When I lived in Anaconda, Red’s was a good dive bar. Strong drinks, cheap beer and a pool table in the middle of the main room. The jukebox had more than a few Merle Haggard songs.
The bartenders may have been too kind, though. They’d give you a free shot of Jack Daniels with every other beer. I hated to say no to a free drink and have the bartenders think badly of me, so sometimes I’d go over in the corner, next to the jukebox, stand in profile to the bartender and toss the drink over my shoulder.
Another good dive bar, coincidentally, was also called Red’s, in Missoula. It’s been popular with the college kids for many years now, but back in the ’70s it was frequented by working stiffs who cleared out fairly early, leaving the joint to a few friends and me, and two or three old inebriates.
It had a pool table in the middle of the floor, too, but there was a structural column right next to one side of the table. Half the fun of playing there was learning how to get a good shot off around that pole.
There was the Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak and the Stoneville Saloon in Alzada, both of them fine dives, and the memorable Hathaway Bar in—where else?—Hathaway. I have vague recollections of the Oasis Bar in Glendive, the Maverick Bar in Roundup and the Range Riders in Miles City. It’s been so long since I did my research on this subject that I can’t even come up with names for the joints I can picture in Philipsburg, Broadus, Circle, Rosebud and Culbertson.
If I had to pick one—not necessarily my favorite or the most entertaining, but the most emblematic of the dive-bar breed—I’d probably have to go with the Freeway in Butte. More properly known as Muzz and Stan’s Freeway, this dive is a cinderblock rectangle with no real windows, just glass blocks.
It was always famous as the home of the Wop Chop, its version of the pork chop sandwich, and as one of Evel Knievel’s favorite haunts. A large picture of Knievel was pretty much the beginning and end of the bar’s décor.
The one thing I know for sure is that the Rock Pile in Billings is not the best dive bar in Montana. It’s not even a dive bar; not even close.
But it was proclaimed one of the nation’s 50 best dive bars last week by Yahoo Travel, apparently on the “strength” of its chicken-fried steak. I’m not blaming the Rock Pile. It’s an OK sports bar, in a state teeming with OK sports bars.
I’m blaming the yahoos at Yahoo Travel, who appear to have compiled the list of best dives by assigning an unpaid intern to spend 15 minutes searching online for at least one bar in every state. It was a naked attempt at luring in readers and courting free newspaper coverage, even though its list had no bearing on reality.
Among the “dives” that made the list was one in Massachusetts serving “truffled parmesan fries” and a bar in New York serving “jalapeno-infused tequila.” In Wyoming, the alleged dive was in Jackson Hole, where a real dive is probably banned by local ordinance.
I suppose there are a lot of ways to define a dive bar, but I think at a minimum it has to be on the small side, it has to serve strong drinks and it certainly can’t be self-consciously divey. An extension of that rule applies to people: a person who knows he’s a character is not an authentic character.
Most dives don’t even serve food, only near-foods like pickled pigs’ feet, beer nuts and pork rinds. If a dive does have food, it ought to be something with a name like Wop Chop. The décor has to be either extremely spare or profuse and haphazard. If the owner or bartender has ever used the word “ambience,” it’s not a dive.
The place doesn’t have to be full of drunks or goons—there is a difference between a dive and a downright shithole—but if you feel entirely safe and cozy the whole time you’re there, it’s probably not a dive.
A dive on the outskirts of Eden would have Hank Williams on the jukebox, beer served in glass pitchers, a pool table, two pinball machines, one dart board and a shuffleboard table. There’d be shake-a-day dice behind the bar, maybe a few poker machines and a couple of old-timers who live nearby and could tell you the history of every other regular.
The cops doing a walk-through would know the bartender’s name and there’d be a guy selling newspapers right after press time. If you talked too much politics the bartender would tell you to shut your piehole, and there wouldn’t be a television. The bathroom walls would be covered in graffiti so good you’d do all you could to remember a few lines back in the bar.
There would be a house guitar, but you couldn’t use it unless you could play at least one song all the way through without looking at the lyrics on your smart phone. Better yet, no smart phones, either. This dive bar would have a simple name, like Red’s, a neon sign out front and a small neon sign above the back door in the alley that just said “Beer.”
By the way, I didn’t list any dive bars in Billings because it hasn’t been that long since I did a roll call of local taverns. In a dive-bar contest in this town, it’d probably be a toss-up between the Rainbow and the Crystal Lounge.
I’m guessing that readers of Last Best News will have their own strong opinions about classic Montana dives. Make your nominations for the best dive bar in Montana, with a short description, under this column or on the Last Best News Facebook page.
I’ll send the column and your ideas to the folks at Yahoo Travel. I doubt they’ll publish a retraction or an updated story, but at least they’ll know what they missed.