Most of these classic dive bars are bastions of history, spots that have endless stories to tell. Inside, it wouldn’t take much whiskey before you start hallucinating ghosts of gangsters, spirits of Old Hollywood stars, or phantom moonshiners.
But if you didn’t know any better, you’d most likely pass these gems by on the street: small, graffiti-riddled, sometimes with barred windows—vestiges of their speakeasy past. Pro boozers Dr. Clint Lanier and Derek Hembree would never miss one, though: they teamed up to write Bucket List Bars, chronicling America’s most historic watering holes. Here are their top 10 dive bar picks for summer sips.
Frolic Room, Los Angeles, California
The Frolic Room started life like many prohibition-era bars: as a speakeasy. Originally opened in 1930, it was a hidden entertainment room within the expansive Pantages Theater, for A-list clients and celebrities. Hosted by a man rumored to be known as Freddy Frolic, it eventually opened to the public in 1934. Today it oozes Hollywood history: it was one of the last places the Black Dahlia was seen alive, was a favorite hangout of 311 (they wrote a song about it), and has made numerous appearances in movies (like LA Confidential). The Frolic Room is the last real bar on Hollywood Boulevard (maybe one of the few ‘real’ things left in Hollywood), and is a melting pot of patrons. From the bum on your right to the celebrity on your left, you never know what you will find at this legendary establishment.
The Buffet, Tuscon, Arizona
Opened in 1933 in the Iron Horse District of Tucson, the Buffet is a cherished neighborhood dive that brims with locals and college kids just about every night. Graffiti left by passers coats the walls from floor to ceiling throughout the year until the owners paint over it (presenting a tempting new canvas). They’ve become well known for their cheap drinks, warm hospitality, and simple bar food—and let’s talk about that food: pickled eggs, hot dogs, and sausages steamed in beer. None of this will make your cardiologist happy, but it’s great for soaking up the Coors Banquet Beer (they sell more than any other place in Arizona) and Makers Mark (over ice, it’s their specialty).
Ear Inn, Manhattan, New York
Tucked into what’s known as the James Brown House on 326 Spring Street in Manhattan, the Ear Inn carries on a tradition started in 1816, when the previous bar catered to nearby sailors and longshoremen. In fact, the Hudson River was a stone’s throw from its door when it was first serving. It gained notoriety through the 1800’s, when it was no doubt serving local gangs and villains and housing a brothel upstairs. During prohibition the bar continued serving, and a number of relics from that period—bottles and such—can be seen above the bar. The crowd comprises hipsters, professionals, celebrities, and tourists—all generally quiet and welcoming. They do serve a variety of pub grub, as well as craft and local beer.
El Patio Bar, Mesilla, New Mexico
El Patio Bar was founded in 1934, but the building itself has been in use since at least the 1870’s. That’s when the current owner’s great grandfather—Colonel A.J. Fountain—opened a newspaper and a law office here. Fountain had a high profile in the community and was the defense lawyer for Billy the Kid, who was tried and jailed on the next block. Fountain later disappeared in the desert on the way back from a trial in Lincoln County. His body was never found—just his wagon, horses, shell casings, and two pools of blood (his eight-year old was with him and also disappeared). His great-grandson’s bar is dark and sparsely lit by Christmas tree lights and beer signs. The taxidermy, mismatched furniture, and faint smell of beer tell you all you need to know upon entering.
Simon’s Tavern, Chicago, Illinois
Opened by Swedish immigrant Simon Lundberg in 1934, Simon’s has become a favorite stop for college-kids and Andersonville locals. Actually, to truly tell its story we have to start a bit earlier: prohibition to be more precise. That’s when Simon opened his "café" here. The café, of course, had a speakeasy downstairs (the "N.N. Club") that sold whiskey reportedly purchased from Capone’s gang. The gangs may be gone, but the atmosphere still feels a bit mysterious. The long bar with neon blue lighting (made to resemble a luxury cruise ship) is littered with Viking décor and other nods to the Scandinavian roots of its founder. Try the gløgg, a traditional spiced-wine popular in Sweden.
Scoot Inn, Austin, Texas
Originally built in 1871 as a railroad saloon, the Scoot Inn is one of the oldest bars in Texas and maybe the oldest dive bar in the state. After operating through prohibition it was eventually purchased in 1940 by Scoot Ivy and a friend that went by the nickname Red. They renamed the bar Red’s Scoot Inn and proceeded to spend the next 40 years drinking heavily in their bar (rumors say they drank as much as 7 cases a day). Both died in 1980, each well into their 70s. Today it is a Texas-sized dive bar, complete with a run-down but stylish interior (featuring Christmas lights and skeeball machines), and a huge beer garden used to host some of South By Southwest’s biggest parties.
Chope's, La Mesa, New Mexico
This 98-year-old bar has 40oz beers, pitchers of margaritas, and posters from the 70s and 80s. It’s frequented by bikers, migrant farm workers, college students, and professors. In short, it's the epitome of a classic dive. Founded in 1915 when the mother of Chope Benevidez sold red enchiladas to local farm workers, Chope's later made moonshine for them during prohibition. Chope and his mom went legal in the 1930s, and the place has since become a pillar of the community and one of the best dive bars in the southwest. Today it is both a restaurant—built in the family’s original adobe house and arguably serving some of the best Mexican food in the world—and a vastly popular dive bar. It's definitely worth the trek to get to this remote bar for cold beer, colorful patrons, and their epic (and spicy) food.
El Chapultepec, Denver, Colorado
El Chapultepec (known simply as "The Pec" by locals) opened in July of 1933. Legendary owner Jerry Krantz took over the bar from his father-in-law in 1968 and proceeded to turn The Pec into the best jazz destination west of the Mississippi. The cramped bar saw performers like the Marsalis brothers and Duke Ellington, it won Westword’s Best Jazz Club Award 6 years in a row, and even Sinatra played here. Though he was small in stature, Jerry had an enormous presence: he once kicked U2 out for bringing underage women in, and was known to use a baseball bat to keep customers in line. Though Jerry is no longer with us, The Pec lives on as an embodiment of its previous hard-nosed owner. Its often-imitated-but-never-duplicated feel, great Mexican food, and outstanding live music make it a must-visit destination on any trip to Denver.
Atomic Liquors, Las Vegas, Nevada
Originally founded as Virginia’s Cafe in 1945, it was turned into a bar and renamed Atomic Liquors in 1952. The reason for the change? It became popular for patrons to grab a couple of cocktails, climb up to the roof, and watch the mushroom clouds from the nuclear testing facility less than 50 miles away. The joint quickly became a favorite among the casino workers and performers (none more legendary than the Rat Pack). Atomic Liquors closed in 2011 after the death of its owner and was thought lost, until a nice group of local businessmen decided they couldn’t stand to see such an iconic bar waste away. After renovations, it reopened June of 2013. A stop here is perfect side trip for any Sin City vacation. When you visit, be sure to enjoy an Atomic Cocktail and revel in one of the rarest things in Las Vegas: history.
Silva's Saloon, Bernalillo, New Mexico
Opened the day after prohibition ended, Silva’s Saloon was founded by Felix Silva Sr., a known moonshiner, bootlegger, and rumored supplier to none other than Al Capone. Even after opening his legal saloon in 1933, Felix continued to skirt the law by opening on Sundays (it was illegal in New Mexico at the time), running card games in the back rooms, and supplying liquor to local Native Americans (also illegal). Silva’s was and is a local’s saloon, and the interior reflects the love of its past and present customers. Hats and drivers licenses from patrons who have passed away litter the walls and ceiling and have become their makeshift memorials. Felix’s still and masher are set up in corners of the bar in memory of the founder, and wax-sealed liquor bottles from the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s line the top of the bar. On rare occasion Felix Jr. opens a bottle and lets customers sample prohibition-era whiskey. But even if you’re not lucky enough to be there when that happens, the trip will be worthwhile.