Ode to the dive bar

Atlanta isn’t a city of dive bars, but there have been a few memorable watering holes
Illustration by Dennis Erikkson/Snyder New York

The Austin Avenue Buffet, which legend has it was once Atlanta’s oldest drinking establishment, closed around the millennium with a tearful auction of its artifacts.

I bought one of the barroom mirrors. Blackened by Windex-defying cigarette smoke, they did not reflect much—a blessing for the weather-beaten mourners enjoying one last unsteady waltz to a Faron Young song on the jukebox. Bullet holes in the walls attested to “creative differences” in the ironworkers’ union, an old-timer with a goiter the size of a golf ball explained to me. Since the bar’s demise, John Portman’s heirs have manicured the far end of this Inman Park block to a high-end, mixed-use gleam.

The term dive was coined in the 1800s for the implied descent into discreet cellars. Not as music-driven as juke joints or as violent as “blood buckets,” and too lazy for trivia, dives get defined less by what they offer than by what they lack. You won’t find craft cocktails with elderberry infusions or encounter that most despised demographic, the PBR-swilling hipster. In such a place, irony is wielded about as often as a mop, so don’t set your pocketbook on the floor.

Atlanta, with its less-than-intoxicating brew of blue laws, bulldozers, and preening aspiration, has never embraced the dive as enthusiastically as other American cities, but it has historically supported a few memorable ones. Tipplers of a certain vintage might recall the Bearded Clam, the Cove (dank enough for fungus foraging), and the druggy Crystal Palace. The Crazy Horse, which served pre-orthodontia Cabbagetown, stood its scabby ground against gentrification for as long as it could under the supervision of a loose-limbed character named Shad (“old-school C-Town,” he would say before executing a backflip). Meanwhile, high school kids would road-test their fake IDs at the Rusty Nail, which is still beloved for chummy service. Mostly, though, these kinds of watering holes, like their clientele of working-class heroes, have been jostled farther outside the Perimeter.

Dives exist for the elemental consolations of a cold one among other humans just as weary as you are, including the seen-it-all barmaid. It is wise to over-tip and ask about her children (but not about their fathers). She wields more power than the bouncer, and she’s pouring.

This article originally appeared in our August 2014 issue.