Best dive bars
Nightlife editor Ben Zenitsky tours the most distinctive neighborhood joints in town, finding plenty of cheap beer, saucy bartenders, wisecracking barflies and terrifying bathrooms.
Ruckmoor Lounge. Photo by Jeffry Konczal.
If I ever make it to heaven, I’d like to discover what lies beyond those Pearly Gates is a tired yet majestic old watering hole—with bottomless kegs and great big mugs—where I can pull up a stool, hear stories and enjoy frosty brews with my grandpa . . . and maybe Richard Pryor. I doubt they would have much in common, but that’s the strange thing about great dives: They have that odd way of bringing people together.
Many perceive these kinds of places as little more than dirt-ridden, salty spots filled with seasoned folks with smokers’ voices surrounded by all manner of wacky crap on the walls. But a truly established dive adheres to a strict set of guidelines. These are wholly unpretentious, family-run taverns with loads of character, a corps of regulars and a palpable history.
The following six joints are all top examples (a story documenting every dive in Columbus would look like an encyclopedia). They all excel based on the criteria listed above. Also factored in is value (no pint or bottle of Bud should run much more than $3), friendliness (can you sit up at the bar and be one of the guys?) and, near the top of the list, the all-telling bathroom. (Give me a heavily stained porcelain trough over a spit-shined urinal any day.)
Let’s dive right in to these can’t-miss saloons.
RED BRICK INN
292 E. Gates St., Merion Village
I’m welcomed outside the Red Brick Inn—a corner dive in a quiet residential area of Merion Village—by a woman lighting a cigarette who asks if I want a beer. She’s the bartender. I tell her I’m in no hurry, but no sooner does she take her first drag than she stamps it out on the sidewalk and follows me through the door. An older woman in the middle of a conversation standing just inside interrupts herself and tells the smoker that she’ll take care of me. Though a Bud is a perfectly acceptable $2.75, I order an Old Leghumper, a porter from Akron-based Thirsty Dog Brewing Company. The older woman asks if I’m sure. Yes, I tell her. OK, she says, just before yelling aloud to the entire bar, “He wants a Leghumper!”
“Who doesn’t?” mutters the bartender.
I immediately like it here. Taking a seat at the bar, I have a look around. There’s a good 15 or so people either at the counter or the slew of tables across from it. I’m flanked by a bearded younger guy in a skull cap taking gulps from a can of Busch Light and an older bespectacled man reading a book. A handwritten sign next to the taps reads “Jell-O shots $1” (though the bartender later offers me one for free).
The kitsch factor here has been cranked to 11. There’s a giant model pirate ship, a life-sized marlin and a row of old ceramic figurines (which I later discover to be vintage Jim Beam decanters) lining the mantle behind the bar. “Tush” by ZZ Top plays as a small group of younger people throws darts between a “Creature from the Black Lagoon” pinball machine and a flat-screen TV with the news covering the revolution in Egypt.
The bartender tells me the Red Brick has been around since the late 1940s, when it started, she believes, as a grocery store. Meanwhile, the neighborhood saloon is celebrating its 10th anniversary under its current ownership. History—thanks in large part to the owner’s apparent fondness for old sports memorabilia, trinkets and other oddities—echoes from these walls.
The skull-capped guy tells me his good friend lives in the apartment upstairs and that he’s here all the time. A chipper woman in her late 20s enters and sits opposite him and breaks the news that she’s just been canned from her bartending job. “And you don’t even drink while you work,” says the bartender, sipping from her cocktail.
“I’ve never been fired before!” says the woman with a shocked smile.
The men’s room is similar to my assumption of what Guantanamo Bay inmates likely have to share, with the confined stall shielded only by a worn shower curtain. A truly fantastic dive.
345 Agler Rd., Gahanna
Dolphin Lounge, just north of Port Columbus, is the real deal. It overflows with character: lava lamps along the bar, novelty furniture, a pervasive blue and white dolphin theme. The friendly bartender, Deanna, works along with her husband and what appears to be a close-knit group of others who each enjoy drinks at the bar while occasionally slipping off to the back room and returning moments later. The owner is Lori, whose mother and family appear in several framed photos behind the sunken bar. She’ll be in later, I’m told. There are no taps, only bottles and cans, but it’s worth it just to be here.
I arrive at about 7 pm on a Saturday, and there are fewer than 10 people seated around the bar who all know one another, exchanging stories and laughs. I order a beer ($3.25 for a bottle of Bud is pushing it) and scope the place out. Deanna tells me the ancient-looking machine I’m inspecting is the oldest working jukebox that plays 45s in the state. Next to it is a round tabletop Pong arcade game that no longer works; it’s being used as a coffee table.
Three flat-screen TVs are situated around the bar, each one tuned to a different basketball game. The Buckeyes, playing at Northwestern, are leading by a steady 10 to 12 points early in the second half.
One woman, seated at the end of the bar, is wearing a tiara, beads and a sash. The others give her a hard time about it being her 40th birthday. “Thirty-nine!” she says. “I’m only 39!” She proceeds to describe the details surrounding her DWI arrest the previous week in Gahanna. She’s innocent, she claims, arrested while stone sober. She speaks of it more anecdotally than bitterly. The man seated next to her, a longtime friend and former high school classmate, swaps a tale of his own misfortunes with the law.
In the larger dining area opposite the bar, there’s a small stage. Deanna tells me they have live music five nights a week and the longest running blues jam in Columbus each Monday. There’s a pool table, foosball and even a cornhole arcade, which the birthday girl reveals to be “shit.”
The dim, yellow-lit men’s room is a broom closet. A urinal and a toilet are separated by a divider only, no door or stall. God help you if you’re shy—or claustrophobic.
2996 E. Livingston Ave., near Whitehall
I leave Dolphin Lounge and head south to T.T. Murph’s, near the corner of Livingston Avenue and James Road. It’s a Shamrock-speckled Irish dive that’s much livelier—filled with mostly older folks clad in scarlet and gray. The bar is lined with TVs and I’m surprised to discover Northwestern has tied OSU with under a minute left to play. The groups of men at the tables are hooting and barking at the game. I ask a younger man seated in front of the door what happened. “Mistakes,” he replies.
After ordering a beer ($3 for a pint of Bud), I find myself—along with the rest of the crowd—engrossed in the game, in which a Jared Sullinger foul shot winds up making the difference with 3.5 seconds left. Down one point, the desperate Wildcats miss a half-court shot just before the buzzer sounds. Smiles and high fives are exchanged.
The joint empties significantly after the game. “You’re The One That I Want,” from Grease, begins to play. On his way out, a man grasps the shoulder of a friend. “How ’bout them Bucks, huh,” he says. “Pulled another one out.”
Adorned along the walls are banners and memorabilia paying homage to nearby Catholic high schools Bishop Hartley and St. Charles. There are even a few Notre Dame knickknacks to be found. High on the back wall hang jerseys of Buckeye football greats Chris Spielman and A.J. Hawk. Meanwhile, likely unknown to anyone here, former Buckeye hockey star Ryan Kesler can be seen in the NHL All-Star skills competition on one of the smaller TVs behind the bar.
The men’s room isn’t bad, with some color and a stall door with a latch. In the small kitchen across the hall, a lone man with a smock slathers tomato sauce on raw pizza dough. Back in the depleted bar area, two high schoolers who appear to be on a date sit at the counter and munch on French fries. The sole bartender, a middle-aged woman, snatches one from their basket. Everybody seems to know everybody here—a sign of a good dive.
7496 N. High St., Crosswoods
“Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan greets me overtop the laughs of a handful of older patrons at the Ruckmoor Lounge on a Saturday evening—the doorway a veritable portal to yesteryear. The jukebox seems to be the only updated piece of hardware in this north-side dive, which has called Columbus home since 1958, a history it shows with great pride.
In its early years, before there was an I-270, the now-sprawling Crosswoods was little more than vast open fields. “It was pretty barren,” co-owner Jim Rucker says of the area. Rucker, who owns the bar with his two sisters, is the son of the late Bob Rucker, who bought what used to be the Pearly Gates Motel and converted it to the Ruckmoor. Hoping to sell the land where the additional buildings of the motel stood, the elder Rucker had the Worthington fire department burn down all the former rooms back around 1980. (The area surrounding the bar now consists of a Red Roof Inn, Bob Evans and a Mexican restaurant called El Acapulco.)
If you’re like me and desperately crave a frosty one at sunup (ha!), the Ruck opens every morning except Sunday at 5:30. Jim Rucker says opening the bar at the crack of dawn has been a tradition since his dad started it 50 years ago to accommodate late shifters. “It used to be packed at 5:30, 6 in the morning,” he says. “We’d have Worthington Steel and Anheuser-Busch guys in here all the time.” Anymore, though, the wee-hours crowd has all but vanished. “I’m not sure what happened to them all,” Rucker says (although I’m told the Ruck remains a hot spot for studying seminarians at the Pontifical College Josephinum across the street).
It seems a suitable watering hole for brewers, as tables and chairs have been retrofitted from vintage wooden kegs. Old framed photos line the walls, telling the tale of the venerable pub and its founder, a World War II veteran who died in 2009. Though he’s no longer here, his memory fills these walls. One of the bartenders fondly asks the small group of regulars: “You remember how Ruck used to keep the temperature at 500 degrees?”
As for the beer, a pint of Blue Moon costs $3. Enough said. On this Saturday night, the perennial saloon is pretty lifeless, save for those few good ole boys sitting around the bar. One of them, already clearly inebriated despite it being only about 7 pm, struggles to stand. But, in an act staunchly in defiance of physics, he manages to go three-for-three on the ring toss game, in which a ring on a string attached to the ceiling is swung at a hook on a wooden pillar.
If I were seeking an elementary lesson in the female anatomy as etched by car keys and scrawled by Sharpie markers, then this cramped bathroom might be my classroom. Perhaps these cave drawings might one day be rediscovered by archaeologists intent on learning about our culture. Indeed, this whole place is a time capsule and should be treasured.
397 Crestview Rd., Clintonville
If you’re in the mood for some darts on a Saturday night, Clintonville’s Crest Tavern has you covered. The bar, which has stood on the corner of Crestview Road and Indianola Avenue for decades, brings in a good crowd on Saturday nights, a decent cross-section of the neighborhood: young guys with thick beards, older blue-collar guys and a handful of younger women (graduate students making the short trek from north campus, I figure).
The pub is split into two main rooms—the barroom and the darts area, which is fairly crowded and also has a foosball table that’s in use the entire time I’m there. The bathroom is the best one yet. It’s the end destination in a utility room maze that snakes past several spare kegs and the building’s furnace. It’s small, it’s dark, it’s vintage dive.
“House of the Rising Sun” plays as I pull up a stool at the bar. The Crest has a diverse (and frequently changing) roster on tap. In addition to the regulars, there are finer brews available during my visit, such as Tröegs HopBack amber ale and Dark Horse lager from Elevator Brewing Company, to name a few. They’re not inexpensive, but what are cheap are the cans of Natty Light for $1.50. Stuck to the mirrored wall behind the cash register are a few dozen Post-It notes displaying each open tab, which the bartender routinely updates with a pencil as sales are made.
The bar’s owner, Craig Dupler, tells me the space was an ice cream shop during Prohibition before becoming a bar. His dad bought it in 1960, but later sold it and retired—a move he would regret. With the sale, the bar became louder, rowdier and a haven for fights, Dupler says. His father reclaimed the place in the early ’90s, and, in an attempt to erase its recent memory, redacted the first name of the previous owner on the sign, which the guy had added in front of “Crest Tavern” when he bought it.
According to Dupler, the best night to come is Monday, when the tavern hosts a live music jam. “It’s off the hook,” he says. Frequently included in the lineup is sitar player Hans Utter (recently featured in Columbus Monthly). “The guy’s gifted,” he says of the musician. Hey, any dive bar that can incorporate a sitar player is OK in my book.
Dupler credits his father’s philosophy with the tavern’s success under his family’s ownership. “He sat me down and said, ‘There’s a few things you need to know about this place, boy,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘You give [people] a good shot at a reasonable price, keep the bullshit out and you’ll be OK.’ I’ve lived by that philosophy ever since.”
JOHNNIE’S GLENN AVENUE GRILL
1491 Glenn Ave., near Grandview
Stepping into Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill, it’s hard not to immediately notice the attractive blonde behind the bar. Her name’s Jenn, and she’s frequently the center of attention for all the good ole boys in attendance tonight. Between endless jokes and yarns, blushing men—mostly balding—intermittently approach the counter, each vying for her attention, laughing and flirting and calling her by name or “sweetheart” before picking their poison.
The bar area is cozy. This is not the kind of place you go when you want a quiet spot to drink or get away. A second room—incidentally in the conjoined house next door—has a pool table and a “South Park” pinball machine.
I take one of the few empty seats next to an older man happily conversing with the pretty bartender, who shakes her head at me. “Good luck sitting there,” she says, a sly jab at the guy, who’s quite the talker. I order a Bud Select. For $1.75, you can’t beat that. A few minutes pass and Jenn pours me a shot of Bushmills whiskey as a reward for “shutting up.” I’m not sure what that means, but I’m gracious nonetheless. She pours one for herself and we toast before taking them down.
Though “Grill” is in the name on the iconic neon sign hanging outside, Johnnie’s doesn’t serve any food. So everyone’s attention turns to the door as a deliveryman drops off two delectable smelling pizzas from nearby Grandad’s for a small group at one of the tables.
Two elderly men sit on the recently emptied stools to my right. I’m introduced to Bill and Fritz, a pair of kind, longtime regulars who tell me their favorite nights to come are those when Jenn is working. Bill even has her work schedule memorized.
Adorned in cardboard made to look like ceramic tile, the men’s room here boasts motion sensor activated urinals, which stick out in this dive like an iPhone in the Dark Ages.
Owner John Buscemi Jr. says his dad bought the joint in 1942 and that he’s been running it since his death in the early ’60s.
Combining rich history with a lively and welcoming atmosphere, cheap beer (not to mention 25 cent chips and candy bars) and a massive collection of autographed OSU football photos, this is arguably the best dive in Columbus. Not quite heaven, but not too far off either.
Ben Zenitsky is an assistant editor for Columbus Monthly.