Many fresh-faced drinking years were waylaid inside the burrows of a dive. There are, in fact, few social pleasures more sentimental to me than wearing out cracked leather bar stools on a Sunday with best friends, drinking sleazy booze and mixers, looking down the barrel of destiny with last-call shots, scraping pocket to purse for just one more New Order track on the juke. (Not sentimental about those hangovers, though.)
Don’t misunderstand, I love and appreciate the ceremony of a well-tuned bar experience, sipping the best from our city’s letterman bartenders in a sort of self-conscious civility. However, sometimes you want something different. Sometimes you want a dive bar.
Though not an exhaustive playbook, here are five of my Phoenix all-times.
Shady’s Fine Ales and Cocktails – Phoenix
Honestly, Shady’s is one of my favorite Phoenix bars. The Arcadia adjacent mainstay swings fairly tame on the dive purity spectrum (see: clean bathrooms), but the right bones and the spirit are there. And though mixology isn’t the reason you go, if you snag the right bartender, they can cobble a solid cocktail. Bar manager Justin Vargo also happens to be one of my favorite bartenders in town. If you don’t know him, you should.
Bikini Lounge – downtown Phoenix
Go here for washy mini pitchers, surly bar staff and posture-correcting cocktails. A lonely postwar fossil from Phoenix’s once vibrant batch of tiki bars, at least architecturally, Bikini Lounge still stands proud. This is where generations of Downtown cool kids (First Fridays is a cluster) continue to lay claim as one of Arizona’s most storied dive bars. This is where I go to feel 18 again. I mean 21.
Swizzle Inn – uptown Phoenix
Who wouldn’t love the Swizzle? The classic no-frills neighborhood hideout with, get this, friendly bartenders, is the type of gateway bar you drag new friends to, wanting to gauge their own dive readiness. It’s where regulars go for stiff mid-day drinks, rounds of sloppy pool with new friends (the true magic of a dive bar) and a jukebox consistent with love or hate classics like Garth Brooks and Journey.
TT Roadhouse – Scottsdale
Another rowdy neighborhood bar that manages to pull the thirsty from a wide radius to lay low inside its dark, wood-paneled rooms, TT Roadhouse is a Scottsdale classic. Like most good dive bars, the crowds evolve with the clock’s hands, with daylight hours drawing in the rough, tried-and-true, and nighttime pulling a more aware young-set, along with overflow from nearby Old Town’s mayhem.
Palo Verde Lounge – Tempe
Tempe’s time-honored favorite. Throughout Palo Verde Lounge’s countless lives, and passing eras of popularity and disfavor, it remains as authentically dirty, sour and strange as ever. The people watching is unmatched, and the slimy, graffiti draped bathrooms surpass any in town. Order a tall and pull your favorite Doritos flavor off the rack as you marinate in the ambiance of snowy X-Files reruns on the corner tube, Queen crying on the jukebox one too many times and cheek-knawing jailbirds monopolizing the pool tables. Really, it’s a special place.
Honorable mention: Chez Nous (RIP)