Years ago, I was invited to join a social club made up of local businessmen (yes, business men) and professionals, most of whom also shared the experience of being alumni of a certain northeastern institution best known for being the birthplace of college football and Mr. Magoo’s alma mater, Rutgers University. The club, whose membership was exclusively male—as you might have already guessed—would meet four times a year for the sole purpose of socializing. By socializing I mean, of course, dining, drinking, telling jokes and either bragging about our latest business conquest or commiserating with and salving the wounds of those who might have fallen on challenging times. Knowing and trusting the member who invited me, I attended the club’s new member event and joined. Now, leaving aside the merits or even the propriety, or lack thereof, of such an organization in this day and age, I tell you about it as a way of introducing the topic of this post, so if you’ll allow me a few more expository sentences…
One of the four quarterly gatherings of the club was the annual Winter Gala. Held in December, the Gala was a spiffy, black-tie affair involving, in addition to dinner and drinks, a white elephant gift exchange and the singing of ribald versions of our favorite Christmas carols. The official club function would usually last about three hours. When it was over, several of the members, myself included, not yet having had our fill of drink and merriment, would depart for one of the local watering holes—what some might ungenerously call a “dump” or my preferred moniker, a “dive bar”—in our silk and satin finery to continue the festivities. Once there, the patrons, who were almost uniformly drunk by the time we arrived, would cast sideways glances at our apparent, sartorial pretentiousness while the bartenders would roll their eyes at our drink orders: martinis, manhattans and other concoctions that required more than just pulling on a tap to fill a pint glass of somewhat questionable cleanliness.
We would poke fun at each other and tell jokes at the top of our lungs and take turns buying the occasional round for the regulars. This, of course, put us in good stead with them and engendered good will with the barkeeps. If the place had a juke box, so much the better, some of us liked to sing along with gusto even if we did so badly.
It was during these times that I developed a sincere and ardent fondness for dive bars. And I do mean dive bars, the gritty, grimy places where they don’t have “cocktail lists” and drink specials, where working people go to get away from the spouse, forget about their asshole boss, argue with anybody who’ll listen about the crooked politicians or just get flat-out drunk on purpose.
Let’s be clear, I’m talking about the real thing here, not one of those places that seem to be everywhere now that is trying to look like a dive bar: the rehabilitated defunct bar or restaurant or—true story—gas station that gets converted into a gastro-pub, where hipsters go to feel like they’re having an authentic, working-class bar “experience,” but where the drinks are stirred gently by the resident mixologist (like this guy for example),
contain ingredients you may never have heard of, don’t cost less than fifteen bucks and where most of the taps are filled with beers brewed in rented garages and basements by guys with beards wearing newsboy caps.
Don’t get me wrong, I frequent those kinds of places all the time and I very much appreciate the care and craftsmanship that goes into the cocktails and creating the cool experience. It’s just that sometimes, it’s nice to go old school and catch a few innings of a crappy ballgame while drinking a mass-produced cold one and shooting the shit with a bartender who isn’t trying to up-sell you the latest craze in small-batch whiskeys. The kind of place where my old man could be found on a Friday night after his shift was over, where my mom would send me to fetch him home because supper was getting cold.
My favorite, the one we would go to most often back then, is long gone. It went under during The Great Recession and will never come back. But I found a new place.
I went to Key West, Florida last year to scatter my dad’s ashes into the ocean at the Southernmost Point. There’s a whole story behind that, but it’s for another time. While there, feeling the need to drink with intent, I happened upon Captain Tony’s Saloon. Yes, that Captain Tony’s. The one Ernest Hemingway got drunk in and Jimmy Buffett has mentioned in song. I’m here to tell you that despite it’s fame and notoriety, it’s a legitimate dump, in the best way possible. It’s loud, it smells bad (on account of the cigarette smoke), it looks awful and it’s just wonderful. In the words of a recent Yelp* reviewer:
“You’ve got to visit this place once. It has history, it has people buried there, and it has lots of drunk people outside trying to throw quarters into the fish mouth in the sign. The only saving grace was that we could get our souvenir cups of captain’s punch to go – and avoid the very loud, very sloppy people inside. While we were there, there was a dance off between a recent divorcee and someone at a bachelor party. That was mildly amusing until it started to get uncomfortable, and by then we were so happy to leave.”
The moment I stepped inside, I knew immediately that I was home. This place isn’t fancy, it isn’t new or shiny or trendy. It’s fun. The drinks are strong, the beer is cold and the music is loud—just like the patrons. If you’re ever in Key West, Captain Tony’s is a great place to get out of the daytime heat and humidity and enjoy a cold drink. And if you’re feeling the vibe and are so inclined, write your name on a dollar bill or, ladies, your brassiere and pin it to the wall (it’s a thing people do there, trust me). Cheers.