One night at Northside Tavern

Amid a landscape of shiny new “West Midtown” development, a shabby old blues club is an oasis of old-school debauchery

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One night at Northside Tavern

Photograph by Growl

This story is part of Atlanta magazine’s Streets Issue—a block-by-block exploration of our city and the stories it tells. Find the entire package here.

We were somewhere between the rowdy pool tables and Breathalyzer machine, on the cusp of what felt like a dangerous night, when the Jägermeister began to take hold. It was Friday at Northside Tavern, sometime after 11 p.m. The blues shack was jumping and jovial—until the band took a break, and a clean-cut guy who’d just bought Santa Claus a beer decided to hop on stage and blather something into the microphone. The lead singer, a long-haired man straight from the pages of Lynyrd Skynyrd liner notes, stormed onstage, took back the mic, pointed to the daredevil, and shouted to an imposing herd of bouncers:

“Get him the fuck out of here!”

Just two hours before, I’d been chugging coffee in my driveway, waiting on the Lyft to arrive. I’d convinced three other dads in my neighborhood to accompany me on “an adventure” to the fabled bar on Howell Mill Road, in which I was setting foot for the first time. We all were whipped—yawning, even—by a long workweek and parenting duties. Simply arriving at Northside Tavern, as the promise of rare paint-the-town-red freedom met the thump of live music, proved an immediate elixir.

One night at Northside Tavern

Photograph by Growl

One night at Northside Tavern

Photograph by Growl

Clad in beer advertisements, grubby stucco, and barred windows befitting a federal prison, the Northside’s building has stood since the 1940s, originally a grocery and gas station. It’s been a blues club and black-sheep cornerstone of Atlanta’s music scene for the past 50 years, operated by the same family, the Webbs. They’ve defied offers to sell and opted to make zero improvements, which today renders the Northside almost comically out-of-place—but gloriously so. It’s the sort of shabby shack you’d expect to find on some Mississippi red-dirt road, not in the epicenter of trendy “West Midtown,” surrounded by a Tetris-like explosion of refined new development. Especially on weekends, it’s a rollicking contrast to townhomes going for $1.1 million across the street.

Northside’s black-painted interior, we soon found, is about the size of a two-bedroom condo, but with better acoustics. It could catch fire and not change much. Perfect, basically.

Once the would-be emcee was whooshed from the premises by a riptide of muscle, the boogie came back quick. The diverse crowd, lit like jellyfish in Bud Light blue, swayed to a cover of “Got My Mojo Working.” The Jäger shots also working, it was time for a round of Thermos-sized, $6 PBRs—and to pay homage to Wall of Fame paintings with the likes of Blind Willie McTell and Sean Costello. Beneath black ceiling tiles and sticker-bedecked archways, a cast of dive-bar characters came to life: the convivial, hippie Santa; a couple of Dansby Swanson doppelgangers with blondes on their arms; a guy hugging me at the bar—impressed by the “real holes” in my T-shirt, as opposed to designer holes—who could play Wiz Khalifa in a biopic; and our favorite, a cocky pool player in a suave dinner jacket, described by my pal Cameron as the captain of “high style but very low skill.”

One night at Northside Tavern

Photograph by Growl

One night at Northside Tavern

Photograph by Growl

By midnight, everybody was hooting and dancing but, despite the packed house, remaining thoroughly polite to one another. In the tiny bathroom, near the sink, I witnessed something I hadn’t seen since a Las Vegas bachelor party, while the singer shouted from the stage, “HowyadoinNorthside!” to a woo-woo-woo response. The band finally simmered down at 2 a.m., all the long lacquered tables crowded with empties, our pal Ben sleep-standing in an archway. I used my little recorder to conduct joke interviews about my accomplices’ impressions: “Overall,” said Cameron, “it’s like Clermont Lounge, but with less strippers and more live music.” Shannon went deeper: “It’s all of it together—the grime, the acoustics, the neon signs, the barstools. It’s amazing in here. The crowd’s a wonderful mix: frat, bar rat, ATL culture. It’s a good thing to see in Atlanta—all these pockets together, with music.”

We spilled back into the parking lot, in a canyon of stacked flats and offices, feeling as if we’d experienced the antithesis of lockdown, the type of bacchanal nobody’s taking for granted, and a little bar that should not only exist but be exalted to cultural-landmark status. We wobbly dads agreed: If the Northside Tavern ever dies, for whatever reason, this city should be ashamed of itself.

This article appears in our August 2022 issue.

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