The term “dive bar” originated in 1871 and comes from the colloquial expression referring to a “drinking den” or “disreputable place of resort” based on establishments that were originally located in cellars or basements. While the term has withstood the test of time, the social image of dive bars has changed and evolved, even if the bars themselves have changed very little. In the times when the title was first coined, dive bars carried a certain reputation as filthy or dangerous places that you wouldn’t visit if you held yourself to a certain esteemed level of social status. But thanks to hard economic times and the recent hipster revolution, dive bars are the place to be.
And nowadays, like expertly trained sommeliers who masterfully critique and evaluate wines, dive bars have a strong following of connoisseurs that soak in every distinct nuance and subtlety of such taverns like a tall sip of a vintage pinot. Modern dive bars embody an honesty and sincerity that attracts people by not trying to be anything that they’re not. In fact, they seem to go to great lengths to preserve exactly what they are. Tucson is home to a wide assortment of dive bars that range from Prohibition-era national landmarks to neighborhood watering holes to college hangs—and everything in between. We decided to explore five of these celebrated Tucson dives to find out what keeps the patrons coming and the beer flowing. And in doing so, we learned that the surest way to find the heart of a city is directly through its best dives.
When the ice cream parlor, Double Bubble, went out of business on Stone and Glenn more than 40 years ago, Tucson attorney and philanthropist Tom Chandler quickly purchased the lot to turn it into a bar, which he eponymously named Tommy’s Lounge. The bar was later inherited by Chandler’s ex-son-in-law, Rich Markham, who proudly ran it for 30 years until he died of cancer in September of 2014. And while there is still a candle that remains lit at all times and T-shirts for sale that boast “WWRD” (What Would Rich Do?), the longstanding saloon is kept up in the able hands of Rich’s niece, Lisa Markham.
“It was very hard losing Rich, especially because he was battling cancer and it was painful to watch it slowly take him. This place was his life and he handled everything here, so when he had to stop coming because of his health, this place felt different than it did before,” says bartender Lori, who pauses only long enough to talk between filling beers and throwing dice in a game of Yahtzee. “But Lisa dropped everything to take this place over, and she is like the female version of Rich. No one else could’ve saved this place like she did.”
Living up to its title as a neighborhood dive bar, Tommy’s is packed full of regulars, many of whom live within walking distance, who love to briskly pound down the bar’s best seller, Budweiser, and shoot billiards in the various pool leagues that take place in the busily decorated bar.
“Tommy’s is tribal. The people that come here bond together and look after each other. I’ve been coming here for over 30 years, and even though I can’t remember many of those years anymore, I know they were good ones,” shouts a saucy regular referred to as Little Larry over Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” playing loudly on the jukebox. “I’ve had several wives and more girlfriends than you can count, and this place has treated me better than any of them.”
While the bar is stocked with a slew of flavors of vodka and tequila, and various sorts of brown liquors, the dust that resides on the bottle shelves indicate that this is a beer-based dive. But that doesn’t seem to bother the crowd that occupies the smoking area, pool table section, and main bar, as Lori continues to throw dice and wipe counters.
“I love that I get to come to work and have fun and I don’t have to be a stick in the mud. Tommy’s is just a small dive bar that has been around for a long time and over the years we just keep attracting new people. And once they come, they usually don’t stop.”
Tommy’s Lounge. 2747 N. Stone Ave. 520.884.7738.
Contrary to the glum energy of many dive bars, Wooden Nickel Tavern, affectionately referred to by its patrons simply as the Nickel, has a bright and welcoming vibe to it that hits you the second you walk in. Located on Country Club and 31st Street, the origins of the Nickel date back to the late 1800s when the structure was built as a railroad house. It eventually became horse stables and then a Polish-American club until it took its current form in 1947. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1984, the Nickel was purchased by Joey Varela, his brother Fred, and their sister Cice, who are indeed the root source of its cheerful vibe.
“We’re definitely a dive bar, but we’re a nice dive bar. We keep this place cleaner than most bars and everything from our liquor to our food is of high quality,” says Joey as he takes his turn in a pool tournament. “You get your regular clientele, and then you become friends and family.” That guy over there started coming in 10 years ago and now he’s one of my best friends. See that server there, Max? He’s been with me practically since he was born. It’s all about family here.”
Unlike most dives, the Nickel serves a full menu of food, which draws quite a crowd on Wednesdays when they offer 50-cent-wing night. Patrons across the room are eating burgers, drinking mixed drinks, and sipping their Bud Lights as they banter on. A blend of college students, couples, construction workers, and locals fill the bar, which Varela calls “the neighborhood living room”—everyone seems to know everyone else.
“It’s a neighborhood bar and it’s also a working class bar, so any day of the week you can come in and chat with the friendly people here and even network,” says Natalie, an enthusiastic regular.
“Fourth Avenue and downtown have pulled a lot [of people] from these local dive bars and eventually it will get old down there and all the people will come back. It’s just a fad as far as I’m concerned,” says Varela. “People who have to wait in line all night to get in and wait all night for a beer will get sick of it. When they’re tired of that scene, we’ll be here. And when they come, we will welcome them.” And that is about as concise a promise from a true dive bar that you will hear.
Wooden Nickel Tavern. 1908 S. Country Club Road. 520.323.8830.
Of all of Tucson’s dive bars, perhaps none have such a diverse crossover crowd as Danny’s Baboquivari Lounge. Drive by the familiar building on Fort Lowell that was built in 1948 as Pavone’s Pizza (the first pizza delivery service in Tucson) and you will see a surprising amount of cars lining the parking lot no matter the time of day. With an eclectic jukebox that features everything from Nas to Rage Against the Machine to Marvin Gaye, a shuffleboard table, pool tables, darts, pinball, and air hockey, Danny’s has become a popular college hang. But by selling endless cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and countless shots of Fireball for dirt cheap, the crowd also includes the full spectrum of drinker.
“The history of this place is remarkable. We have a lady who comes in here who says she’s the fourth or fifth generation in her family to drink here. This place has never closed, its only changed hands, so its history is rich,” says owner Erik Hulten, who bought the bar with his wife in 2007. “It’s a really eclectic mix of local people during the day, and then in the nighttime we get more of the college, younger hipster crowd. And when that mixture is here at the same time, the crossover is awesome and so entertaining.”
The original owner, Danny Michael, converted the space to a bar in the late 80s, and decided to add the term “Baboquivari” as homage to the famous Baboquivari Peak, considered to be the holy center of the earth by the Tohono O’odham. And while the assortment of games and cheap drinks are enough to keep the Tucson dive mecca packed, the large smoking patio out back, where a fire pit is often blazing and sports games and YouTube videos are projected onto a 30-foot wall, is also a major draw for patrons.
“People love Danny’s because it’s a mix of a mom and pop place and a neighborhood dive bar. Corporate chain bars try to take their place and have almost killed them off. This is a fading thing, so I feel that there’s some reverence to keep the vibe going that this place has always had,” says Hulten. “We keep our old jukebox, even though so many people come and try to sell us the digital ones. We still have the old wallpaper up on the walls, and we’ve kept things as original as we can here. It’s what makes Danny’s unique.”
Danny’s Baboquivari Lounge. 2910 E. Fort Lowell Road. 520.795.3178.
The Buffet first opened its doors for business in the Iron Horse neighborhood in 1934 shortly after the Prohibition Act of 1920 was repealed. As one of the oldest bars in Arizona, The Buffet’s liquor license was the eleventh to be issued in the state. In its span, it has gone through 16 owners, all of whom preserved its appearance and humble mission, including current owners Marilyn Smith, her daughter Lisha Smith-Davidson (who claims she is in charge of PR, HR and BS.), and her husband William Davidson. They purchased the bar together in 2007.
“When I was younger I spent a lot of time in bars, but in a lot of them I felt out of place or that I was being judged, and that made me feel like an outsider. The Buffet welcomes everybody and you can sense that when you come in,” says William. “And it’s hard to swallow paying $7 for a beer. I work my tail off every single day like we all do. We know it’s a struggle and we know that life isn’t easy and it’s not fair, so we like to help by offering some loving relief for people who need it.”
And in providing that loving relief, The Buffet says it has continually sold more Coors beer than any bar in America (aside from a brewery in Coors’ hometown of Golden, Colorado) and they also sell more Maker’s Mark than any bar in Arizona, according to Davidson. By offering some of the cheapest liquor prices in town and opening their doors at 6 a.m., the Buffet attracts a highly varied clientele. Some, like longtime patron John, have been coming for decades.
“You have everyone here from bums on the streets to lawyers to congressmen. I’ve been coming in for 40 years and I’ve seen the whole spread of people. We explain our problems to the bartenders and they listen and give us drinks or advice and sometimes both. You can trust the people who come in here,” he says, between sips of whiskey. “This place just welcomes everybody, and in turn, everybody comes.”
The Buffet has several longstanding traditions, including the recently retired Buffalo Sweat—a shot of all of the beer and miscellaneous hard liquor soaked up by a bartender’s rag. If that makes you gag, on your birthday, you can get a beer and a shot for any single coin. Though you might not be able to tell from the heavily graffitied walls, the memorabilia-covered room, or the original neon sign out front, The Buffet is a place that is fueled by tradition and maintained with love. And so far that formula has worked for more than 80 years.
The Buffet. 538 E. Ninth St. 520.623.6811.
Nestled in a small business district on 17th Street and Plumer, The Silver Room has been a watering hole off the beaten path since the mid-’60s. Austere in appearance and minimal in décor, the bar’s room is basically a large square with a couple of pool tables in the back and a barely audible jukebox that hasn’t been updated in many years. The owner, who is referred to solely as Pup, bought the place when he retired from his career as a firefighter in New York City, back when the bar was called Cal’s Tavern. While you won’t find a lot of excitement at The Silver Room, that seems to be exactly why the loyal regulars like the joint.
“There used to be a lot more people that would come here and the place would be packed at night, but it’s not the same anymore. Now you just get the regulars,” says Tony, who has been a daily patron at the dive for more than 50 years. “If you’re looking for something like a fancy bar with dancing and all of the charades, then this isn’t the bar for you. It’s a nice small place that doesn’t have a lot of excitement or change to it and I like that. I think that’s what all of us like about it.”
In the daytime, the room is filled with retired workers, quiet drinkers, and people of a certain age who remember a time before bars had televisions in them. At night, the scene isn’t much different, though fewer seats are vacant at its long, narrow bar. If ever there was a dive that looked like it might have been used as a set for a Quentin Tarantino movie, The Silver Room fills the bill. But the subtle charms of the laconic patrons and the loquacious bartenders make it a mellow dive to visit if you’re looking for a quiet place to ruminate over a cheap beer.
“I used to be offended when someone would call this place a dive bar, but now I’m not anymore,” says Donna, the Silver Room’s bar manager for the past 14 years. “It used to seem like that term referred to the place being a dump, or somewhere that you didn’t really want to go, but now it has taken on a different meaning. I think dive bars are popular now because people feel more comfortable talking to each other in a place like this. Things have always been the same around here and people like that.” ✜
The Silver Room. 673 S. Plumer Ave. 520.624.6434.
Jon D’Auria is a journalist, photographer, writer, and musician who enjoys playing bass, running, reading, traveling, fine dining, champagne toasts, and the color green.