still for sale. Rumors abound as to who might eventually take control and help send Wally into a much-deserved retirement — a longtime patron who'd keep it the same, outside investors who'd do a total renovation, a company that would tear down the building and simply use the now prime real-estate for condos — but nothing seems to be imminent (thank the lord and King Wally).

Still, it got us thinking about our other favorite dive bars and the general future of them all in Cleveland. If you haven't personally started a brewery in the past year, you probably know somebody who has, and the Forest City's rep as a craft brew destination is growing by the day. Cocktails? We got those too, with a host of places that have picked up the Velvet Tango Room's leading charge, including the Spotted Owl and Society Lounge. You wanna play a game and eat some gastro grub while you guzzle an IPA? We got plenty of those too, with plenty more on the way as the drink-and-play trend makes its way to the shores of Lake Erie, notably with the scheduled arrival of Punch Bowl Social in the Flats and the makeover at the Corner Alley on East Fourth.

Where does that leave our treasured dives?

As Cleveland is remade (in ways we love, to be sure) and developers scramble for every last remaining square foot of space downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods, as rent climbs and calls are placed to see if maybe, just maybe, the time might be right for this or that bar owner to make hay while there's hay to be made, we went drinking. (Not that we need an excuse to go drinking, but we'll take one when we can find it.)

We wanted to capture a little sliver of the current menu of dive bars, ones very much like the kind that have been serving Cleveland shots and beers for as long as shots and beers have been around, and others that have carved out a fresh, if tenuous, slice of our livers.

You never know when it's going to be time for your favorite spot's last call, after all, so enjoy 'em while you can.

V.I.P. Inn

4107 Rocky River Dr., 216-476-2411

"So the V.I.P. goes from watching hockey to watching golf," says John, a westside mail carrier, to no one in particular across the bar. His tone is accusatory and ball busting. The U.S. Open is flickering on the big flat-screen above the bar.

"Hockey's over," comes the reply from a dark corner.

Thus ensues one of many timeless debates arcing over the green plastic-lacquered bar at the V.I.P. Inn, a true dive's dive nestled a few blocks off the main drag in West Park. This is no place for golf, it seems.

"I don't want to cause any shit! Geez!" John says. "Whoever listened to me?"

No more golf, then. Someone flips the channel over to the Yankees-Astros game. The Tribe ain't playing. "Well, they won't lose tonight," one guy says, casting a glance and a smirk toward John.

Mary Jo shuffles behind the bar, de-capping bottles and cashing out tabs as people duck out for the evening. The V.I.P. Inn, like all good dives, operates at its own steady pace — and everyone knows what is owed when it comes time for such business.

"It's been the same 20 guys sitting on the same 20 bar stools for the last 20 years," Mary Jo says. Two of her uncles have owned the place with a buddy of theirs since the early 1990s. By and large, this is a long-running neighborhood hub for the boilermakers of Cleveland's west side. Time is measured not so much in minutes or hours here, but rather in shades of familiarity. You're either part of the V.I.P. or you're not.

"I don't like this guy," John says, poking his beer toward the writer working over a moleskine and a Bud at the corner of the bar — the new guy. "He's got too much hair."

John is bald and, currently, midway through a conversation about receding hairlines. This is another topic of passing debate for the night.

On tap behind the bar: Fat Heads, Goose Island, Shock Top. But no one's drinking that. The gin mill cowboys of the V.I.P. order "beerandashot" — often enough it goes without saying that they want Bud heavy and a whiskey.

As for food, tonight's special: "Crockpot cheeseburger with Sweet Potato FF." $7. At one point, someone actually calls the bar and inquires about the burger. "It's like a sloppy joe, but with cheese melted in," Mary Jo says.

"Can we put the golf back on?" John says, laughing. "Now I'm just trying to cause shit."

Duck Island Club

2102 Freeman Ave., 216-621-7676

Though "dive" is perhaps an imprecise term for its reincarnation, the Duck Island Club is at any rate tucked away, around the corner from Cleveland's pricey-cocktail flagship, the Velvet Tango Room. Duck Island itself, the liminal quarter between Ohio City and Tremont, got its name and fame during prohibition as a spot to "duck in" and lose a tail.

According to lore, the Duck Island Club opened back then, as a speakeasy on the first floor of a house owned by a woman named Margie. She served "bathtub gin and bootlegged whiskey" that was stored at a farmhouse on West 49th Street.

These days, to the casual patron, the speakeasy vibes translate as "off the beaten path" and "eclectic clientele," but not — it's worth noting — anything like a destination for mixed drinks. The Duck Island Club is in this respect the anti-Spotted Owl, a "shot and a beer bar," if you like the literature. Here you can (and should) get a Miller High Life on draft along with any shot behind the bar for $5. Healthy shots. They've got your local brews, for sure — Portside Distillery's on draft, Platform's Cleveland Palesner is in a can — but domestics and your basic liquors are the name of the game.

Bartender Ronny, of good, stout Brooklyn/Parma stock, pours himself a Jame-o as he pours my second bourbon and mentions that, on Tuesdays, shots are $2: Tito's, Captain, Beam, Jameson.

But today's Thursday, and it's happy hour, and I am the solitary patron, seated comfortably in the almost brothelesque red/black interior and watching The Lost World on one of the bar's two HD screens. Goldblum is giving it his absolute all.

Ronny says that in its newest iteration, after nearly $1 million in restoration and upgrades, he thinks, DIC has become "kind of a late-night place," where closing time is understood to be conditional.

In the quiet shadows of clangorous West 25th, it's often a last stop after a rowdy night. It's also, Ronny appends, a great place to get a quick shot beforehand. As happens in lots of bars without a menu — though a small kitchen is alleged to be in the works ­— bartenders or patrons are known to order pizzas for the crowd. A slender central table is transformed, Tuesday nights, into a beer pong battleground, which Ronny oversees. He happily awaits all comers.     

In the back, a lounge area with comfy leather seats and a big-screen TV might be mistaken for VIP-grounds, except there's nothing VIP about Duck Island Club. It's a Club in the old-fashioned sense of the word, where all are welcome.   

Kelley's Pub

13525 Lakewood Heights Blvd., Lakewood, 216-671-3587

Though it's only a short walk from Mahall's and the bars of Birdtown and Lakewood's East End, Kelley's Pub feels galaxies away. Off the Triskett Road Rapid stop, and a gallant stone's throw from Berea Road's Pat Catan's, the green-awninged pub on Lakewood Heights Boulevard isn't (at present) the province of young folk or even semi-adventurous Lakewood bar-crawlers. The immediate surroundings' vibes are less social or commercial than they are light-industrial.

"It's definitely got that neighborhood feel," says cook Jason Noyes, outfitted appropriately in a Shamrock ballcap. "For lack of a better term, it's that 'blue-collar' feel. We have a core group of regulars. [Owner Brian Barnes] just wants it to be a community bar where the price is right."

Right indeed. On Wednesday, which today thankfully is, whiskey runs $2, so a chilled Fireball idles next to my bottled Bud Light and German sausage apple noodle soup — handcrafted by Noyes — while Jackie (the bartender renowned in these parts for her resemblance to actress Jaime Pressley) pours Jims and Jacks and Tullys at the beck and call of the muscle-shirted clientele.

Hot conversation topics this afternoon: Cleveland Indians; asphalt.   

The soup recalls your standard chicken noodle, except the meat is pulled and stringy and the broth's got a subtle apple-orchard tang. Noyes, says Jackie, is "amazing, amazing, amazing." He arrived in March, along with the kitchen, and whips up in-house all their wing sauces and, almost unbelievably, their nacho cheese. Another Wednesday special: Pierogi dinner, six deep, with extravagant fixings, for $6.50.

Brian Barnes is a Cleveland fireman — "This is his first time in the bar biz," says Noyes — and a helmet and flame-scorched gear hang prominently beneath some firehouse artwork near the stage. (Live music is still sort of in its nascency.) There's ample real estate in the back with twin dart boards, TVs, and beer signage.

Kelley's is less than a year old, though the space is the dive formerly known as Billy C's.

Says Noyes: "I don't know how long it took or how much it cost to get the smell of that place outta here."

But in its early days, Kelley's has emerged as the sort of neighborhood watering hole that local writer Alissa Nutting has called the "capital-B Bar," the sort where you don't need to show up with your hair combed.

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Scene's award-winning newsroom oftentimes collaborates on articles and projects. Stories under this byline are group efforts.
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