Barflies, rejoice!

We salute the Great Dives of Tucson

The claw machine at The Bambi offers plush toys and other novelties.
Judging from the accounts of territorial-era saloon keeper George Hand, getting good and drunk has been a proud tradition in these parts.

Hand's journal, collected a few years back in the local classic Whiskey, Six-Guns and Red-Light Ladies, recounts days that revolve mostly around whiskey, beer and, as he puts it, getting tight.

Feb. 12, 1875: Fine day. Got tight early. Last day of the legislature--the capital remains here. Someone stole my old pipe. Davis resigned the office of marshal. 12 o'clock--Hand is drunker. Three o'clock: Hand is quite sober, but got drunk again. 9 in the evening--Hand is very tight. Went to bed early.

Five months later, on July 5:

Got tight again today. Pearson and I had a fight. Davis hit him in the head with a bar pitcher and he ran out into the street hollering "murder." Lawyer Clark is tight. Everyone is tight.

Ah, the good ol' days.

To see if things have changed much, we set out to investigate Tucson's best dive bars.

Let's get one thing straight up front: There are those people--and we are not among them--who seem to think the word "dive" is somehow pejorative. Like the bartender at the Golden Nugget, who growled at us when we asked if we were in a dive bar: "This is a neighborhood bar. This is not a dive bar, though your newspaper has said otherwise in the past."

No doubt that was a neighborly load of fresh puke stinking up the toilet stall in the Nugget men's room that night.

Whatever. We're not here to look down on dives; we're here to celebrate them. They're dark. The drinks are cheap; the drinks are strong. There's a good jukebox. A game on the TV. A pool table, maybe darts, probably a claw machine if you want to take home a stuffed animal or a titty keychain. And you know what the best of 'em have in common? Dusty Budweiser Clydesdales chandeliers.

Many thanks to the dive team that joined us in the field: Ted Burhans, Dan Coleman, Kelli Hart, Laura Hassett, Michelle Hotchkiss, Sydney Hutchinson, Jacki Kuder, Tess Martinez, Mandi Perino and Michael Silvers.

The Buffet

538 E. Ninth St.

Everyone's got a story about The Buffet. Our favorite: This guy is throwing back shots; he pukes all over the bar, runs out one door, runs back in through the other door, pulls his collar up in the hopes the bartender won't recognize him, and orders another round.

The Buffet--that cramped, noisy, unsightly monument to booze--is the mother of all Tucson dives, attracting everyone from homeless drunks looking for a strong Jack and Coke to frat boys with a thirst for that volatile mix of vodka, rum, tequila, gin, Blue Curacao liqueur and sweet-and-sour mix known as an Adios, Motherfucker.

Need a drink at 6 a.m.? The Buffet is there for you. Looking for a discount? Make sure you're there for happy minute at 11 p.m., when a second round of whatever you're drinking sets you back a buck. Got something to say? Write it on the wall.

We'd been warned that Arizona's new smoking ban meant the aroma of Marlboro was no longer masking less-savory odors in The Buffet. But only one of our crew caught a transitory whiff of piss when we stopped in--and for all we know, it could have been one of the barflies, not the bar.

The Bambi

5050 E. Speedway Blvd.

Bartender Andy Zitman answers the phone and calls out: "Bob? Is there a Bob here? Bob? Hey, Bob, your wife's in labor!"

If Bob's in the room, he's not answering. Maybe he's at an AA meeting.

Zitman is working alongside Ilse Insana, who has been serving up drinks at The Bambi for 29 years. On Tuesday mornings, when she opens the bar at 6 a.m., she even brings coffee and fritters for the regulars. Why has she stuck around so long? "It's like a big family," she says. "And the bad ones, we move right out."

With three dictionaries, a dog-eared almanac and a Guinness World Records book within easy reach, The Bambi is the Wikipedia of local dives. You'll always be able to settle bets before the fistfight breaks out.

The Shelter

4155 E. Grant Road

Sometimes, you want a little more than your average dive bar. A place with class, with sophistication, maybe with air conditioning instead of an overworked swamp cooler and ceiling fans.

That's when you head for The Shelter. It's the dive bar made good, Tucson's "go-go-boot-wearing, martini-drinking, swanky, groovy lounge." This place is all about style--retro accents that take you right back to the 1960s, with Mick and the boys wailing "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" behind that screeching electric guitar, while Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! plays on the TV set. And where else are you going to find a gallery of JFK portraits?

No Pabst Blue Ribbon is on tap here; you'll find Guinness, Bass, Newcastle and other upscale brews. The cocktails range from classic martinis to the Alien Secretion, a mix of Malibu, melon liqueur and pineapple juice. A couple of these, and you're ready to be probed.

The Meet Rack

210 W. Drachman St.

Here's what Jim Anderson believes: You spend the first 10 years of your life drooling. You spend the last 10 years of your life drooling. In between, you're supposed to do one thing: Party!

That's why Anderson--one of Tucson's most notorious bar owners when he ran Someplace Else way back in the '70s--runs the Meet Rack. (Technically, his daughter holds the liquor license, since the liquor board was unsettled by his tendency to walk around other bars naked.)

Anderson--an egomaniac who's been known to call himself God--delights in showing off the place. He'll point out the photos of his pals Elvis, Gerald Ford, G. Gordon Libby and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He'll show you the photo album full of people who have been branded with his image to qualify for a 50-cent discount on drinks. He'll boast about the clippings of his various unsuccessful runs for mayor, posted on the bar's walls. (Back in '87, had he not been run out of the race thanks to a load of alleged liquor-law violations, he assures us he would have beaten eventual winner Tom Volgy "like a fuckin' stepchild.")

This is a place where an ear-rattling alarm goes off if a gal buys a condom in the ladies' room--which, Anderson tells us, happens "eight or 10 times day." And what can we say about the Duty Hut, except to mention what God tells us the wheel and restraints are for? "Turn her upside down," he advises, "and eat her like a snow cone."

Anderson happily cops to running a dive--"we're a fifth-rate bar with first-rate customers"--but unlike most other bars, he serves food. The one-time Pancake House includes a ginormous kitchen where Anderson grills up a no-frills burger for just $5.

Nancy's Fort Lowell Pub

746 E. Fort Lowell Road

A zombie sat down next to us at Nancy's.

Didn't look so good. Definitely had been out in the sun too long and needed a bath. Hair was long, beard was thick, the eyes screamed crazy.

"I died two weeks ago," he says. His story goes something like: He had a heart attack; the guys in the ambulance gave up on him; he was dead for five minutes; then he came back, sitting up on the stretcher. A goddamn miracle.

What's he doing with his second chance?

"I'm trying to get my life together," he said. "I've got a job interview next week." Pause. "Can I have a dollar?"

Dealing with the undead is old hat to Carol Stoner, who started bartending at the now-defunct Road to Ruin at Golf Links and Kolb roads more than three decades ago. She's been at Nancy's for nine years and tells us they get a decent after-work crowd from places like Applebee's, with a lot of women.

"They know I ain't gonna let anyone hurt them," she says. "But I'm sweet, lovable and kind--don't get that wrong." Then she lets her signature cackle rip.

The bar generally serves the three big domestics on tap, but just for kicks, Stoner pours a member of the Weekly dive team a Jâger bomb--one shot of Jâgermeister dropped in a glass of Red Bull. He eyes the concoction suspiciously.

"Come on, big boy," Stoner says. "You drink the whole thing, then you fall on the floor, and we put you in the Dumpster."

Gilligan's Pub

1308 W. Glenn St.

It's not easy to find Gilligan's Pub--"Blink and you'll miss us," says bartender Shevawn Barnes--but if you stumble across the place, there's one hell of a special for the ladies: Drinks are just 25 cents if you hang your bra on the wall and walk around topless. Judging from the lingerie on display, there are plenty of cheap drinks getting served.

Barnes has no comment when we ask if she's shown off the twins while pouring drinks, but she shares a photo album filled with girls who have cheerfully posed topless. We're still wondering why so many of 'em have their tits wrapped in cellophane.

Mint Cocktails

3540 E. Grant Road

The Mint, where Tucsonans have been getting tight since '34, may not look like much, but it's a right hospitable place. Ask Bartender Susie Williams if she can mix a mean margarita, and she tells you: "I can mix a mean anything you want."

Suzie runs a tight ship. She hears a guy at the bar shout out "fuck" on his cell phone, and she 86es him right out of there. He barely protests as he heads for the door. "Everyone's welcome," Williams says. "As long they behave."

We wouldn't advise pounding away on the Mint's out-of-tune piano, but the jukebox has everything from Sinatra to U2. Spin some Patsy Cline, and sip that cold Budweiser.

Bay Horse Tavern

2802 E. Grant Road

Here's one thing Kristina Stinger likes about working at the Bay Horse Tavern: There's no blender. After all those years of tending bar at Applebee's, she's made enough frou-frou drinks to last her a lifetime.

You're not going to find frou-frou at the Bay Horse. You will find Pabst Blue Ribbon and Dos Equis on tap, a big bowl o' salty nuts to sate your appetite and the biggest chair in any Tucson dive.

Al's Deadwood Place

15 W. Fort Lowell Road

The closest thing the Deadwood has to a specialty drink? The Jello shot, offered in lime, cherry and green apple. The fancy cordials and champagne glasses adorning a wall gather dust, according to one bartender, who we later spy sucking face with her boyfriend at the front door.

The Deadwood is quiet, which is how Adam Johnson likes it. "It's not too crowded," he says. "All you need is a place where you can drink."

But mention the smoking ban, and the patrons get fired up. Colin Hawkins has had two open-heart surgeries, but he's not letting that stop him from smoking. And the idea that he can't have a cigarette while he drinks his beer has the 59-year-old Englishman "fucking pissed."

He says that if he goes outside to smoke during the day, he's exposing himself to skin cancer while his beer sits on the bar, where anyone could steal it or slip him a mickey.

"It's dangerous," he gripes. "I don't want to put my life on the line to go smoke."

Greens Bar and Grill

1310 S. Alvernon Way

Da Greens: Is it an Irish bar? Is it a golf bar? It's both, says one guy behind the counter on the afternoon we stop in.

Most everyone is out on the patio puffing away on cigarettes. We ask about the smoking ban and make friends with a bearded oddball named Fred, who proceeds to follow us around so he can take photos of us on his camera phone. Hey, we get it--not many celebrities stop by this place.

Fred has some interesting advice to us regarding journalism: "If you're not part of what's happening, then you're not truly objective."

Inside the bar, two guys are wrestling--or maybe humping--near the jukebox. The chap who's being mounted asks us if we'll give him a dollar so he can play a song.

"The natives are restless," says our bosomy bartender.

Hungry? You've got your choice of elk, venison, buffalo, boar, antelope and ostrich burgers, and Thursday is steak night. If you've got a song in your heart, stop by for karaoke on Wednesday. Just don't say we didn't warn you about Fred.

Tommy's Outback Restaurant

2747 N. Stone Ave.

From the outside, Tommy's might look like the kind of place where you'd have to worry about a knife in your gut, but don't let the menacing appearance fool you. Bartender Susie LeBlanc is one of Tucson's friendliest. After nearly 28 years of serving drinks at Tommy's, she's seen it all.

From the Harley memorabilia, you might mistake Tommy's for a biker bar--and there are days when the bikers still stop by. But the bar is more about shooting pool. Teams from Tommy's have brought home more than 30 trophies and have competed in national championships in Las Vegas. Go ahead and splurge on the extra quarter it costs to play on the VNEA tables. (That's Valley National 8-Ball Association for you amateurs out there.)

The Wooden Bucket

7149 E. 22nd St.

Ever see a mounted deer talk? The one at the Bucket, festooned with panties on its antlers, does--at least if you've got a friendly bartender like Dave on duty, and not the hostile jerk who was serving drinks the second time we stopped in.

Ignoring customers in a nearly empty bar is no way to earn tips, fella.

The Bucket's bar gets a lot of use, judging from the red duct tape patching the padding that runs along the front. Even though the doors open at 6 a.m., we're told the big crowds come late at night for cheap beer--a 22-ounce pilsner glass costs just $5--and the expansive liquor selection. If fruity Stolis are your thing, you're in the right place. But we have to warn you: Unless you're looking for a warm mix of cherry cough syrup and flat Coke, stay away from the peculiar concoction called the Jekyll and Hyde.

Wooden Nickel Tavern

1908 S. Country Club Road

If you want a cold draft and a Nickel burger, you're currently out of luck. The taps and the kitchen have been out of order ever since a drunken idiot drove his SUV into the place back in May. But the Nickel was back in business one week later, with a new bar and bottled beer on ice. Now that's true grit.

The Territorial

3727 S. Palo Verde Road

It's not much to look at from the outside (or even from the inside), but the Territorial serves 20 ounces of cold beer for just $2.50. Want eternal fame? Give 'em a dollar bill with your name on it, and they'll staple it behind the bar. You've missed your chance to get your picture taken kissing the blow-up doll with the strap-on, but there's a gallery of Polaroids so you can see what you missed.

Yard Dog Saloon

2449 N. Stone Ave.

The sole gay establishment to grace our list, the Yard Dog is almost too nice to be considered a dive. But it makes the list because it had the ubiquitous Budweiser Clydesdale chandelier--albeit with rainbow-colored streamers dangling from it.

Reality TV has taught us that homosexuals have a flair for design. The Dog is no exception to this rule, with its colorful, clean interior and swanky patio. Unlike at Woody's, pictures of male genitalia are kept to a minimum. In fact, if you wandered in after Bible study for a quick drink--and you had your head up your ass--you might not even realize you're in a gay bar.

One of the guys in our group, a metrosexual with bearish tendencies, caught the eye of a middle-aged leather daddy, who slowly made his way toward our end of the bar and regaled us with stories of free-wheeling New York City sex before the arrival of AIDS. We never knew that Puerto Rican men used to gather under a Coney Island boardwalk to jerk off as they looked up through the planks at women taking off their bathing suits, or that Macy's fired 30 of Santa's elves after a kid saw them blowing each other.

Danny's Baboquivari Restaurant and Lounge

2910 E. Fort Lowell Road

A nice, long bar where there's always an empty stool for you. Dim lighting. Cold Coors and Coors Light on tap. A couple of pool tables and a decent jukebox. Friendly bartenders. The best wallpaper among Tucson dives. Here's to keeping it simple, stupid.

Silver Room

673 S. Plumer Ave.

Looking for a clean dive? The Silver Room is immaculate; a glass of beer costs $2.50, and there ain't no dainty blended drinks. According to bartender Sandra Perez, "It's always happy hour." Perez has one rule when it comes to high-maintenance customers: "There's nobody special in this bar but me."

The M&M Saloon

3364 E. Benson Highway

For a biker bar, the M&M Saloon is surprisingly literate. If you're looking for something to read along with your cold beer, pick up one of the Reader's Digest Condensed Books or an old Doc Savage adventure. Just don't expect any food before the summer is out, because it's too hot to turn on the deep fryer.

Rusty Nail

4415 N. Flowing Wells Road

You can get a lot of drinks at the Rusty Nail, but here's one they won't mix: a Rusty Nail.

Go figure.

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