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 Jeopardy! 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 we could bring them out of obscurity and into the light.
There are more worth-a-visit dive bars in the Valley than the four we cover here — plus one bar that has moved out of “dive” territory — so take this list of five standouts as the tip of the dive iceberg. And if you want more suggestions on truly excellent dive bars, check out Dive Bars Part I. These are dimly lit, no-frills places that — despite grungy bathrooms and a sometimes salty clientele — provide drinks at a bargain and a chill atmosphere.
ARKHAM 15 Harmony Place, Brattleboro
Arkham is lost in plain sight, tucked just off Brattleboro’s Main Street in the southwest corner of the Harmony Place parking lot. It’s not entirely clear whether the divey sports bar is named after Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, featured in DC Comics and many of the darker Batman storylines, or after the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, created by the eerie sci-fi/fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft.
Either way, I’m a little wary of showing up at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night carrying neither a superhero’s protective gear nor a mental checklist of demonic incantations that could help me to defend myself — or, better yet, to fit in. But my worries dissipate once I park and walk toward the main entrance. There’s something comforting about seeing a neon Corona palm tree blazing from a bar window on a cold, rainy night.
Gothic moniker aside, the scene here is not so spooky (then again, I didn’t come on a cosplay night). The main room, which opens onto the street, is a grungy hipster mess hall packed with several booths, laser hockey, a few arcade games (including Mortal Kombat II), and walls covered with battered road signs, vanity Vermont license plates (one of which reads “DARKNES”), Bernie stickers, and promotional posters for PBR and Fireball.
Weird old heirlooms and miniature antiques rest on a few short wooden shelves, as if one corner of the room is hosting a tag sale. I learn that this isn’t far from the truth: a sign stuck to one wall reads: “Almost everything on the walls is for sale! See something cool? Just ask …”
I decide not to bid on an autographed framed photo of Jessica Biel, bypass an invitation to join the mug club, and consider buying a slice of pizza before ending up at the digital jukebox just as “November Rain” by Guns ’N’ Roses turned into “Tearz” by Wu-Tang Clan. An improvement. Nodding my head, I step further into Arkham, up to the bar proper.
In this room — which is separated from the main area by a wide doorless portal wrapped with brick wallpaper — the crappy drop ceiling hangs slightly higher, and the dingy linoleum tile transitions into scuffed-up wooden floorboards.
The long, high bar is lined with mismatched bar chairs, and here I find about a dozen patrons, none of whom look older than 35, drinking from pint glasses, Mason jars, and 24-ounce cans of Icehouse. While I wait for a drink, those I Spy photo books from my childhood come to mind, and I scan the busy walls and shelves. I stare at a taxidermied bobcat before noticing a U.S. Marine Corps flag, mini football pennants, and Bruce Lee collections on VHS.
On one wall, someone has mounted a pair of large steer horns, then stuck red boxing gloves onto each point. The large sign next to the cash register reads: “The Customer is Always Right, But the Bartender Decides Who the Customers Are.”
On draft, Arkham sells PBR for $4 (bad in a good way), a lager from Rochester called Genesee for $3 (bad in a bad way), and craft brews from Switchback, Founders, and Sierra Nevada for slightly more. In the bartender’s fridge, I spot the really good stuff: cans of Sixpoint’s Resin Double IPA and Citizen Cider from Burlington. But it’s not so strange to see such gourmet treats in lowbrow bars around here. This is Vermont, after all — the heart of New England craft brewing. It’s surprising they don’t sell Heady Topper IPA at the car wash up here.
The wall-mounted televisions are playing a haunted house prank show alongside a forest escape movie starring Tommy Lee Jones that, the two bearded guys next to me insist, is just First Blood, but not as good. “This one’s even got a log,” says a dude with a medium beard and long red hair. “Total ripoff,” agrees a similar dude with medium hair and a long brown beard.
Further down the bar, one patron tells her three girlfriends about (if I’m hearing correctly) her last date before moving away from California. It was with a male stripper. “Not a good way to go out,” she says.
The Rambo ripoff changes to Rumble in the Bronx — much better. We watch Jackie Chan for a while. I overhear one guy, aghast, ask his friend: “Who the fuck gets knuckle tattoos? You’ve gotta get sleeves, so no one can see your shit, dawg!”
Another guy’s grandmother just had open heart surgery — at age 96. “The surgeon was like: I don’t wanna do this! But she was like: look, if you screw it up, I die, but my quality of life is shit anyway, so you should just go for it.”
I smile. Will I make it a habit of driving up here from Northampton to hang out? Probably not.
Would I be here all the time, if I lived in Brattleboro? Absolutely.
On my way out, I bade a quick adieu to Jessica Biel, then wonder if I should buy something off the wall after all. Clearly, on more crowded nights, people walk away with some of these choice items. There’s probably a reason the bar installed this notice by the door:
“Don’t take the signs and stuff. You’re on camera. Love, Arkham.”
— Hunter Styles
CITY LINE CAFE 9 Rimmon Ave., Springfield
Sleet slaps my windshield as I search for City Line Cafe off a rotary in Springfield. If it weren’t for my GPS announcing my destination on the right, I’d have completely missed the cinderblock-like building with tight green awnings hanging over rectangular windows. It’s dark and cold, and the weather’s got me down as I pull open the cafe’s hunter green door and step inside the surprisingly toasty bar.
City Line Cafe has been located on the Springfield-Chicopee town line since the 1940s, says owner Marty Cunningham, an investor who purchased the bar in 2012. It’s always been an Irish bar, says Cunningham, and it may be one of the oldest watering holes in the city.
What makes the small cafe — the place is half bar, half open space where people can stand and get a pint on the busy weekends — so great is its community of regulars, the comfortable atmosphere, and the best Guinness in the city.
“Wait, what?” I say, setting my Lagunitas IPA down, one of a handful of beers the bar has on tap.
“That’s what people say,” Cunningham replies. “I don’t know how, but they say we’ve got the best. I don’t know — maybe it’s our short [tap] line. And we’re certified.”
Cunningham is referring to the Guinness Certified Pour, a six-step, 11.95 second process that once a bartender has mastered, Guinness will certify him as pour-excellent.
“Well, set me up.”
I incredulously take a quaff from the velvety looking beer — and damn it, that’s one hell of a good Guinness. It is clean and crisp and served at the perfect temperature for enjoyment; caramelly, malty dark notes hit right as the initial creamy flavors fade.
This Guinness’ greatness is a pleasant mystery of the City Line, but it’s not the only one. Amid the signs hanging around the bar, pointing in the direction of various Irish towns and wooden plaques in Gaelic, is a four-foot-wide Monster Wall-green sign that says “GOOD DIGGIN” in white block letters.
“You ever see bumper stickers like that? It all comes from us,” Cunningham says. “People come in here and take pictures with the sign. I don’t know what it’s about.”
A regular at the end of the bar knows the story behind the sign — “Oh yeah, I was in the car that night” — but doesn’t offer any details.
On this Wednesday night, it’s all men, most of them with white hair, sitting around a freshly polished wooden bar drinking beer while Jeopardy! and CNN play on the TV screens. Bob, a silver-haired regular in a smart wool jacket sitting next to me, and the bartender, Will, interview me about where I’m from
and how I ended up at City Line. We talk about our favorite bars in the area, and which places are on the rise. We carefully discuss the incoming president, agreeing that Trump’s choice to fill his cabinet with CEOs is a bum deal for America, but that before we write off The Donald, we have to give the commander in chief the benefit of the doubt.
Despite being the only woman in the bar, no one’s talking to me like I’m some kind of sex vending machine — put in enough compliments and my boobs will pop out — so I’m feeling relaxed and appreciative of this rare find: a nice, warm place with good Guinness, and good company.
— Kristin Palpini
VICTORIA BAR Chapman Street, Greenfield
There’s a broad consensus among my friends and co-workers that Victoria Bar in Greenfield is the quintessential dive, so I have to make a stop here. And the Vic doesn’t let me down.
It’s 10 a.m. when I arrive, breakfast sandwich in hand (The Brass Buckle next door makes the best around). The bartender is having a smoke outside. He conscientiously sets it aside to come in and take my order. Every head in the place turns to stare at my unfamiliar mug — but it’s curiosity, not animosity. I put my head down and take a seat at the far end of the bar across from a sign listing the “Ten Reasons that Golf is Better than Sex.” The Today Show is playing on a TV above the ancient jukebox. I order the dive staple: Budweiser draft. At $2.25, it is the cheapest beer I purchase during this entire knight’s quest.
The Vic is an institution in Greenfield. It’s been there since Prohibition, the bartender says, and it has the original tin ceiling to prove it. The place has history. The bartender, Mark (who asks I don’t use his last name), produces a tattered old menu from under the bar.
“My dad used to take me here when I was a kid,” he tells me.
“I’ve been trying to get the boss to go down to those old prices but he won’t do it,” he adds with a laugh.
I scan the artifact in my hands for the old beer prices: between five and ten cents.
Mark steps back outside for a cigarette. I gaze upward and admire the intricate details of the tin ceiling. The place feels like a cozy railway car that time forgot. There’s a fine layer of dust over most of the shelves and bottles behind the bar. A few cobwebs, swaying gently in the breeze of the ceiling fan, dangle from the vintage stained-glass lamp that hangs over the bar. A sheet of plywood covers a broken window above the entrance and the wood panelled walls are lined to the ceiling with sports memorabilia. Rows of old tap handles line the top shelf of the bar. There’s six beers on tap; if you’re looking for snobby craft beer, I suggest you look elsewhere.
The clientele at this time of day consists mostly of gray-bearded contractors in work boots and third-shift workers stopping in for a quick brew, some Keno, or killing time between gigs. There’s ample cursing, some serious talk about football, and some good-natured political discussion. I catch a little reminiscing about the glory days of the Western Mass ski scene, too.
I settle my bill of $2.25 and emerge back into the daylight to reflect.
— Peter Vancini
MOST IMPROVED RED FEZ BAR & GRILL 70 Exchange St., Chicopee
Years ago, drinking at the Fez was a little rough, but the food was delicious. Dive or not, The Fez was worth the trip. Because of the place’s amazing Portuguese food we thought they’d be a great addition to this list. But things have changed at the Fez!
The Fez still has that same great view of the I-391 overpass, tucked away in a neglected section of Chicopee next door to a machine shop, but it no longer meets the Advocate’s stringent requirements to earn it the “dive” designation. Sure, it meets a few: there’s a regular clientele the bartender knows by name, you can still get a cheap Budweiser, and the kitchen has saloon doors. But there’s no wood paneling. In its place, impressionistic paintings of idyllic scenes from the old country hang on freshly painted walls. The pristine marble bar top is so new that a few pieces of protective plastic still cling to one of the corners. A massive silver espresso machine stands gleaming in one corner, a necessary piece for any Portuguese restaurant. The old timers are all sitting around a big table in the center of the place, tossing back beer and speaking Portuguese, glued to a European league soccer matchup on the big screen. I’m pleased to report that the Fez still has the same hearty traditional cuisine I remember. Unfortunately, I’m just as culturally illiterate as I was back then, so I ordered a Sam Adams ($4.25) and the spiced shrimp and rice ($14.95) over less familiar menu items like pork alentejana, bacalhau a casa, mariscada, or bitoque. My dish comes with a Portuguese roll and a small bowl of olives. The steaming bowl and is spicy enough to singe my uninitiated tastebuds. Two sturdy guys in ripped jeans wolf down their meals next to me and I follow suit. I left the Red Fez feeling satisfied and well-fed … which wasn’t the goal for this article. This story on dive bars didn’t quite work out. The Red Fez: a dive no more. —Peter Vancini
CABOT PUB II 66 Cabot St., Chicopee
I found the Cabot Pub II — more like re-discovered it actually, since I used to see metal shows here back in the day. I double-check that I locked my car doors after parking out back, and optimistically followed the inviting glow of neon lights.
I crossed the threshold and thought: “What the hell? Not again!” The walls were freshly painted and the bar was completely done over. There was even some weird metal art on the walls — was I striking out completely on my quest?
Well … not exactly. The places has wood paneling in spades. Billiards? Yup. Two tables, both with active games. There’s even a pool league. Then, the clincher: I notice the Erotic Photo Hunt machine next to the popcorn maker in the corner. Okay, I thought. This place has all the best aspects of a dive. The first conversation I overhear serves to confirm this. It goes something like:
“So what are you doing these days?”
“You work here?”
“You own this place?”
“[Indistinguishable] I’ve been looking for a place to hang out.”
“Well, welcome, man. Enjoy!”
It’s 7:30 p.m. now and the place is filling up with guys who flock to the pool tables. Everyone seems to know one another, and I note a sense of belonging among them, even legacy.
“This guy was here when they brought in the first pool table,” says one guy reverently.
“Yeah, where’s my trophy?” the other guy laughs.
There’s still only one woman in the whole place and she’s the cheerful 20-something tending the bar. She walks over to the jukebox and puts on Tool. (Points.) I feel like handing her a broomstick to keep the guys vying for her attention at bay.
“Our kitchen just opened two weeks ago,” she tells me, sliding a menu printed on office paper across the bar. It’s stained with greasy fingerprints and contains all the quintessential dive fare your drunken heart could desire: funny bone wings, nachos, house-made chili fries, and burgers that sound like they might give you an instant coronary.
They may have painted the walls at Cabot pub, but that dive bar charm shows through. Thank God.
— Peter Vancini
Contact Advocate staff writers at email@example.com.