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May 30, 2024

A Charlotte dive bar checklist

Take a cultural tour through Charlotte’s beloved dives and hole-in-the-wall bars

By Samantha Husted

Hard to define, fiercely loved, and never pretentious — the dive bar stands the test of time, even in an ever-evolving city like Charlotte, where craft cocktails usually reign supreme. 

The definition of a “dive” bar varies depending on who you ask. There’s a difference between an unglamorous dive, a neighborhood bar, and a plain old restaurant that serves alcohol. Consider a dive bar on two factors: would you feel comfortable bringing a child to it? Does it serve food? If children are allowed, it’s probably not a dive bar. If it serves food, it usually leans toward a neighborhood bar or restaurant. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. Some bars allow kids, serve great food, and have an undeniable dive bar essence. It’s a subjective sliding scale. A few of the bars on the list fall somewhere in the middle of that scale. 

What’s so great about these Charlotte dives, besides the cheap drinks, heavy pours, and cold beer, is that they have an undeniable sense of character — something Charlotte is often accused of lacking. They’re not polished, they’re not shiny, and they’re definitely not new. They’re Queen City staples, cemented in place by time and the loyal locals who frequent them. And so what if they have a little grit? The stickier the floor, the better.

Use this checklist as a cultural tour through Charlotte’s best dives and hole-in-the-wall bars. Each of the 12 bars on this list brings something unique to the city. Have fun and, of course, drink responsibly.

Johnny Dollars

Johnny Dollars is a tried-and-true Charlotte dive. The interior is dimly lit and has that dated charm you’d expect from a bar that’s been around for what seems like forever. The pool tables are free as long as you’re drinking—which, if you’re at Johnny Dollars, that’s a given. Depending on what day you go, they may be offering free snacks or have a band playing. 

What truly sets Johnny Dollars apart from your typical dive, is its surprisingly charming and spacious outdoor patio. Complete with a ping-pong table, an outdoor swing, plenty of places to relax, and even fire pits for chilly Charlotte evenings.

Depending on the type of experience you want to have, try going on a warm Saturday or Sunday afternoon to enjoy the quiet of the back patio. Or go on a night when they have live music for a more rowdy time. Choose your own adventure. Commemorate your time at Johnny Dollars by taking a photo in their newly installed photo booth.

The Thirsty Beaver 

The Thirsty Beaver is Charlotte’s most well-known dive bar. Samantha Husted/UP

The Thirsty Beaver is probably the most prolific dive bar on this list, best known for its random Mick Jagger sighting and its defiance against the ‘man’ i.e., large urban development groups. The Beaver, as it’s known colloquially, is sandwiched between a large apartment complex, built purposefully (and vengefully) around the dive when the owners refused to sell. The juxtaposition of the looming urban buildings against the small, family-run bar is almost a protest in itself against the over-development of Charlotte.

Inside of the Beaver is “Southern kitschy.” The walls are adorned with Burt Reynolds posters, Wille Nelson and Waylon Jennings records, vintage beer memorabilia, and bras left behind by tipsy patrons past. Hidden amongst the bar’s quirky decor exists an actual stuffed beaver? That’s right folks, there is a beaver and it is indeed thirsty. Be sure to find it. And when you do, order yourself an affordable Miller High Life and cheers to a job well done. 

Surf Inn

Despite being a dive, because of its obscure location, Surf Inn, established in 1976, almost operates as a speakeasy. If you know, you know. It’s nestled under an office park off of North Sharon Amity Road. Finding it is part of the initiation process. 

As far as the interior goes, Surf Inn is one of those rare bars that still have carpet floors and cloth-covered bar stools. It has an outdoor patio, pool tables, darts, cheap drinks, and a random dog making an appearance now and then—everything you’d expect from a beloved dive. 

Good luck finding it. When you do get to the entrance, stop and appreciate the iconic signage on the front. Surf Inn is a Charlotte staple and a well-respected dive. 

Moosehead Grill 

Moosehead Grill on Montford Drive is known for its wings. Kristen Wile/UP

Moosehead Grill, self dubbed as Charlotte’s “watering hole,” is a bar with a questionable affinity toward Muppet and Sesame Street paraphernalia, great wings, and taxidermy. It definitely teeters the line between neighborhood bar and dive, but leans a little more dive-y. When you go, make sure to rub the moose’s well-worn nose by the entrance. Definitely get the wings, and, if you want the most bang for your buck, order a shot of liquor.

Jeff’s Bucket Shop

Jeff’s Bucket Shop is best known for its daily karaoke. To make the most of your visit, sing a song or two. To get to the Jeff’s you have to walk down a steep set of stairs, almost like descending the steps into your parents basement bar. Inside it’s relatively small, with only a few tables, a bar, and of course, a small stage with a disco ball hanging above for you to perform on.

Skylark Social Club

For those with alternative tastes, Skylark is the place for you. The punk bar offers a rotating schedule of events including live music, comedy, bingo, karaoke, and movie nights. When you go, make your way to the back right hand corner of the bar. There, next to the bathroom, you’ll find a vending machine filled with art and unique trinkets. Get yourself a souvenir.

Midwood Country Club

Play a game of darts at Midwood Country Club. Samatha Husted/UP

After visiting Skylark, head over to Midwood Country Club or “MCC,” conveniently located right next door. While it may have “country club” in its name, MCC is anything but. The bar has pool tables, darts, and even a Manhattan/Martini special on Mondays, which I recommend going to. The bartenders are great and will remember your drink order, even if you only go once or twice. If you’re trying to hit a few of these in one night, you could start at The Thirsty Beaver, then make your way down to MCC and Skylark, as they’re all on Central Ave.

Steamer’s Sports Pub

With a 100 percent sanitation rating, Steamers is, without a doubt, the cleanest bar on this list. At its core, Steamers is a sports bar. Well, a Philadelphia Eagles bar, to be specific. It is packed with over 100 TVs playing any and every sport. But when you peel back the layers just a little bit, you’ll find some of its more dive-y features. Despite its pristine appearance, you’ll notice that they sell cigarettes, lighters, Tylenol, and Advil behind the bar. Some of the decor on the walls has been there for ages. And while the floor is not sticky, it is carpeted. Steamer’s has events almost every night of the week; I recommend going for Trivia on Wednesdays. When you go, check out the bathroom and revel in the cleanliness.

Sanctuary Pub

Nestled in the heart of NoDa, Sanctuary is a true hole-in-the-wall-bar. With barely any noticeable signage, it’s one of those places that you walk by hundreds of times before ever realizing it’s there — which is the true beauty of Sanctuary. It’s unassuming. Inside, it’s dark and cozy. You’ll find a few TVs and one long bar that runs almost the entire length of the space. While they don’t have a kitchen, you can order food via Boudreaux’s next door. Get the fries.

Hattie’s Tap & Tavern

Hattie’s, located between Plaza and NoDa, is another neighborhood bar hybrid. It’s best known for its lovely outdoor patio, LGBTQ friendly events, and its large selection of bottled and canned beers. It also has a really fun karaoke night. When you go, sit at the far end of the bar and play NBA Jam. They also have an N64, Sega, NES, SNES for all you nostalgic gamers out there.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe

Smokey Joe’s on Monroe Road has plenty of outdoor seating, which features a sand pit. TM Petaccia/UP

Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a hole-in-the-wall bar with some quirks, namely the sand pit. It’s a family-owned joint that’s been around since 1984, best known for its live music, funky atmosphere, and large selection of craft beer. From its unassuming outward appearance you’d never guess the kitschy chaos that lies within. There’s a church pew for you to relax on, a cozy leather couch, and walls covered in band posters, bumper stickers, and vintage beer advertisements. The bar allows outside food, dogs, and they even have a hotdog cart now and again. When you go, make sure to go on a Tuesday for their ever-popular open mic night.

Tommy’s Pub

Tommy’s Pub has a long history here in Charlotte. Over the years it’s gone through name changes, a relocation, and transitions in ownership. But despite it all, its spirit remains unchanged and its patrons are as loyal as ever. 

You can trace the pub’s origins all the way back to 1951. Then it was known as Central Avenue Bar & Grill and was located in Plaza Midwood. In 1977, the eponymous Tommy Karras took over the bar from his father and changed it to Tommy’s Pub. Unfortunately, the original location was closed in 2015 when the land was sold to developers. In 2017, it reopened on Eastway Drive under the ownership of longtime Tommy’s bartender Jamie Starks, who has worked hard to continue its legacy. 

Tommy’s Pub is small but mighty. They host some truly niche events almost every night of the week, with my personal favorite being Goth Night or “Requiem.” Think industrial dance party where you get to dress up in goth attire. It’s awesome. Besides living out your goth fantasies you can also go and see live music (which they’re known for), sing karaoke, or just hang out and enjoy the dive bar for what it is. And, for those who prefer non-alcoholic beverages, Tommy’s has plenty of options to choose from. The pub is dedicated to accommodating all patrons by offering a variety of NA cocktails in a can, NA beer, and mocktails. 

When you go, check out the back right alcove where they have a seating area and a surprising amount of NASCAR memorabilia. 

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