Four of the Best Dive Bars in Greensboro
Hey honey, have a drink on the wild side...
The dive bar – an American tradition of sorts that’s been an ongoing infatuation of mine way before I could’ve legally step foot near one. I blame my love for films like Blue Velvet and Barfly and the writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as a young teen. Dive bars are what I personally consider the closest thing to home besides actually being at home, swaddled in blankets and re-watching Twin Peaks for the umpteenth time. Now that I think about it, drinking at a dive and re-watching Twin Peaks are not too dissimilar. Both have drama, danger, and absolutely anything can happen. No experience is the same; there’s no guarantee of what to expect and there’s absolutely no such thing as normal. For those of you who have not watched Twin Peaks, this is certainly a confusing parallel, but without making this an article about a television show that has nothing to do with Greensboro, I’ll just abandon this metaphor here: it’s one of those shows where you notice something new or different each time you see it and going to a dive is a different experience each time… moving on now…
What makes a bar a dive though? Is it the low drink prices? The eclectic décor of year-round Christmas lights, signs for businesses that have been closed for at least a decade or maybe never existed at all, the random taxidermy, vintage beer signs, and old, glowing neon? This sounds like I could just be talking about Applebee’s, but surely no one considers the “Neighborhood Grill and Bar” to be a dive. Throwing in that distinctive smell of stale beer, cleaning supplies, and musk and the marginally acceptable bathrooms is no selling point, or is it? The dim lighting is definitely a standard, but it’s not for ambiance. Instead it’s to mask mysterious stains and clientele’s faces, both for some sense of anonymity and to ease the light-sensitive eyes of those who may have had too much to drink there the night before. Again, that isn’t going to convince you to run and grab a drink at your nearest dive bar unless you already have a place in your heart for these dark, cozy, grimy, and smelly bars filled with people incapable of meeting a stranger.
I could go on about the standard tangible aspects of a dive bar, but that’s not what makes these places so special. It’s something along the lines of Ray Oldenburg’s “third place” – a home away from home, which I started to touch on before I began comparing drinking in a bar to a surreal television show. In fact, from all the people I spoke to in working on this article, every single one alluded to characteristics of the third place when I’d ask “what makes this bar special to you?” So maybe, boiled down to its most basic element, a dive bar is a second home, a community where no one is judged by where they came from, how they look, or some de rigueur level of hipness. Any need to impress dissipates the moment you touch the door handle, leaving you armed with only your art of conversation and ability to crack a joke, but enough with the sentimentalities, let’s just get to the point and talk about four of the best dives in Greensboro.
College Hill Sundries
AKA CoHill or the Hill
It was the calm before the storm at 9pm on this particular Saturday at College Hill. I sat alone in my favorite booth (the Wiz Khalifa booth) sipping on my $3.50 gin and ginger to take in the light conversation of the seven people sitting at the bar and also to feed my curiosity about what was taking one man so long to pick a song on the jukebox. He was torn between David Bowie and Slayer, a tough decision.
Halfway through my drink, I felt confident enough to take my seat on a cracked vinyl stool next a patched-up section of the bar with “hole to the unknown” written on it and join in on the conversations. By some kind of divine providence… or just dumb luck, I sat next to a UNCG alumnus visiting the Hill for the first time since 1989. After nearly two decades, the bar still felt like a second home to him, embracing him with open arms. He claimed nothing had changed at all, but I’d like to argue that on only one point, the bathrooms have been updated.
I asked Carrie, the bartender that night, who has recently been listed as one of the Triad’s best female bartenders in Yes! Weekly’s 2018 edition of “Triad’s Best!” Josh, another bartender at College Hill, also made the list of the Triad’s best male bartenders. In fact, all but one of the bars (sorry, Wahoo’s) I’m talking about today appear several times in various categories of the publication for whatever that may be worth to you. But I digress. I asked if it was common for alumni from Greensboro’s various college and universities to visit. Apparently, a lot more people visit College Hill to reminisce than I would have guessed.
Midnight came and karaoke was in full force with song selections ranging from Disney soundtrack classics to Bruce Springsteen to essentially any song you wouldn’t expect. Getting to the bar was a labyrinth, but a worthwhile one. In just three hours the bar filled from less than ten people to well over 60. Karaoke Saturdays are the perfect example of just how eclectic the clientele of College Hill is, but if you can’t bring yourself to endure karaoke, simply browsing through the music selection at the jukebox will show that you can never know what to expect there, only that you’ll have a memorable night (whether you actually remember it or not).
New York Pizza
AKA N.Y.P. or The NYP (pronounced "nip")
It was a sunny Monday evening at NYP with jazzy reggae serenading six silent souls at the bar. If you had stopped by a few days earlier for the rap show or the metal show, you may think you returned to the wrong place if it weren’t for that unforgettable pizza monster mural. The bar has been through a lot in the past year or so, and even more since its opening in 1978 (some and the sign above the bar will argue 1977... let's just not nitpick on this), but the particulars of the highs and lows of NYP’s history isn’t the focus here. Instead it just stands to show that the 40-year-old “cultural cauldron” named NYP is so deeply rooted in the culture of the Tate Street area and Greensboro that it will always land on its feet often with the help of its fiercely loyal clientele.
This was my first time visiting in far too long, a fact made endearingly clear by the reactions of some staff and regulars. That’s the thing about these places, they genuinely do remember who you are. Turns out Cheers isn't just a mythical idea of what a bar could be. I wouldn't say NYP has the most Cheers-y vibe of these bars, but it is a place where you'll always find someone to talk to, and if you return, they'll be glad to see you again. Much like College Hill, NYP has an insanely eclectic assortment of patrons (all of these bars do), there's regulars that have been visiting for longer than I've been alive, college students taking a break between classes, and so many others that it's impossible to attempt to list. The common denominator is that they all embrace the weirdness that is NYP. I mean, where else can you watch The Lion King during a hardcore show or ask the bartender to make you a drink that captures essence of Liza Minnelli having an affair with Big Boi? Yes, that was a drink I ordered on that beautiful Monday, and as usual, Losh made it happen.
That Monday was a fine example of NYP keeping it weird. The music jumped from the reggae playing when I entered to grindcore to rap to punk back to reggae, and many genres in between. My conversations were just as varied. We had a debate on the patio about which super power would be best to have (I learned I know nothing about possible powers) and then somehow ended up raving over Fiddler on the Roof. Towards the end of my evening, I sat at the bar alone, contemplating how I was going to summarize the past few hours into these paragraphs, Losh came up to me exclaiming "I've got it! My quote for your article!" I'll leave you with that and a suggestion to stop by for a cheap beer and slice of pizza.
You can be drunk or you can be angry, but you can't be both at NYPLosh
AKA The Wood
Westerwood is, in my opinion, the epitome of a neighborhood dive. Named after the neighborhood it’s nestled away in; the bar regularly hosts fundraisers for local charities and organizations. In fact, the day I chose to visit was the last day of this year’s GSO Fest with Westerwood hosting the Pop-Punk Hangover Special. The bar has a decent amount of weekly events; I personally recommend stopping by on a Tuesday for Open Mic and supporting our local talent... unless you can find a way to go back in time to April 29.
At 3:30 on this Sunday, the bar was filled with patrons spilling off the patio onto the sidewalk. Both familiar and new faces were there in equal proportions. An exciting thing to note was the amount of employees from other bars that were there to support Westerwood and the event. While each bar may be its own little family, all the dives in Greensboro make up an even larger, supportive family. There's something so special about local businesses sticking together instead of aggressively competing.
Anyway, back to my Sunday at the Wood. Despite the large crowd and loud music, I ordered an obligatory jello shot* and my go-to gin and ginger without any struggle to get the bartender's attention or the feeling that my drink order is somehow an inconvenience. An issue I find way too common at larger bars. The staff at Westerwood is always friendly and work there not just as a job, but because they genuinely enjoy being there, although that really goes for all of these bars. I walked out on the patio to strike up conversation with however many people were willing to talk and bask in the perfect weather. Eventually, I settled myself in a seat where I could hear the music and watch friendly a game of giant Jenga. I'll always be impressed with how long these games last before the tower of brick-sized blocks comes crashing down. I always end up knocking the whole tower over while attempting to remove my first block. Try it out for yourself when you visit Westerwoord, and hopefully you have better luck than me.
*If a place has jello shots, you have to order at least one. I'm sure it's a rule written down somewhere, and Westerwood always has jello shots.
AKA The Bar on the Corner of the Four Corners
Blues music poured smoothly from the door of Wahoo's onto the intersection of Walker and Elam like the daily whiskey specials, a perfect pairing. It's a Sunday tradition that never gets old - sitting on the patio, drink in hand and watching the sun set over one of the most beautiful intersections in the city while blues music plays the credits to your weekend. Try it out, believe me.
Of course, there are other nights at Wahoo's where someone who I may or may not know walks up to the bar with his shirt on fire and orders a shot, no questions asked. And once again, the recurring theme of "you never know what to expect" proves true.
Don't be put off by the biker vibe (or the shirt on fire, I suppose), it's not just a "biker bar," and even so, is that really such a bad thing? Maybe I just lead a charmed life, but I've always found bikers to be perfectly friendly. So, yes, there are bikers, but there's also college students, business professionals, neighborhood regulars, artsy types, and everyone in between, just like the previous three bars I've discussed. Shocking at this point, isn't it?
So there you have it, four of the best dive bars in Greensboro. There are several others, but my wallet and liver could only take so much to write this article for you. If you ever find yourself wanting to dive (get it?) into Greensboro's local culture, at least part of it, or get struck with the desire to have a night out with no set destination, try stopping by one of these dive bars and enjoy the journey. Cheers.