Cover Story: Dive In
The beauty of Atlanta's shabby bars
Atlanta lost a true remnant of its past when the famed Austin Avenue Buffet, home of the 7 a.m. grits-and-PBR breakfast for the folks coming off third shift, shut its doors on the edge of Inman Park a few seasons back.
Where have all the dive bars gone? And we're not talking about Northside Tavern, Lenny's, Trackside, Buckhead Amusement or even the deathless Clermont Lounge. While suitably grungy, these places became domesticated years ago. Walk into the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club on any given night and, yes, you'll see bikers, but you'll also see twentysomethings with Bettie Page tattoos, frat boys, maybe even a dress shirt — sans tie, of course.
Truth is, if you can enter a bar wearing an alligator shirt and not worry about provoking a fight, it's not a real dive anymore.
Part of the problem is that Atlanta, as part of the Bible Belt and with its Blue Laws and zoning restrictions, has never had a history of neighborhood bars or corner taverns. And many that did manage to take root have either become yuppie-friendly or are fast disappearing. Just in the last few years, we've lost Moreland Tavern, the Crazy Horse on Memorial Drive, and the time-capsule charm of the '60s-era cocktail lounge in Pilgreen's Restaurant, the self-proclaimed "T-Bone King" and Atlanta's oldest steakhouse, in the West End.
Today, the city's most familiar dives are either self-aware newcomers, such as the Highlander, or hipsterfied relics, like the aforementioned Clermont. Even the so-called "Pirate Bar," the hipster hangout du jour at Moreland Avenue and I-285, is set to reopen under new ownership.
So join us on a tour of the old frontier of Atlanta's undiscovered treasures — the dive bars.
|?? Fear factor
?Not really applicable, providing you're neither claustrophobic nor chili-phobic.
?It's a sports bar, so if you see a pretty lady, chances are she came?with someone else. ??
Tucked into the corner of an aging Marietta shopping center, this 23-year-old sports bar may be the closest thing to a Cheers-style establishment in metro Atlanta. On any given afternoon, you can find many of the regulars — all of whom have Rocco's nicknames — seated at the bar nursing a brew and watching a game.
"I've been coming here so long my kids grew up and now they drink here, too," says Earl, aka "King" because?he outranks his fellow patrons, having been a fixture here since the bar's?second week. Earl also was a longtime member of Rocco's competitive chili-cooking?team, which brought home several regional and national trophies in the bar's?early years.
Rocco's doesn't appear to have suffered the years of obvious neglect and indifferent housekeeping that distinguish the true dive bar, but it's small and cozy, with a homey, lived-in quality. Best of all, owner Dan Cirrocco hasn't made any of the pesky "improvements" that can strip an old joint like this of its character.
A bear's head overlooks the front room, a boar in a Rocco's cap watches over the bar and a barracuda hangs above the door to the back room. Pennants, plaques, newspaper clippings, TVs and sports memorabilia line the walls from floor to ceiling. Near the boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali is a bat signed by Mickey Mantle, who would drink at Rocco's when he came to town. Behind the bar is a shelf of baseball reference books.
"They're for settling disagreements," says veteran waitress "Sam."
Actually, Rocco's has made one recent change, adding breakfast to an already extensive menu that includes sandwiches, salmon, a 10-ounce sirloin and, of course, the pub's famous chili.
"We've got some people who eat two meals a day here every day," says Sam, who seems a little disbelieving herself.
Rocco's Pub, 1355 Roswell Road, Marietta. 770-971-8806.
|?? Fear factor
?It depends. Are you black, Asian-American, visibly gay? Then you might?want to seek refreshment elsewhere. Although FJ's is located on a strip?notorious for prostitution and violent crime, the bar's last triple?murder was at least two-and-a-half years ago, so drink up!
?You're better off holding it. Between the cigarette burns on the Formica?and the odes to someone named Heather covering the walls, this makes?for one nasty pee.
?Aside from the redneck eye-candy barmaids dressed in tight shirts and?black leather, the pickings are somewhat lean. ??
What kind of place is FJ's? If the NASCAR banner outside doesn't tip you off, the dozens of photos above the bar of burly, bearded guys sitting astride chrome hogs just might.
"We're the last of the redneck biker bars," boasts manager Larry Kocevar, a portly middle-aged man sporting a blue T-shirt and tractor cap. Above him, a pair of Confederate battle flags, a picture of a motorcycle in their centers, dangle from the ceiling.
Nobody seems to know how the fortysomething-year-old bar got its name. By any standard, FJ's is tiny, with just enough room for two well-worn pool tables, a half-dozen or so small tables and the horseshoe-shaped bar. Near one corner is a pole running floor to ceiling.
"That's for the ladies to dance on, to pretend they're strippers," Larry explains.
Photos of customers — seemingly no one under 45 — adorn the walls, which are unpainted plywood. Behind the bar hangs a hand-lettered sign hinting at some watershed event in customer relations. "No more tabs," it reads. Directly above the bar are loving representations of the redneck holy trinity: a huge, framed portrait of Waylon, flanked by images of Willie and Dolly.
The list of on-tap offerings is succinct — only Bud and Natural Light — but FJ's selection of liquors is a point of pride for Larry, who indicates a bottle of Wild Spirit, a grain alcohol that's been a top seller. Right now, however, they're out of it.
"They've outlawed it in Georgia, so I'm having trouble getting more," Larry says. He stocks everything from rye whiskey to 30 different flavors of schnapps to Van Gogh pineapple vodka. But do bikers actually drink Dutch boutique vodka?
"If you're riding a $40,000 bike, you're not going to drink some cheap shit," he says, a little defensively. And yet, FJ's lures in the noon lunch crowd with 50-cent hot dogs.
"That brings in a lot of people," Larry says. "They'll spend $10 here to get a 50-cent hot dog."
FJ's Tavern, 2202 Metropolitan Parkway. 404-762-1062.
Southern comfort restaurant & Lounge?
|?? Fear factor
?Seen the movie Roadhouse? It's not quite that rough, but this is?no place to wear your favorite bow tie. If you still feel the need to push?the envelope, you can always walk around the corner to Blazin' Saddles,?a trucker strip club.
?Not vile, but nothin' fancy. Unless you count the condom machine by the?sink.
?Think Loretta, not Shania. Travis Tritt instead of Clint Black. ??
Just off Moreland Avenue, about a mile below I-285 in the extreme southwest corner of DeKalb, sits this venerable Southern roadhouse with a long history of showcasing major country music acts — many of whose autographed photos cover a wall. These days, however, the expansive redneck bar has karaoke three nights a week and house band the Jo Tucker Band playing rock, blues and country Wednesday through Sunday.
Barmaid Brandi Holloway says that when her dad, George Jones (no, not that George Jones), bought the joint 13 years ago, Southern Comfort was a much rougher place. But since its clientele consists mainly of long-haul truckers and a few grizzled regulars means it still gets plenty rowdy.
On weekends, the long lines of tables that on a slow night make Southern Comfort look a little like an empty bingo hall are packed with customers. When the place is crowded, the kitchen turns out a goodly number of $16 rib eyes and T-bones, Holloway says.
Don't come here, however, looking to order a martini. At the mention of the drink, Holloway wrinkles her nose.
"I don't even think we have vermouth," she says. "Or olives."
Ah, but Southern Comfort does have a wide range of beer on tap: Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Miller Lite, Icehouse and Coors Light. OK, maybe that's not so wide, but they mix a mean Jack and Coke.
If you want to take a break from the live music (or the most lamentable karaoke singing this side of the early rounds of "American Idol"), there's a large poolroom in the back and video slot machines in the corner. Those lucky at slots can redeem their winnings at a small kiosk that offers such trucker necessities as alarm clocks and nuthugger briefs.
Because it's outside the city, Southern Comfort stays open till 4 a.m. Monday through Friday and 3 a.m. Saturday, which already has led to a noticeable upswing in the number of younger Atlantans coming in to drink, Holloway says.
As I'm leaving, a guy waiting in the gravel parking lot asks if I'm a trucker. I tell him I'm not, but he makes his pitch anyway: "Do you need a date? I got some sexy women in the car. You wanna come look at them? They're real sexy."
Southern Comfort Restaurant & Lounge, 1383 Cedar Grove Road. 404-361-5675.
|?? Fear factor
?Last year, police were called here at least two dozen times to make various?drug, prostitution and other busts. Convinced?
?If you have to go that bad, there's a Zesto's across the street.
?Obvious reasons. ??
There are plenty of guys who would spend an evening at the Heretic, the Metro or even the Eagle who would never think of setting foot in this scariest of Atlanta gay bars.
Is that because of the man-whores and junkies who occasionally seem to be?hanging around outside? Or the bar's notoriety in the early '90s as a cruising?ground of the so-called "Handcuff Man," a would-be serial killer who drugged?his victims and set them on fire? Or that the door is always open but you can't?see what's going on inside? Hmm, how about all of the above?
It's a telling commentary on the proclivities of the Phoenix's clientele that, to discourage shenanigans, the bar management has removed the door to the men's bathroom. Inside, the stall door is only 3 feet high.
I stopped by last Saturday afternoon, when Arlene, the owner, was celebrating her birthday with a coterie of old friends, transvestites and leather boys. The ancient, cramped bar was crowded and the mood was jovial, and that's how I'd like to remember it.
The Phoenix, 567 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-892-7871.?
Morris restaurant & lounge?
|?? Fear factor
?Once you get past the heavily armored windows and the security door, almost?nonexistent. The Morrises have a way of making strangers feel at home.
?What's this? Clean and freshly painted? As a wise man once said, the?Virgin Mary herself would be proud to go in there and take a dump!
?To be on the safe side, bring your own squeeze. ??
Kirkwood's oldest black-owned business sits a little off the beaten path, in the dead center of this fast-gentrifying neighborhood. Set to celebrate its 36th anniversary in July, this family-run lounge has been hit hard by changing demographics and, more recently, by the earlier last call for Atlanta bars. So says proprietor Alice Morris, who looks and sounds for all the world like a deacon's wife on Sunday, minus the hat.
The Morris doesn't open until 9 p.m., when it pulls in a small crowd of karaoke?regulars who favor R&B standards and would be welcome in any church choir.
This is a friendly, laid-back place where strangers are encouraged to take their turn at the mic, so if you're spoiling for a fight, you'd best go elsewhere. They don't let in anyone under 25, a policy that "cuts down on the riff-raff," explains "Son" Morris. And you won't hear any of that rabble-rousing hip-hop or rap music, just Al Green, Wilson Pickett and Diana Ross.
Laid out like a diner, the Morris has plenty of booth seating and a few high stools at the well-lit bar, but feel free to dance wherever the spirit seizes you. The menu can be memorized at a glance — wings, fish, shrimp, chicken strips and burgers — but there's often a small bar-food buffet to fuel hungry singers.
The beer here is all bottled, with Corona the most exotic brew, but the bar stocks the usual array of spirits and a few domestic wines. Make sure you're good and ripped before you order a pickled pig's foot from the jar behind the counter.
Located a block or so south of Hosea Williams Drive, the Morris is struggling just to survive, so don't wait too long to check out this diamond in the rough.
Morris Restaurant & Lounge, 2254 Oakview Road. 404-377-5348.
|?? Fear factor
?Unless you wet your pants when confronted by common rudeness, fairly low.?It is in a suburban strip mall, after all.
?Only somewhat cruddy, with typically aggressive graffiti such as, “For?a good time, go somewhere else, faget!”
?Unless your idea of foxy is an Iron Horse pictorial, you should polish?up your best set of beer goggles. ??
Unless you tag along with a regular or ride up on a vintage Harley, you aren't likely to find this Lilburn biker bar to be very friendly. The surly middle-aged waitress told me in no uncertain terms that the Zoo has been serving the same crowd for the past 25 years and doesn't cotton to newcomers or yuppies.
Like seemingly every other business in Gwinnett, this one's wedged into an?anonymous strip mall shopping center. Inside, however, the Zoo is fairly scuzzy,?with worn-out vinyl bar stools and a wooden floor blackened with wear. One?wall is covered with framed wildlife prints; for the rest of the bar, they've?gone with a familiar NASCAR-and-Bud theme, punctuated with Rebel flags and?a "Welcome bikers!" banner.
The list of draft beer is predictably brief, the bar menu includes all the usual suspects, plus salads, and cocktails are served in heavy glass mugs. The Zoo's clientele presumably appreciates that a guy can get hammered here cheap; a well whiskey drink will run you a paltry $2.75. You can also buy T-shirts supporting ABATE, the bikers' anti-helmet, pro-head-injury lobby.
If, for some reason, you decide to check out this cracker barrel, be prepared to see some nu-metal freak with a buzz cut and a pierced nose hogging the jukebox so he can hear the Nickelback catalog.
Zoo Tavern, 900 Indian Trail Road, Lilburn. 770-925-2214.
|?? Fear factor
?For a white boy, walking in here is like a Farrakhan disciple hawking the Final?Call at a monster truck rally. Hell, this place could scare away Mike?Tyson.
?Tell you what: You check 'em out and get back to us.
?Put it out of your mind, Romeo, unless you want to get cut. ??
With Vine City the focus of recent urban renewal efforts, the Pittsburgh community, south of downtown and west of I-75/85, may be the roughest area of Atlanta. Perched on the 'hood's southern fringe, just off University Avenue, is a 30-plus-year-old establishment that's one of the few old-school black bars left in the city.
To call Speak Easy a no-frills dive is like saying Blondie is uninhibited. The walls are blue-painted cinder block, like an old public school; the floor is bare cement with a slope to it worse than most movie theaters. The furniture consists of vinyl booths and mismatched thrift-store chairs. If this joint were below ground, it'd make a great bomb shelter.
The most popular libation seems to be quart bottles of Bud. The bar serves only canned soft drinks and domestic beer in bottles. Although there's no liquor, I noticed several old-timers toting their own half-pints of Mad Dog. For snacks, they sell potato chips and pork rinds.
The jukebox is stocked with classics — James Brown, Aretha, Luther Vandross — and folks aren't shy about dancing. For those given to less strenuous pursuits, Speak Easy has a booth selling lottery tickets and a TV permanently tuned to Quick Cash Keno. The clothing policy appears to be "wear some."
This is one dive where out-of-place visitors can expect to draw some lingering glares from the regulars, who tend to feel protective toward their watering hole. One old guy who asked to see what I was writing snatched away my notepad, tore out the piece of paper I was writing on, crumpled it up and ran out the door.
Speak Easy, 1187 Ira St. at University Avenue. 404-758-7750.