Among Atlanta tastemakers, the cocktail is now king. From Peachtree Road to Edgewood Avenue, the city's trendiest bars and restaurants are concocting creative libations using obscure ingredients and flashy mixology skills, and serving them up in ever-hipper, of-the-moment environments.
To be certain, it's a rich and heady time to be a cocktail connoisseur.
But what about nontastemakers? The regular Joe, the average barfly, the working stiff who just wants a cold one after a rough third shift? Fact is, in many of Atlanta's watering holes — the ones tucked away in unobtrusive buildings on side streets or in aging strip shopping centers — the typical drink comes in a can, a long-neck or a plastic cup. And for the regular patrons, they're every bit as satisfying as anything made with imported bitters or herbal infusions, and a hell of a lot easier on the wallet.
Of course, you could drink cheap beer on your couch. But that's where the neighborhood dive bar comes in. These havens provide a home away from home, a sanctuary from domestic concerns and temporary, if inebriated, companionship in familiar surroundings. And, if you're not too picky, they can also rustle you up a burger or a basket of wings.
Because of Georgia's famously backward liquor laws and our city's propensity to tear down anything that's been around more than a generation, Atlanta largely lacks the kind of corner bar that can be found so readily in the blue-collar neighborhoods of Chicago and New York.
Still, dive bars are out there if you look hard enough. To be clear, we're not talking about places like Northside Tavern or the erstwhile Lenny's or even the Clermont Lounge, which were long ago embraced by hipsters and musicians despite — or, more properly, because of — their grunginess. To meet our definition of a dive, it's not enough for a joint to be a shithole. It has to be an irony-free shithole.
Nor can we lend our approval to Five Paces Inn, the Buckhead Pool Hall or other places crowded with frat boys all weekend. Ideally, when you first walk into a dive, you should feel a bit uncomfortable, maybe even a little concerned for your safety, as the regulars turn to see who just stepped onto their turf. Asking for a fancy drink should earn you a funny look. The wrong word could get you cut.
A dive bar should feel lived-in, with rounded corners and well-worn floors. It should indulge no pretensions, follow no trends. It doesn't need to be old, but it helps. Any decent dive should have a timeless quality, as if the outside world has left it untouched. You can't manufacture the kind of unpracticed carelessness that goes into achieving dive-dom. It has to occur organically. A proper dive is a place where a guy can expect to drink at the same barstool for 20 years without worrying that the room will get remodeled or a new chef will overhaul the menu.
Above all, a dive bar should serve cheap, cold beer and have enough spirits on hand to lend some variety.
Let us then salute the holdouts that, in all their casual squalor, serve to enrich and diversify metro Atlanta's drinking scene. Viva la dive bar!
The Beer Barrel
1294 Roswell Road, Marietta. 770-321-1543.
This almost comically tiny bar has been serving drinks since 1957, up until four years ago, also operating as package store, a holdover from when that sort of thing was still legal. At the time the bar's former owners retired, the place was believed to be the last remaining hybrid bar-package store left in metro Atlanta.
When current owner Terri Alvey took over, she renamed the joint, closed up its drive-thru window(!) and started slinging brews to the bar's many longtime regulars, some of whom show a near-worrisome devotion to the establishment.
"We open at 9 a.m. and most days folks are already waiting in the parking lot," Alvey states proudly.
Really? That doesn't quite seem healthy.
"Well, they're mostly retired veterans," she adds, as if that fact makes the thought of a morning beer buzz more palatable.
But there's an American Legion hall up the street. Why don't they just go there?
"The legion hall doesn't open till 11," Alvey says.
There's a limited selection of spirits and a handful of draughts, but the regulars bellied up to the bar seem partial to bottled beers, anyway, which Alvey pulls from galvanized steel tubs filled with ice. But most of her time is spent selling and redeeming Keno cards. With two TVs tuned to the Georgia Lottery and patrons busy scribbling on cards all day, Alvey says she's been told the Beer Barrel does more Keno business than any other bar in the state — a frankly insane statistic considering the place's size. It's difficult to imagine a functioning bar smaller than the Beer Barrel. The rectangular wooden bar seats about 15 and there are another half-dozen stools along a side wall, but any fire marshal worth his saltpeter would likely cap occupancy at 35. Apart from beer-themed bar lamps, the only décor of note consists of hundreds of signed dollar bills stapled to the ceiling. The only food to be had on a recent visit was a Crock-Pot full of complimentary, self-serve hot dogs.