The kind of bars that are hard to find and so local to an area they are almost intimidating to enter.
Dive bars have been a fascination of mine ever since I’ve been of drinking age. The kind of bars that are hard to find and so local to an area they are almost intimidating to enter. A conversation a few weeks back with a friend at a local bar got me thinking about going on a true dive bar tour around the Orlando area. The bar we were at was a local hipster enclave frequented by many in my inner circle. My friend began the conversation bemoaning how everyone always comes to this same bar, on the same nights, orders the same thing, and has the same small talk with the same people. The irony of course was that we were in said bar with the same drinks and same people. A great deal of people I know in Orlando only see themselves as having a handful places to go out and have a good time. It would be impossible to keep a tally of the times I’ve heard, “Orlando is so small, everyone knows everyone and goes to the same places, I can’t wait to move to _________” Every time I hear this naive statement I think about how that person will ultimately be able to make any city they move to feel small.If you want to go to a place where everyone knows your name here’s how you do it: Go to said place and go there often, simple as that. You’ll know the bartender and everyone that goes there, you’ll get hooked up on drinks, know all the songs they play and pretty much know what to expect of the night.
Certainly nothing wrong with that but if you began to feel like you are starring in Groundhog Day, know that you are the one at fault. Orlando has over a quarter of a million people living within the city limits and a lot more if you include the immediate surrounding areas. Yelp lists 165 places in downtown Orlando alone to grab a drink but in all reality my friends only go to about 3 of them. Of course there are hundreds more places to grab a drink in areas like Winter Park, Maitland, UCF, the Milk District, Mills/VIMI district, College Park, and many more. For a week though in early September, I decided I only wanted to go to bars I’ve never been to that were on the outside of town. I wanted to switch it up and go to places where no one knows my name, more specifically a place where people would most likely say, “Why the fuck is that guy here?” It became apparent this dream would be easy to fulfill by just going about 15-30 minutes in any direction away from Orlando. With that in mind I decided to try to go out every night for a week to those hole in the walls no one you know goes to.
The first night of the tour began in the Ferncreek area and then moved on to South Orange/OBT area. My drinking partner for the night was my friend Blair and our first stop was the Elk’s Lodge off of Primrose. They are open to the public on Monday for Bingo and the place was packed with over 125 people with their eyes glued to their Bingo charts. The bar was empty since everyone was playing Bingo but we were told that to drink we’d have to come back with a member or on a Thursday for karaoke to grab a drink there. We took an application on our way out the door and headed next to a place called Claddagh’s Cottage off of Curry Ford. This Irish Bar was filled with the smell of Shepard’s pie and excited Irish speak from the patrons who all sounded like true Dubliners. We had an obligatory Guinness as our first beers of the night. The place was cozy, the people were friendly, and the food smelled great but we wrapped up our tab after only a beer; we needed a wilder Monday night scene. We headed south on Orange to a place I’d noticed randomly before while pumping gas, Jerry’s Pub. Jerry’s had about 8 people inside and we were greeted with open arms by the self named “Jerry’s Kids.” We ordered a few Budweiser’s which were two dollars a piece and we conversed with all the patrons. The place was smoky, old, and exactly what we were looking for. The bartender’s husband had brought in some homemade pulled pork and some side dishes so a hungry Blair got to enjoy a solid homemade meal. We quickly knew everyone in the bar which was formerly a barber shop/bar combo that had been around since the 1920′s. We couldn’t have all our fun in one spot though so we left and headed south on Orange to the Belle Isle Yacht Pub. The Yacht Pub is the most recent reincarnation of a building that’s been a number of bars over the years.
The bartender was our age, the patrons were younger folk, and the place had several craft beers on tap. Nothing wrong at all with that but the authenticity of an old school dive bar wasn’t really there so after a beer and a forced sake shot we left to our next destination, the Oakridge TapRoom. Blair and I were both a little nervous going into the Taproom as we’d heard about a shooting there a few weeks ago. Our fears were alleviated though as we walked into the uncrowded and smoke free bar. Our bartender assured us as well that the shooting was a freak occurrence over memorial day weekend and no one was injured. Blair struck up a conversation quickly with a guy at the bar about woodworking and I wandered around taking pictures of things such as a statue of Winston the Dog. After a few beers we decided to hit one more bar that night, the Royal Bar on OBT. I considered this to be the scariest bar of the night due to its location and it mix of thugs, prostitutes, and rednecks who seemed to frequent the place. Blair and I were starting to feel a little saucy at this point and started playing one of the gambling machines in the bar. A local showed us a little trick to cheat that you can sometimes get away with and we exploited it until the bartender caught us and got pretty upset. We decided to call it a night but not before being approached by some younger “working” ladies outside the bar looking for a good time. It was 2am and the ladies had two kids in the car, Blair lectured the one while I took pictures of the other. They obviously weren’t looking for advice on child rearing so they jumped in the car to presumably head to the next bar. Night one was pretty weird, the rest of the week was looking good.
Tuesday night involved hitting bars on Edgewater Drive with my friend Jessica. We stopped at every bar we saw while heading north on Edgewater out of Orlando. Our first stop was a gay bar called Bar Codes. A woman is a rarity in these kinds of bars so for good reason we had everyone in the place staring at us. The screens at the bar flashed gnarly pictures of naked men and the bartender was shirtless. I couldn’t help but think how gaudy and tasteless this was for a demographic generally perceived as having great taste. We grabbed a drink and decided to escape the stares in the gift shop?!?! The inventory was what you’d expect, just didn’t expect there to be a gift shop. After purchasing a handkerchief for my dog we walked outside to the patio area to finish our drinks. One of the patrons came outside pretty embittered about me having a camera in such an establishment. I assured him I wasn’t taking pictures of anyone without their permission and had no ill intentions. Nonetheless he was as fired up as can be and told the bartender he would never come back if I was allowed to have my camera with me. The bartender came outside and explained the situation reluctantly, it became apparent that this man hadn’t made his way out of the closet yet and therefore didn’t want any chance of him being documented there. The other patrons outside assured us that they didn’t care and were excited to have us there. There were many bars to still find that night so we left after our first drink.
The next place north on Edgewater was Bombshell’s Tavern, an old motorcycle garage turned heavy metal venue. The place was really big and full of some of the more random things I’ve seen at a bar. We had a few drinks and even got a tour of their back room music venue that wasn’t open that night. One of the manager’s was jamming on the drums and the room was one of the cooler/stranger rooms to see a live act in Orlando. After we got a feel for the place we decided to keep moving, the next stop was George’s Bar and Grill. Understandably with it being Tuesday the place was almost completely empty, only one other person at the bar. Jessica and I both got a Coors light, had a look around and decided to move on. I had a job early in the morning so our next stop had to be our last, just north up the road was another gay bar named Hank’s. The atmosphere inside Hank’s was much more friendly than the last gay establishment, we ordered some drinks and began talking to our bartender. A few minutes into conversation I noticed ceiling was lined with every color handkerchief, I asked him to explain. It turns out the color and the side of your body you wore the handkerchief on was an indication what you were into sexually. I laughed out loud thinking about my dog wearing the sky blue one I had bought her earlier. Jessica and I played a little pool and had small talk with some of the patrons. A shirtless guy was running the jukebox and playing some classics. I shazamm’ed a few of the songs he played before Jessica and I decided to call it a night.
Wednesday I had a huge job that took all day. I was exhausted when I got home and decided to take the night off and chalk it up to it being hump day.
Thursday was a good a time as any to explore the northwest edges of Orlando so I went out with my friend Michael Blackshaw. Blackshaw and I were hungry but decided we should start things off with a drink in the historically black community of Eatonville. Our first stop was at Neat’s Bar and Grille. There was a lot of loitering going around out front and at first this seemed to be one of the most unwelcoming bars of the week. It was obvious not too many white boys ever ended up in this establishment so I explained to the bartender why I had a camera and showed him some pictures I’d taken just to prove we weren’t the cops or anything like that. We ordered some Miller High Life’s and hot wings. The owner Neat engaged us with conversation and told us she had owned the bar for 32 years but was just getting close to selling it.
Too many late nights and just too much trouble dealing with a neighborhood where no one has any money anymore, she said. The food was on point though and we pounded all the wings and fries they brought out. The bar turned out to be really friendly spot too, much more welcoming than a few of the bars I’d been to earlier in the week. I even left with a mix tape that the bartender wanted me to check out since I showed him some pictures I’ve done with various rappers. After our food we decided to check out a bar called Silly Grapes in Maitland. It wasn’t a dive bar at all but we had a drink with the owner and had some good conversation about where we should go next. After a beer there we ventured to Liquid Scrips in Cassellberry. It was closed so we checked out the Shovelhead Lounge which was in the same strip mall. The Shovelhead was pretty rad and had an open mic night going, the sound system in the place was turned up full blast. We pounded a few beers till our ears couldn’t take anymore. We headed down the road to the Post Time Lounge which didn’t turn out to be much of a dive bar either. We were told the place across the street was though. We drank our beers quickly at the Post Time and headed across the street to Cassellberry’s Patio and Lounge. We barely made last call and the place was near empty. There was some interesting decor inside and a it was a relaxing place to finish the night out.
Friday turned out to be the finale. I could feel myself in the early stages of getting sick which should probably be attributed to me frequenting smokey bars the whole week. My friend Josh who had sold me out several nights earlier in the week finally manned up and went out with me. We ventured east from Orlando to the rural areas of Bithlo and Christmas off of east Hwy 50. Our first stop was Hard Racks Lounge and apparently we had just missed quite a brawl as the place had cleared out only minutes earlier. Josh and I put back a few Budweisers and talked to some of the locals at the bar. We kept hearing about how we just missed the fight and that would’ve been good for taking pictures. After 15 minutes, in moseyed in an old woman that could’ve been my grandmother. Earldyne was 82 and lived life like she was 20. She finished a Bloody Mary in about 5 minutes and was dancing with us within 10. She told us of another bar down the street we’d like called Pat’s Place. She said she’d meet us down there so we closed our tab and headed that way.
Pat’s place didn’t disappoint either even though when we first walked in I was asked not to take pictures. Pretty soon though Earldyne showed up though and vouched for us. She was an east 50 bar star! I could feel my sickness getting worse though and told Josh I thought we should head home stopping at one last place. Heading back into town we stopped at Bottle Caps, a dive bar with only two cars in the parking lot. There was more people in there than I had expected, I didn’t consider the foot traffic in the area. We were a little drunk at this point and quickly made friends with people at the bar. The owner of the bar had died recently and business was rough. The place was for sale and the bartender seemed excited that I was taking pictures. “Maybe he can help market the place for us and maybe we can stay open!” she whispered to the bar back. As we wrapped up our last drinks the mood became somewhat somber. The week of partying was over. There was also a good chance that some of these dive bars wouldn’t be open the next time we tried to visit. The next morning I woke up sick as a dog, it was more than worth it though. Next time my friends want to go out for a drink I’ll be able to suggest a whole new list of options.