Reelin' in the Beers

Rambler 454 leads a tour of the best dive bars in town.

Ned Kelly The Cleveland Cinematheque 7:30 p.m. July 3 and 9:40 p.m. July 4
"This is Cleveland. This is not the fuckin' Heights, this is not the 'burbs." - Walter  Novak
"This is Cleveland. This is not the fuckin' Heights, this is not the 'burbs."
Jesse McCoy bellies up to the bar at the Warren Tavern and eyes the contents of its beer coolers suspiciously, like a steelworker who's just been served quiche. Once a homely neighborhood hang, the Warren has gone upscale. Its wobbly tables have been replaced with plush padded booths and floral arrangements. Its menu now boasts over 300 beers from places like France and Belgium, with names like Golden Pheasant and Duval.

"Do you have Miller Hi-Life?" the drummer for the 100-proof roots-rock trio Rambler 454 inquires. His bandmates, bassist Cooter McCoy and singer-guitarist Dan McCoy, order a Rolling Rock and a Pabst. They're all clad in trucker hats and work shirts, temporarily giving the joint the feel of a Jiffy Lube.

The Warren's a nice place, but it's not the right place on this night. We're touring Cleveland's finest dive bars, those weathered, under-the-radar spots where old men smoke unfiltered Camels and loud talk can get your ass kicked.

No band is a better tour guide than Rambler, whose country-tinged rock and roll is the sound of Saturday night. (Think the Black Crowes on a bender, the Georgia Satellites drunk on Georgia moonshine.) Despite the shared surnames, none of the band members are related. They all have day jobs, where the things that you're about to read are frowned upon, so they keep their identities secret.

"We play straight-ahead drinking-man's rock and roll," Cooter says. "If you act stupid and make a fool of yourself, you're in the band."

We pile into the Rambler van, a dented Dodge Ram that comes equipped with a bottle opener and a Breathalyzer. "You have to be real secure to be seen in a car like this," reads a bumper sticker affixed to the dashboard. "Slow down and smell the farts," reads another.

"There are a few things that make a dive bar a dive bar," Jesse says. "I think the main thing is a 'don't-give-a-shit' attitude and atmosphere. No one is there trying to impress people. They don't care what you're wearing. Also, dive bars are usually quiet -- I think it's because in a dive bar you're supposed to share your story, usually a depressing one."

"It's got to have a history," Cooter adds. "It can't be anything that's been built in the last 10, 15 years. An owner that's over 80 helps."

The namesake of Mitzi's, a dive at 3840 St. Clair Avenue, fits the bill with a decade to spare. The sweet, 90-year-old Mitzi watches the Tribe intently as we're greeted by her feisty little mutt, Rosco, who sits in the front window looking like a rogue cocktail wiener.

Mitzi's has been open since 1908; the liquor license behind the bar was issued in 1917. Mitzi often tells stories of bailing her mother out of jail during Prohibition. A jukebox boasting the Cramps, the Supersuckers, and Merle Haggard is the only hint of modernity in the place, which features a checkered wood ceiling, stately and ornate, like the parquet floor of some grand ballroom turned upside down.

"I love this place, because it's like time forgot about it," Jesse says.

Green, red, and yellow lights frame the bar, where the main attraction is a honey-infused liquor named Barenjager. After doing a shot, your hands are sticky for the rest of the evening.

"Whoever blows the lowest, drives," Cooter announces as we leave, brandishing the Breathalyzer. (First blow: Cooter, .12; Dan, .05; Jesse, .04).

Jesse steers us to Beanie Dott's (6201 St. Clair Avenue), which has been open since 1905. We're met at the door by Rover, a growling Doberman, who does his best to scare you sober. In the back room, there's an even more menacing Weimaraner named Macy -- you have to pass her if you want to use the bathrooms. "She's the crazy one," the owner tells us. We think about peeing at the next place.

The barroom is lined with turn-of-the-century photos of Cleveland. It's a former firefighters' hang, and axes and helmets are mounted on the wall. The place is run by a welcoming lady in her 50s. Her niece works the bar.

Dive bars are family joints, and you're always treated like some distant cousin. No one puts on any airs here, though the owner insists that we visit the ladies' room. "I have the nicest bathroom on St. Clair Avenue," she declares. The nattily appointed latrine boasts hair spray, hand lotion, and a framed photo of a penis wearing sunglasses. The only other person in the bar is a woman who has her mail delivered there.

"When you go to a bar, sometimes you just want to drink," Cooter says, explaining his fondness for the quiet, sparsely attended joint. "You don't want to jostle with the pretty people."

There are few of the latter at Hi-Low's (3614 Superior Avenue), where American flags outnumber the bar's three patrons two-to-one. Two-dollar beers and a pool table that doesn't lean too much are the main attractions; an antique telephone booth and a larger-than-life cardboard cutout of John Wayne provide its character. "I've been offered over $2,000 for it," owner Mary Hilow says of her prized likeness of the Duke, which has been a fixture in the joint for 27 years.

"To me, old bars like this carry stories from my father's generation, and it's a challenge for me to carry on the tradition," Cooter says, beer loosening his tongue. "Not just getting drunk, but carrying on a blue-collar lifestyle. That's what these bars represent to me. You can come here and be yourself. At the Winking Lizard, you get the sense that you have to be watching a sports game and be involved with everybody else to be a part of it. This whole culture is gone."

After another beer, so are we.

The booze is starting to catch up with us. Jesse sideswipes a construction barrel as we head toward Lorain Avenue, "just to see what would happen."

"I hope there weren't no midgets in there," Cooter replies.

We eventually stop at McKenna's (10327 Lorain Avenue), a wood-paneled punch palace where some tough-looking younger dudes shooting pool hit us with glares cold enough to freeze Lake Erie. We have a beer and leave.

As is often the case when four drunk dudes are out on the town, the night ends at a strip club. At Lido Lounge (3029 W. 117th Street), the Aldi's of topless bars, the girls come at you as if shot from a cannon. As soon as we sit down, a petite blonde with Nikki Sixx-worthy tattoos covering her shoulders throws herself into our laps.

"She didn't have a bad body," Jesse observes, "but you knew it was just a matter of time before she appears on Springer."

We get to the place minutes before closing time. Halfway through our beers, an intimidating brunette forcibly pries them from our hands and shows us the door. The evening is over, but not before Jesse puts it in perspective.

"This is Cleveland," he says of our tour. "This is not the fuckin' Heights, this is not the 'burbs -- this is the epitome of true Cleveland. It's hard to put into words," he adds with a grin, "but just look around."

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