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.