Everyone has a favorite dive bar; a place you can go in your old jeans and sweater, have a beer for under $3 and watch some “Wheel of Fortune” with townies looking to unwind.
Dive bars — and we use the term lovingly — tend to be physically and metaphysically secluded. Signs are minimal and the website, if it even exists, barely functions. The good ones are tucked away like unpolished backstreet gems. Last week, Advocate writers took the plunge and sought out some of the Valley’s most charming dives so that, in this extended version of our regular “Scene Here” feature, we could bring them out of obscurity and into the light.
As with all good things, there are more dive bars in the Valley than time to explore them, so we compiled a list of five standouts in a variety of towns. These are dimly lit, no-frills places that — despite grungy bathrooms and a sometimes salty clientele — provide drinks at a bargain and barroom for fun.
The Hot L (Hotel Warren)
For two years, I passed by the large Elm Street building in South Deerfield wondering what was going on inside. Its faded purple exterior, Victorian-era peaks and neon beer signs in the window drew my curiosity. It looks like the kind of haunted house you’d see in the movies.
What goes on in there? I found out recently when a friend invited me for a drink at the Hot L.
The Hotel Warren came to be dubbed the Hot L when the “E” on the establishment’s sign burnt out about 35 years ago. It stood that way for years before the owner took it down, and thus the Hot L was born.
After years of wondering about the old Victorian, I was not disappointed by my visit. I walked in and the old building’s seasoned, woodsy smell reminded me of camp, but with a hint of clove tobacco. I approached the bar and ordered my gin and tonic. An old stuffed black cat lay on a blanket at the center of the bar, a cat-nap centerpiece. A man sitting at the bar tells me the kitty’s name is Bo.
“You can pet him. He’s friendly,” the man says.
Pet a stuffed cat? I hadn’t even finished my gin and tonic, but I reached out to pet it anyway. I was startled when the cat’s eyes opened and kept an intense eye-contact with me as he slowly turned his head to meet my hand. Clearly, this cat is a regular.
Weathered bumper stickers line the south side of the bar. Green and white stained-glass domes hang from the light fixtures. The cash-only bar is equipped with an ATM machine, a jukebox, pool tables, and a piano in the corner.
“It’s such a friendly place — it’s a big family,” says owner Betsy Hastings. “People who show up end up being regulars.”
I’ve been back there since. I’ve seen the place packed with bikers during the summer and the establishment seems a right of adventurous passage among young drinkers. The bar itself, entered through the door on the left side of the front porch, is small in the context of the building’s size. The 16 rooms upstairs, the bartender says, are rented out.
Bo the cat seems to remember me when I return. He gets up to greet me, then plops down on the bar directly in front of me. “He’s feisty today,” the bartender says. His black paws swat at my pen while I take notes. Hastings says Bo showed up on the Hot L’s doorstep on a cold night about seven winters ago, freshly bloodied from some kind of attack. She says she carried the kitty down into the basement to spend his last hours warm by the fire. But the cat miraculously recovered and now … “We can’t get rid of him.”
Hugo’s and the Hole
The Rolling Rock clock keeps time above the bar at Hugo’s. A handful of middle-aged men chat up the bartender, and three ’Gansett-drinking 20-somethings play pool in the back.
Green, lounge-style lamps hang above the pool tables. The lamp light bounces off the painted black ceilings to give the room a green glow. Two TVs bookend the bar — one is airing a show about tree lemurs on BBC TV, the other “How I Met Your Mother.” The men’s banter blends with the chatter on the televisions.
A sign above the bar reads: “There will be a $5 charge for whining.” Another sign advertises Jell-O shots for $1.
It’s my lucky night — I sneeze, drawing attention to myself as the men order Jell-O shots, and they slide me down an orange-cacao. Holding the cup over my lips, I bend and squeeze it until the Jell-O oozes into my mouth. Through mouths full of Jell-O the talking men sound like they have no teeth and we chuckle over our slurping.
A man with a white beard walks in, hands in his coat pockets, smiles and says hello, then promptly leaves. The men, taking a break from chatting, turn their heads quickly from TV to TV, mixing lemurs with the sitcom’s laughtrack.
Mario Perfito, 49, my Jell-O shot benefactor, says he grew up in this neighborhood and has been coming to this bar for as long he’s been allowed.
“It feels like home,” Perfito says.
Indeed, though it’s kind of a split home with the similarly atmosphered Ye Ol’ Watering Hole just a few doors down the street. Together the bars encompass a classic Northampton experience. The bartender on duty at Hugo’s says there’s a lot of foot traffic back and forth between the two.
I head out of Hugo’s and take a few steps over to the Watering Hole. I find myself a seat at the bar. It’s 10:30 p.m. and the place is packed with young patrons. Six tiers of shelving, wrapped around the walls of the establishment, hold over 4,000 historic beer cans — the bar’s famed Beer Can Museum.
All three pool tables are occupied and a small group of beer drinkers with Irish accents throw darts. Two men in their 20s shoot pool at the table closest to the old fashioned jukebox. One of them puts on some Fleetwood Mac and all of a sudden it’s the ’70s again. The space is alive with a vintage vibe.
A sign above the bar cautions: “Beware of the attack bartender.” The girls behind me break into a sing-along sessions. They trade off, singing to the jukebox, then switching to songs of their own choosing. Then, a David Bowie song captures the room. “… Gotta keep it together,” one of the girls sings along with the jukebox. “But I’m falling apart,” interjects another. “Ch-ch-ch-changes,” the girls sing in unison. They descend into giggles.
The song ends and there’s a prolonged silence from the jukebox. Everyone is talking so loudly it sounds like one unified roar amidst the clank and clamor from the pool tables. The songstresses behind me take matters into their own hands and sing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
Fortunately, the two guys by the jukebox fix the music problem, landing on some Sublime, and start a fresh round of pool with a hard break. With an eye towards three ladies at the table beside him, the breaker roars victoriously as he struts around the table, his pool cue over his head. The game ends quickly and the two grab another round from the bartender — a Sierra Nevada and a Pabst Blue Ribbon. Fresh beers in hand, along with a great deal of liquid courage-induced swagger, they join the young ladies at the other table.
“I was wondering when those guys were going to pounce on those girls,” the bartender, with her hand blocking her face, whispers to me.
The Maple Leaf Bar & Grill
There’s no reason for anyone to expect good food at a dive bar. Usually the fare consists of hot dogs on a roller, prepackaged chips and peanuts, a plastic plate of nachos smothered in atomic-yellow cheese sauce, or maybe some microwave popcorn and Slim Jims.
So, while sitting at the faded wood-panel bar at The Maple Leaf in Westfield, trying to decide between a Cold Snap and a Bud, I’m surprised to see a cook from the back come by with a crispy plate of Parmesan eggplant fries.
When the bartender in the button-up denim shirt and jeans and Irish flatcap takes my beer order, I ask for a menu.
The Maple Leaf is a bar and grill, but you wouldn’t guess it upon entering. There are five tables in the place, about a dozen if you count the high-tops. There’s no wait staff on tonight and the guy in the neon orange “STAFF” shirt who starts checking IDs at 9 p.m. isn’t exactly a hostess.
The bartender hands me two menus and a Sam’s Cold Snap before ducking out for a quick smoke. One of the menus is a list of the chef’s specials. It features items like the Bloody Mary Burger, jambalya, and a turkey jalepeno melt. There’s also a hot ham and cheese on a telera roll with caramelized onions. I decide to test the chef’s skills and order the funkiest thing he’s got on there: the Fried Avocado Wrap.
It’s Tuesday night a bit before 9 p.m. and there are about 45 people in the bar. The clientele is mostly men in their 20s and 30s in knit caps, cotton sweaters or T-shirts, work boots, and jeans. The walls are wooden, lightly finished and still a bit rough. They bear silly drinking signs including, “Our House Wine Is Jagermeister” and “Alcohol May Not Solve Your Problems, But Neither Will Water or Milk.” An empty 40-ounce Budweiser bottle-turned-wind-chime hangs over my head.
The jukebox is playing a mix of country, Boston punk and classic rock. It starts with Toby Keith’s chest hair-sprouting “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses,” then over to the Dropkick Murphys “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya” before hitting a streak of Rolling Stones.
There are three pool tables occupied by a rotating cast of players who brought their own sticks and chalk. No one has been able to dethrone the most dapper man in the place — orange and blue checkered button-up shirt, combed hair and clean sneakers — from running the corner pool table. He’s a generous ruler, though, discussing shots with opponents and giving out advice with a sincere smile. When a man and a woman at the next table ask him for advice, he heads over and points out how to sink the 8-ball off four banks.
I’m about halfway through my beer, when the avocado wrap arrives along with a side of hand-cut fries. I go for the fries first and I’m blown away. They’ve got an amazing grease-less crispness to them and a gorgeous golden brown color with a perfect dusting of salt and pepper. Inside is all hot, salty mashed potato. Somehow I get a fry that’s a little raw and it still manages to be delicious.
As expected, the wrap is funky — and I like it. The avocado is warm, encrusted in Parmesan and pleasingly firm. The spicy ranch mayo keeps the bright lettuce packed around the avocado, making each bite a nice blend of ingredients. I remove the tomato from the wrap. It looks pale and watery, like most February tomatoes in New England. (As a region, can we decide to leave tomato slices off dishes from January through April?)
I pay my tab, two beers and a wrap for around $18, and take what I thought was the exit, a side door with a sign that says, “Beware: Dog Can’t Hold His Licker.” But instead of leaving, I find myself in a cage made up of two tall fences and some Christmas garland thick. The cement slab patio has a roof that keeps the light snow from falling on the two young men in jeans smoking and leaning against the fence made of six-foot tall black, spiked metal rods. It’s dark. There are no lights except for two small TVs, a string of white Christmas lights and glowing cigarette tips.
“Things are going great for me, man,” says one. “I just got a $2 raise.”
“That’s awesome,” says the other, “I’m getting a $3 raise soon.”
“Good for you, man.”
With no other exit, I head back into the bar.
“You have a good night,” the bartender calls out to me as I leave and the dude checking IDs gives me a friendly nod.
Behind me, I hear the satisfying crack of a good break. Before me is an empty downtown minus two, small groups of men in heavy jackets ambling up to The Leaf.
The Office is the kind of place where the bartender pulls up a stool to watch TV with you. It’s a place where you can read the newspaper at the bar, or play a game of pool by yourself. Here, you can be alone together.
On a recent Tuesday night, a dozen people sit scattered around this dimly-lit, wood-paneled, slightly musty-smelling hangout. It’s not surprising that the place is quiet. Its name ensures that it remains all but invisible to a Google filled with odes to “The Office” TV shows. And even if you know your way to the Cutlery Building on Riverside Drive in Florence, there’s a good chance you won’t find The Office. (Hint: work your way around that building from the east side until you’re sure you’ve gone too far. It’s right there, in the shadow of a towering brick smokestack).
Step inside, through a short corridor full of cardboard boxes, and you end up in a small, homey interior. It feels like a basement den that your sporty, alcoholic uncle has converted into a bar as a labor of love. A three-sided bar counter takes up most of the room. Over the row of bar stools hang small lampshades made of colored glass and stamped with sports team logos. This stool, you might say, is the Packers seat; this one is the Celtics seat. Here sits a Giant. Here sits a Cowboy.
This is a distinctly over-40 crowd. They talk quietly, mostly in pairs. Their gazes rest on one of the four wall-mounted TVs. Pool balls clack. Someone chuckles deeply.
In one corner, next to the jukebox, sits a popcorn machine. No one is eating from it. I suspect they’ve all come to the same conclusion: that the bar snacks in a bucket half-empty by 6 p.m. probably aren’t that fresh.
Behind the bar, next to a spray bottle of Lysol, a Manila folder on a clipboard is marked “NASCAR Race Pool” in black marker. Just below the back bar counter, bumper stickers cover the doors of the mini-refrigerators. There is a “Yankees Suck” sticker, naturally. One sticker reads, “Gun Control Means Using Both Hands.” Another says, “I’ve Been Fishing So Long My Worm Gets Social Security.” The bar has nine beers on tap. Pints max out at $4, and the fanciest is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I order one of those.
On “Wheel of Fortune,” smiling contestants in Hawaiian shirts guess at a song lyric. I’m not sure I should say the answer — it’s “I’ll stop the world and melt with you” — but I figure it might be a nice way to make friends. When I solve it aloud, two or three people nod quietly.
The bartender goes outside to smoke. During the commercial break, an ad for the nightly news runs footage of a ranch hand who sits in his pastures and sings ballads to his cattle. We see a clip from his interview. “Who else am I gonna sing to?” he says.
“Mmm,” mumbles the guy sitting next to me. His name is Zack. He says he lives across the street, where he runs a paint and tile company. We watch some more footage of the singing ranch hand. It’s shot with a drone camera, which gets us talking about Amazon’s proposed drone delivery program. Zack is concerned that the initiative will disrupt bird migration patterns. He recommends a few YouTube videos on the subject while he pats down his coat in search of cigarettes.
Someone has turned on the jukebox. “The Boys Are Back in Town” plays. The guy at the pool table bops his head to the beat.
Zack finds his cigarettes. As he gets up to go outside for a smoke, I ask him how he heard about The Office. He snorts. The only reason he found it, he says, is because he lives next door. “Nobody knows about this place,” he says. “Nobody.”
A new patron walks in and sits next to me, exhaling deeply as he pulls his feet up onto the stool. That’s when I realize what kind of bar this is. I go to a lot of bars, and I bump elbows with a lot of keyed-up night owls. But it’s been a long time since I’ve sat next to people who sigh with relief when they sit down. They’re tired. The days they’ve had are longer than mine. They need to breathe, think, and wind down. This is their space. They’re regulars, and they’re the reason a little out-of-the-way bar can feel full on a Tuesday night.
“See you again?” says a nearby woman to a man who is standing up.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “I’m always here.”•