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

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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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