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.

Ontario Street Cafe

2053 Ontario St., 216-861-6446

Downtown Cleveland's gone through a lot of changes in the past 40 years, but the Ontario Street Cafe hasn't. Tucked away next to the behemoth, corporate-feeling breastaurant known as the Tilted Kilt and across the street from the Horseshoe Casino, it's easy to miss the classic Cleveland experience hidden beneath the nondescript green awning.

It's a Friday afternoon and people are coming in for end-of-the-week drinks and to chow down on any of the six massive sandwiches on the menu. Greeted by the shirt-and-tie-clad bartenders, the clientele sits in the small black leather booths lining one side of the small room, or claims a stool at the bar, relaxing under the dim lighting coming from the old green lamps hanging from the ceiling.

The high-powered manager/bartender, Jen, has been working here for 16 years and she runs the place like an air traffic controller, greeting her regular customers by name, knowing what drinks they always order, and asking them if they'll have the usual ("Yup," they all say).

"You can't beat this place — the price, the atmosphere," said one young man, who stopped in for a ham sandwich and a couple shots of Fireball, while watching NBA draft coverage on the small TV behind the bar. He's been coming here for a couple years now, stopping in when he's downtown and has the time.

The price is the main reason people keep coming back. It's $1.50 for a mug of draft beer, $6.50 for a pitcher, and cheap liquor drinks range from $2.25 to $3.50. But bring cash; ain't no credit cards accepted here.

SS&W Boardwalk

16011 Waterloo Rd., 216-481-0077

Tucked within what appears from the outsde to be just a house, the Boardwalk is a Waterloo mainstay. They've been slinging cheap drinks and fried food for years — well before the streetscaping renovations brought curious suburban denizens to Cleveland's arts community du jour. Still, even the updated vibe of this neighborhood hasn't worn off too much on the ol' Boardwalk; this place is timeless.

Inside, a jukebox positively blasts some Silversun Pickups. The bartender keeps the thing going by tossing in cash every few songs. Her selections are top-notch. Now and then, she says, they'll bring in some live music. Reflecting the spirit of the street, the Boardwalk has a really pronounced musical element to it. For those keen on becoming a regular, it's the perfect pre- and post-Beachland stop.

The crowd fluctuates between five and six people on a recent weekend evening, ebbing and flowing as day turns toward night. Inside, the Boardwalk pretty much has everything covered: darts, pool, requisite tongue-in-cheek signage behind the bar ("Beer, Now Cheaper Than Gas," etc.). You can order up a Boardwalk Bomb, which is cream soda, root beer schnapps and Black Velvet whisky. Five bucks. Delicious. Every dive needs its signature drink, right?

In the spring, the bar hosts a chili cook-off — the sort of event that reminds everyone that the place is more of a family than anything.


8611 Lake Ave., 216-939-9346

The thing you may have heard about McNamara's, if you've anything at all, is that it has a killer patio. "Irish dive with killer patio" may as well be the tagline. And it is nice: canopied, latticed, Italian-lit. If the breeze is just right, and the bottle of your $2 domestic is glistening just so, you might feel as though you've been transported to a villa on the Adriatic Sea.

McNamara's dive reputation is likely inspired in equal measure by its regulars — well-salted westside Irish guys — and its "rough" location, an unassuming underpass-y storefront on Lake Road and West 85th, west of Gordon Square and east of Lakewood: decidedly un-Adriatic. But it's cleaner and chicer inside than you'd expect from your traditional divey dive. No broken chairs or busted stools with the foam bursting forth from the slits. In here, it's all exposed brick and stained dark wood. There's a quality old-school dart board (which I'm the only one who ever seems to want to use) and one of those new-school digital karaoke machines.

Like Kelley's Pub, McNamara's exists because of the on-the-side entrepreneurship of a Cleveland fireman. Gary McNamara bought the old Gleason's pub in '98 and has been serving cheap beer to an army of regulars ever since. Industry peeps congregate on Sundays for bargain-basement Fireball.

Perhaps because of the cheap-beer mystique, or simply because of the westward migration of Cleveland's urban pioneers, there is often (on the patio, usually) a circle or herd of younger folk, paisley and plaid prominent among their shirts, whom the regulars either regard with suspicion or ignore outright.

But on off hours and off nights, it's quiet. It's low key. It's a literal sanctuary from the rain. More than once I've spotted men in trench coats stumble in, order a shot, shoot it, slap a bill on the bar and then stumble out, all in a total elapsed time of maybe four minutes. I admit I've suggested it as a meet-up with sources who hold their anonymity very dear. It's got the feel of someplace far removed, someplace protected, noirish and — importantly, for journalists and chronic drunks — unsurveilled.  

Mars Bar

15314 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 216-228-4500

On the corner Madison Avenue and Mars Avenue in Lakewood is a simple, single-story brick building, home to one of the coziest, most laid-back bars in the suburb.

It's a small red-and-yellow room — a few small tables and a modern bar — with four huge flat-screen televisions that make it a perfect place to watch the game. And then there's the gyro meat rotating in the heat, emanating irresistible smells to those near the machine in the corner behind the bar.

They've got some of the best gyros around, perhaps because they are authentically Greek. I first met Mars Bar owner George Gountis last summer when I came there to watch the Greece-Colombia World Cup game. There, a handful of neighborhood guys wearing old Greece soccer jerseys were sipping beers, eating gyros and taking shots of "Ouzo of Plomari." Gountis explained the gyros were so great because of the tzatziki sauce made from scratch by his mother, who went to painstaking lengths to use only the freshest of yogurt.

It's more than just gyros though. Mars Bar is a great place to relax outdoors, with tables out front and a full patio in the back. On a recent early Sunday afternoon, a couple of regulars were taking turns playing corny pop songs on the digital jukebox before taking their beers outside to smoke some cigarettes and get some fresh air.

It wasn't long before they were back inside, of course. Back to the safe confines of a bar stool and the luminescent glow of low-watt lights. Back to the warm embrace of cold booze and idle conversation. Back to friends and family.

House of Swing

4490 Mayfield Rd., South Euclid, 216-382-2771

First: Beaucoup points to this place for boasting the most unassuming exterior with regard to how cool the inside really is. The House of Swing isn't a dive bar in the most accurate sense of the term ("divey blues club," we suppose), but it's got all the right elements. Once inside, you're in a totally different universe (this place is in South Euclid?!), surrounded by memorabilia from the past and the steady, wonderful bliss of rock 'n' roll present.

This room is one of the more important fulcrums of Cleveland's blues scene. The region's magnetic personalities gather here on the reg, performing for vibrant crowds and supporting one another. Righteous, righteous music is made in the tiny corner on the far end of the bar. Heroes are christened beneath twinkling strings of lights. B.B. King and Muddy Waters played here, for heaven's sake.

On a recent night, the Alan Greene Band was throwing down a heated set of bluesy rock, attracting an enthusiastic crowd and reminding all in attendance that this is the sort of atmosphere we seek in our bars. Men and women danced in the thin thoroughfare between tables and bar; rounds of beers flowed like wine as the music rolled onward.

It's clear that owner Linda Kallie cares dearly for this place and its history and its friends. Dive bar management is, as we've learned, a labor of love. Combine that with the music venue biz, and you've got a living machine that chugs along merrily on the strength of its people. Linda is a star here.

In the back of the place lies an awe-inspiring sanctuary of vinyl, stuff that gets sifted through and played constantly. We're talking more than 15,000 vintage albums and 78s — stocked mainly from Linda's late husband's personal and beloved collection. There's something reverent about the room, accented even more so, again, by the bar's unpretentious vibe.

Clark Bar

1201 Clark Ave., 216-344-9999

Nestled in the less visited and unpublicized section of Tremont — on the "other" side of I-490 — is a dive bar that people call the "best-kept secret in the neighborhood." It's a simple, small, old-school, no-frills bar where a host of local regulars drop by to eat and drink, cheaply, with their friends and neighbors.

Everybody knows everybody here. First timers are welcomed with a smile and introduction so that they too may soon know everybody.

"If we don't know you, somebody will say hi and get to know you," says owner Scott Sosenko. Sosenko's father, Richard, bought in the place in the late 1990s after it had been closed for 20 years, and today it feels just like it did in the decades and decades prior when it was first opened. Large photos and paintings of Cleveland's steel mills and old Cleveland sports memorabilia adorn the wood-paneled walls throughout the small, one-room bar. A man named Virgil, an 87-year-old who lives around the corner, is always present, whether it's in person, holding court at one of the tables, or from within the large black-and-white photograph that hangs on the wall next to the bar: Virgil standing next to legendary boxer Rocky Marciano, back in the 1950s.

Everybody there raves about the food, as it's one of the few bars in the area with a working kitchen that opens in the morning. Stop by for breakfast and lunch for the daily specials and come back later (or stay, really) for cheap drinks. The kitchen, manned by Sosenko, is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon on Sunday. The "City Chicken" lunch special on Tuesdays is the obvious favorite: "The best and cheapest lunch in town," a regular, Joe, made sure to tell me. "Five-dollar holler!"

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