If I'm going out to have a drink and I'm not going to see live music, I try and seek out the best dive bars wherever I am. I have a nose for them and usually know a good one when I see it. I've been asked a few times what makes a good dive bar, and the truth is that the answer to that question would be different for everyone. For me, a dive bar is in no way synonymous with a dump. There are some really bad, unfriendly, filthy bars in this world - those I classify as "dumps". A dive bar to me is a friendly neighborhood bar, full of locals, where drinks are cheap and conversation flows. If these places are on Yelp or TripAdvisor at all, they probably don't have over 3.5 stars because they aren't what many people are looking for. They aren't fancy and most don't have expensive or expansive beer lists. The usual wine selection is "red or white?". There are probably neon signs on the walls, and oftentimes, for reasons I can't explain, Christmas lights. Somewhere on the wall is a photo of someone nobody remembers, but they were important enough to the patrons at some point in the past to put their photo up. The bartenders are generally friendly and welcoming to strangers although they are used to knowing everyone that walks in the door and have their drink on the bar before that person sits down. Dive bars are places where life gets put on hold for a while while you laugh, cry, commiserate and cheer with the other patrons. I've spent entirely too much time in my life in dive bars, and loved every minute of it. Here are some I think are worth seeking out in the great state of Tennessee. The one bad trait which I found in most of these I'll lay out right at the start: Tennessee still allows smoking in bars. This is gross, and it's really time for y'all to get with the program. Smoking is terrible for you and you know it, and it's also terrible for those around you. Even when I was a smoker, going outside was never a big deal. Anyways, where I took photos, they were with my iPhone because my big camera would draw too much attention in these places, so I apologize in advance for the photo quality. Please leave comments below with your favorites.
Chattanooga - The Pickle Barrel
This place has been around for 35 years according to their Facebook page, but it's been around as long as I can remember. I have passed through Chattanooga several times and always try and make it a point to stop into this strange little bar. It sits on the corner of a "flatiron" building, meaning the building comes to a rounded point on a triangular corner. The corner of the restaurant is one rounded booth wide. I've always found unique people here drinking beers and chatting and this time around was no different. I talked to a book editor for an hour and found it reassuring to know I wasn't the only one who had to look up words frequently because I wasn't 100% sure they fit where I put them. In a city which has modernized and re-imagined its downtown area a lot recently, I was very happy to find the Pickle Barrel still on its strange and familiar corner.
Knoxville - The Orange Bee
The Orange Bee is a funky little dive bar on Chapman Highway Southeast of Downtown Knoxville. I drove by it a few times and decided to stop in for a cold beer my last night in town. I'm glad I did. The Bee is an intensely local spot where everyone knew everyone, but they were all very welcoming. The bartender was super friendly and I got a lot of compliments on having all my teeth. Beers were like $2.50 each and the music was good. Pool seemed to be the main focus here, but the bartender said their food is good too. I wasn't hungry, but will come hungry on my next pass through town.
Numan's is one of the biggest dive bars I've ever been in, almost too big to be considered a dive bar, but too divey not to be. Lots of neon, lots of bikers and hillbillies, lots of pool tables, cheap pitchers of beer and a good stage (karaoke the night I was there). I loved that they had a central bar with a seating area above it like a little island in the sky. This place is busy and popular and a whole lot of fun. The Hideaway, a few doors down, was a cool divey music venue with one man running the door, the bar and the soundboard. It was super-cool and blissfully smoke-free. Also, I hadn't seen that much long hair since the last time I watched Dazed and Confused - I fit in just fine.
Dayton - Kenny's
I was amazed at how well laid out Kenny's was. It looked so tiny from the outside, but there was plenty of seating inside and a nice outdoor deck. They even managed to squeeze a kitchen in somehow. They had a great happy hour and it was a nice place to sit and ponder evolution as it was right near the courthouse where the Scopes Trial took place.
Nashville - Santa's
Way out of downtown, near the fairgrounds is this quintessential Tennessee dive bar. Santa's is definitely worth seeking out just so you can see how good a dive bar can be. When I walked in, the bartender greeted me with "Welcome Home", and an ice cold Natural Light. I chatted with him and the few other patrons that were there in the afternoon and was sad I had to leave when I did. Beers are cheap, the atmosphere is friendly and they're open late. Leave the flashing lights of Broadway behind and head out to this classic dive in the 'burbs.
The Pond was a great dive with couches around the walls and a big-screen TV for the big games. It was in a strip mall, but worth seeking out for the casual atmosphere. Kimbro's is definitely a live-music venue first and foremost, but has the best qualities of a solid dive-bar as well. Set in an old house, it has a New Orleans feel and a great atmosphere. The people are all great and the pickin' room in the back is an amazing concept - there are just tons of instuments back there for anyone to pick up and jam with. This was one of my favorite places in the whole state period and couldn't be left off this list.
For a small town, Jackson packs in the dive bars. Cody's Saloon and Dance Hall is a cool little spot by the interstate. They have live music, pool and poker. I only popped in for a quick beer there, but it had potential. The Office had a lot of pool tables and plenty of neon. The beers were cheap and the people were friendly at this out-of-the-way hole-in-the-wall. My top pick in Jackson, though, went to the Downtown Tavern. It was almost too classy to be considered a dive, but they serve PBRs in 24oz. cans. They had a great acoustic set going when I was there and a cool dog running around and saying hello.
I do love Memphis, and it is full of great dive bars everywhere you look. Earnestine and Hazel's is a self-proclaimed and proud dive-bar with a lot of history. Lots of famous and infamous people have walked through their doors. Their Soul Burger is always good and their beer is always cold. At some point, you have to come here. The Cove gets a nod for it's 24/7 pirate theme, it's like being on a pirate ship complete with plenty of rum to drink. The Hi-Tone is also proud of their dive-bar status and is one of the better places in the city to see a live show, especially during the week. Alex's Tavern is a must for sporting events, pitchers of beer and good conversation. It's always open. Wild Bill's is more juke-joint than dive bar, but it's got plenty of Christmas lights and beer comes by the 40. This is another must-visit place with great live music and an unbelievably friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Only open on weekends, and open LATE (don't go before 10!), you really haven't been to Memphis if you haven't been to Wild Bills!
Mason - The Log Cabin
This is a classic small-town West Tennessee dive. Bars like this are getting fewer and farther between, which is a real shame. Serving up 40s and centered around the pool table, the people were friendly and I wish I could've stayed there longer. There's no sign out front, but there isn't much to "downtown" Mason. If you look, you'll find it.
I loved the Poor Man's Country Club in Clarksvile. This place is another classic dive-bar experience. There is so much neon the whole place glows. The people here were super friendly, the beers cold and cheap and it was even connected to a laundromat if you needed to get some laundry done. This place is outside of town, but worth seeking out. Wize Guys is probably more biker bar than dive bar, but it was also a great stop. Super cheap beer, plenty of TVs and it was right next-door to a Dodge's Chicken, which is definitely a bonus.
I know some people love lounge bars and high end cocktail bars full of glass and mirrors. I'll take a classic dive any day of the week. Tennessee, thankfully, was full of them!