Dive into the Russian River Bar Scene
Growing up in a county where the communities within are all small and neighborly, a “dive” bar is a commonly visited place for the college kids, business folks, out-of-towners, bachelors and bachelorettes, and all of the above. Many over the years have attached a sort of stigma to the “dive” bar: it’s an unsafe place, dirty, funky, scary, and/or dodgy (myself included). Even though we all still go to these said “dive” bars, it occurred to me that we do not truly know what they are about. My husband and I took a Sunday afternoon and researched the Russian River Valley for these “dives” that were nothing shy of true gems. One of my favorite things about these bars are the music they play. There is something to be said about a bar and it’s music, so I got to thinking: if there were one song to describe each place that most or all could connect to, what would it be? On my adventure, I decided it would be fun to pair each dive bar with a song that that would paint a picture of what each place was like.
Urban dictionary defines a Dive Bar to be “ A well-worn, unglamorous bar, often serving a cheap, simple selection of drinks to a regular clientele.” Some might say this type of bar does not appeal to the preppie, the rich kid or the successful person: only the loners or those alike. The truth is, all of us, no matter how large our bank account is or what our college degree states: we all love a good, local, fun, quirky place to go and hang or let loose and not be judged. That is what I found at each of the sixteen dive bars in the Russian River area. Many claim a dive bar cannot allow children and has to serve inedible food or none at all but the truth is, some of the diviest bars do allow kids- during the day. And the food, well I must say of all the dives I have been to, the best ones by far are those where the owner comes out with his gal (his lady or another bartender that just has what it takes to put out some good grub) and puts up a naked eight foot table with plastic forks and all of this delicious food. The famous B & B in Healdsburg (now in a new location and not to worry, nothing has changed) has homemade soups in the winter and food for all holidays. Some folks join in for the home cooked meal and camaraderie and to be around those who do not judge. It is the neighborhood bar and Boston’s “More than a Feeling” describes it perfectly. Grab your drink and play it on the jukebox and relax.
During my oh so terrible research, I found myself referencing Cheers: that place we all wanted to have as our neighborhood bar because the bartenders were good looking (both male and female), the people all had stories, they knew you and there was good gossip. Much of that is true but the time of day and the day of the week one goes to a dive bar will determine their fate. I believe a true picture of a dive bar can be painted on a Sunday. The weekend is over, the bartender you see is the one who either owns the joint or has worked there so long he doesn’t need the drama of a Saturday night with all the rowdies so he gets the low key boozers, locals and those who stumble in for a hair-of-the-dog bloody something. This is also the time that stench is so prevalent: you either like it because its nostalgic and it reminds you “of that one time when you…” or you walk out and leave. I love it. Meeting Dan at the Rainbow Cattle Company was great. I pair this bar with the song, “Bette Davis Eyes” because I could see the bartender jumping up on the bar and breaking out into song as though it were a Broadway show! Now if you cannot tell by the name, this bar is a Gay bar and the day we went was PRIDE. So the coolness of the vintage cigarette and change machines all covered in dust in the corners were overshadowed by the extreme joy of the eight guys at the bar cheering when they saw the Guerneville float on television. They were excited for many reasons but one was because they made the float! One of the coolest things about Rainbow Cattle Company, besides the excess of attractive, well mannered men that will not hit on me is the train above the bar. Donate $1 to their weekly, local charity and they turn on that train for all to cheer. Give more if you can but if you can’t, they make you feel really good for helping. A no judgement, neighborhood bar.
Guerneville was called “Stumptown” and is still recognized as a “Stumptown” for the ancient Redwood trees which were logged and used to rebuild after the earthquake of 1906. A dive bar shout out would not be the same without recognizing Stumptown Brewery. While most would disagree with me, I call this a dive bar because when I hear the song, “Roadhouse Blues” by the Doors I think of Stumptown. The 20 harleys I see out front, lined up nicely, the awesome bloody marys, river access, and the locals that sit at the bar and shoot the gossip with the cool bartender help the rustic, dive bar status.
I have lived in Sonoma County all of my life and it was not until recently that I spent so much time in Guerneville and Forestville. I truly fell in love with the charm of the Russian River Pub. Every inch of the redwood walls are covered with the writings of locals, people who have been coming since they opened in 1972, some who have passed on, and people like me who pass by. It is common to see the dollar bills hanging on each one of the walls at dive bars, but the writing is personal and all of those people took the time to climb high or bend down and stamp a memory permanently on a wall for all to read- much like a yearbook. In the Pub you will find great service from a blonde gal that literally is trying to do eight things at once and does it well, and, you will discover the days of the Russian River Pub’s life in the words of so many before. Neil Diamond’s, “Sweet Caroline” played as I sipped my Racer 5 and I thought, this is the perfect song for this laid back, easy going pub.
I was thinking I was finished with Guerneville when the Appaloosa Room (The Appy as the locals call it) was referred to me. West county has not let me down before, so why not? I found a friend in the two men at the bar and an old school seated pacman game table. The man at the bar was disappointed that I was not more impressed with the singing breasts on the back wall, but hey, it was a Sunday afternoon…. The song “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show comes to mind because of the Risqué video- it seems to fit well with the look of the Appy Room.
Thinking that I had enough “Dive” and I was ready to dive into the actual river because it was 106 degrees outside, I rallied and decided to check out Forestville Club since I was so close. I sure am glad I did because Stacey the bartender was everything you could want in a real neighborhood bar: feisty, funny, and attentive. When we walked into the club, my eyes had to adjust because it was pitch black inside. I almost thought, “hmmm… maybe I was wrong for walking in” but this is just the way it is: it’s dark. Once your eyes acclimate to the lighting, you see the man at the end of the bar that comes in everyday , the funky old tables, pool tables, and the porcelain dolls hanging on the walls. It was here that I realized, a true dive bar can also be about what you hear. The laughter and banter of the employees and locals, along with the plethora of impractical knowledge you can gain (Cliff Clavin anyone?) from the obvious out-of-towners was warming. At this bar, it is all about the the people: the man at the end looking for “the one,” the flirty gal just trying to have fun, and the loving couple both striking up conversations with someone different, I thought immediately of “Your Love” by The Outfields. I’ll leave the rest to the imagination.
On a Sunday afternoon I visited a few dive bars around the Russian River area. I was surprised by how many are actually in the AVA: I counted sixteen. I do not recommend going to all of them, and there is no way I could mention all of them here, but of all those that stood out truly had that neighborhood feel (sometimes not to me but to others): the friendly, talkative bartender, the staple at the bar drinking their drink with another token in front of them for their next, the guy nobody really wants to talk to but we do anyway, and the loud girl that will do whatever it takes to get attention. In the end I discovered a place (in all of these establishments) where anyone is welcome to be themselves and the music helps create a visual and sort of comfort feeling. So go ahead and get out of your comfort zone, visit a few of these cool spots, do not be afraid of the door or lack of windows or even the ashtray covered payphone out front- you may be surprised what awesomeness you will find inside.
Be sure to “Dive” responsibly.