Searching for Asheville’s perfect dive bar

CLASSIC DIVE: Owner Paul Martin stands behind the bar at Ole Shakey's — one institution among Asheville's dwindling number of dive bars. For some patrons, these timeworn buildings are vestiges of decades past. Photo by Cindy Kunst

You know the place. When you drive past at night, it looks closed. It’s usually a freestanding joint that’s 50 years old or more, with bars on the windows and a simple sign (if any).

But drive by at 4 p.m., and the parking lot’s packed. Inside, there’s probably a pool table, lots of neon signs, maybe a poker machine or two, and a jukebox loaded up with classic country songs.

Often labeled (or mislabeled) a “dive bar,” such a place is an icon of a city’s culture. But in Asheville, it’s a rare breed, overtaken by gentrification and changes in clientele. Xpress asked an expert — and a few bar owners — to talk about the places that hang on.

‘Dive’ or simply ‘classic’?

Many patrons pass by Ole Shakey’s on their long walk from a hard-to-get parking space for the Bywater on Riverside Drive. Originally a biker bar called Hot Spot, the decades-old place has been renamed by its new owner, former truck driver Paul Martin. Looking over the fence at the crowded Bywater parking lot, he says, “We just want something a little different over here. I don’t want dogs or children or people tubing off the river.

“We are an adult bar. We just want people to come have a good time with each other.”

The renovated AstroTurf patio features a gas grill and root ball court. A lattice-covered awning shields patrons from the sun, the French Broad River rolls by and a fire pit crackles and pops. “We have more of a day-drinking crowd,” says Martin. “Come back around 3 p.m., and this patio will be full.”

“I think a lot of these bars are such an attraction to us because they are so different than who we are,” says Dusty Allison, an account executive for Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine but also a local “fixer,” or chronicler of dive-bar crawls, for culture publication Paste. Despite a blue-collar upbringing, he now works in a downtown office and tends to imbibe in Asheville’s upscale downtown bars.

“When I think dive bar, I think ‘blue-collar.’ I think of a working man’s bar,” says Allison. “There’s some Waylon [Jennings] or Johnny Paycheck on the juke box, and it’s beer as cold and cheap as you can get it.”

Burger Bar basics

Many of Asheville’s old watering holes have succumbed to gentrification. Years ago, the Polar Bar — a nondescript place a hard stone’s throw from Biltmore Village — became the restaurant Stove Trotters before morphing into Moe’s Barbecue.

But some have tried to maintain the tradition, culture and spirit that Allison talks about. The Burger Bar lays claim to being Asheville’s oldest continuously open bar, once opening at 10 a.m. to service third-shifters getting off work at the stockyard across the street.

But times change. New Belgium Brewing Co.’s new East Coast facility is nearing completion on the stockyard site, and the Burger Bar has new owners — Celeste Adams and Chris King.

Allison says the place “went from being guys driving in from Candler … to our ilk: the hipster Asheville demographic.” He wonders if media attention in recent years “ate away some of the mystique.”

Perhaps, but Adams says, “The Burger Bar has been open since 1960, so there have been times where it has been really jumping off down there, and there have been serious lulls.”

And the base clientele changed. “When we bought the business from Ms. Rita, there weren’t that many regulars left anymore, [though] a lot of them still do come,” she says. “We set out to keep the Burger Bar going, but we can’t pay our bills with only 10 customers. So we had to bring some new life back into it.”

Allison comments, “I had conversations with so many people over the years about the Burger Bar, and I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to go in there.’ Well, why didn’t you? … Asheville people will hate hearing this — there is more of a safety and comfort for [them] now because some of that ‘otherness’ is gone.”

One more round

Take a drive a little out of town, down a side street or two, and you’ll find a classic bar, its owners still pulling the chain on its open sign. Let’s call it “Another Round” — to protect its purity and maintain its mystique.

Housed in a 1950s stone building, Another Round has changed names and purposes a handful of times, from a gas station to its current incarnation. Inside, there’s a grill — if you’re lucky and if they feel like it, the bartender will grill you up a burger. Fliers on the wall announce benefits for patrons who’ve fallen ill or been injured.

A sign reads, “No racial comments tolerated.”

When my group and I arrive, some customers are setting up for an anniversary party. Streamers hang above the karaoke stand, and folks file in, bringing covered dishes for the couple’s potluck dinner. This is a family bar, a neighborhood joint, timeless — the kind of place where a mother and her grown daughter both tend bar.

Whether it’s Ole Shakey’s or Cowboys Lounge in Asheville, the Tiki Bar at Lake Lure or Flat Creek Tavern in Weaverville, when you find the real thing, it’s clear. Call it authenticity — but that can almost be degrading and trite for something so right.

“You know, I can’t imagine that the folks who opened these bars in the ’60s and ’70s were saying, ‘Hey, let’s open a dive bar!'” says Allison. “It was just ‘the bar’ to them, and it still is.”

Sometimes, such places are what’s left after the decades of wear and tear have stripped away the polish of whatever was trendy at the time, like a fading photograph of a disappearing Asheville.

“Whether it’s vintage or just some remnant of the past,” Allison muses, “we celebrate that, but sometimes with the way we celebrate them, I don’t know if we are hurting or helping that legacy.”

In other words, to preserve what we’ve always had, we often destroy what we loved about it in the first place.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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6 thoughts on “Searching for Asheville’s perfect dive bar

  1. Tammy Ray

    Just for the record, the ‘new owner’ did not change the name to Ole Shakeys. Ole Shakey was an actual person. A wonderful man named Tom Teeples; Shakey to all who knew and loved him. He ran a family bar, meaning we were all family there……loved each other, supported each other, lived life together. When it flooded twice in two weeks back in 2004 from the hurricanes, the people who loved Shakey rebuilt it out of love for him. It wasn’t just a business to Shakey, not just a way to make money, but a way to connect with people and enjoy life, and it wasn’t just a place to buy beer with us. It was a place just like Cheers……where everybody knew your name and loved you. He made it a wonderful place until his death a few years ago. I have seen the changes as I have driven by, and I’ve heard from friends that it is not the welcoming, loving place it once was. Word has gotten out ‘no bikes wanted,’ (as in motorcycles to the current Asheville crowd – your bicycle will be welcome I’m very sure!) the old crowd not really welcome. Sad really that Asheville is losing its special places that we once called home. I hope it does well……I just won’t be going there ever again.

  2. It is really too bad that the author of this piece did not do their research on the correct facts about these bars/beer joints. More fiction then fact.

  3. Tammy Robinson

    I Am A Native Of Asheville N.C. & I So Agree With Tina Ray & Debbie Liner Who Is A Dear Biker Friend Of Mine . I Grew Up Here In This Area With A Big Family & Some Of My Fondest Memories Were At The Asheville Speedway With Our Dad & Uncles & Siblings & Cousins . Our Dad & Uncles Ran Around To All The Local Beer Joints In The Area Including The Old Haywood Bar . The Rock Bar You Named( One More Round) . The New Name Is Just One More . There Was The Caribou Club, The Rock Hut , The Burger Bar Which The Previous Owners Son Is My Brother In Law . The Sweeten Creek Bar & Grill , Crazy Charlie’s . Cowboys , Faye’s Drive-In, The Eagles Nest, The Mt. View. The Fireplace Tavern, & Many More ~ I Grew Up Knowing The People Who Ran These As You Call Them( Dive-Bars ) & As A Adult I Have Worked In A Couple Of Them Also . But The People I Have Meet Along My Journey Are Some Of The Kindest, Truest Human Beings On This Planet . As You Stated These Places In Our Town Are A Dying Breed . They Have Been Taken Over By People Who Just Do Not Get How Close A Dive Bar’s Family Truly Watch Out For One Another , Help Each Other With Work , Food If They Need It. Or Just A Really Cold Beer & A Ear To Listen To There Problems . When You Do That For People, You Would Be Surprised What They Would Do In Return For You ! I Am A Good Person & So Are All The Other People Who Love These Places As Much As I Do . It Is Sad That People Move Here & Try To Change So Much Of What Makes Asheville , { ASHEVILLE } As Far As the Original Ole Shakeys , I Met The Man Behind The Bar – He Was A Nice Man . As Far As The New Owner I Have Met Him Also & I Am Not Impressed At All ! He Was Down Right Rude To Me When I Tried To Give Him A Compliment . I Think He See’s $ Signs When He Looks Next Door . They Are A Liquor Bar & Ole Shakeys Is A Beer Joint , Or Was Anyway . He Has Told The Bikers He Does Not Want Us There, So I Will Totally Spend My Money Somewhere They Want My Business … And I Do Agree Completely on What Mr. Ammons Said (Kind Of) , The Statement About- We Do Often Destroy What We Loved About It In The First Place . Only I Do Not Feel It Is The People That Truly Loved It That Are Destroying It ~ It Is The People That Walk In & Do Not See The Luster & Beauty That Lies In The Heart Of The People That Make It Great .

  4. Joann

    I bartended for Shakey. The original Shakeys was a fun caring place. We all had fun but also looked out for each other. We partied hard but supported each other. Unfortunately places like the old Shakeys are hard to find. Wish that type of bar would come back!

  5. Myra price

    I’m the bartender at Just1more and my daughter was a bartender here also. We are a bar that takes care of our community. We save our cand and sponsor 2 families for the holidays every year. We also help with toy runs and when someone needs a hand up we try to be there. That’s called family. Mark Erwin and Charli Morris are amazing owners who are very good to everyone.

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