Dive Bars

Searching for low-brow booze across Spokane

The Jo Jos have arrived. Piping hot, the fried potato wedges and their creamy dip inspire me to relate — once again — something I read once: A human can survive on taters and dairy alone.

“But you will be deficient in molb… molly,” I sputter to my group, turning to ask my date how to say the word I’m having trouble saying after six or so drinks.

“Molybdenum,” she says. What she said, I say, but nobody’s too impressed.

Here we sit at the PARK INN, just one outpost on my search for Spokane’s perfect dive bar. I traveled far and wide — within city limits, of course — hunting for that special, seedy locale. The dirtier, cheaper and scarier, the better. Give me Rainier in cans and stale peanuts. Give me nodding-off old men on barstools. Give me a dirty look. I want to find the dive-iest bar in this burg.

The P.I., alas, is not a dive bar. This night’s clientele comprised almost exclusively young people. They were watching the Olympics, chatting, texting and generally having drunken good times. I should have known. This place is better known for attracting health care professionals than lifelong drunks. But, whatever, I’ve had a few. So I’m not thinking straight.

The night started off just as non-divey. Driving up to the CHECKERBOARD TAVERN on East Sprague, I thought, “An old tavern on East Sprague? It’s gotta be a dive.” Noticing that one side of the neon sign hanging off the building read, “Checkerb,” while the other side said, “kerboard,” only seemed to confirm my hunch.

Upon entering, however, my hopes were dashed.

It’s not like Janice and Keith Raschko, who bought the place three months ago, have made any drastic changes (except for putting vegan and vegetarian options on the menu, next to the Ploughman’s Platter and the Banger in a Bun). With its black, white and red checkerboard motif and classic back bar, the place has apparently always been a nice neighborhood joint. And as the seedy East Sprague transitions to the city’s anointed International District, this place will only get nicer.

I suck down my Golden Hills Clem’s Gold, finish my sweet potato fries, and head out. Next stop, RICK’S RINGSIDE.

Here on Garland, I figure my odds of success are elevated. Not only does Rick’s reside here, but the Brown Derby is within a minute’s stumbling distance.

But again the visions of tipplers dancing in my head dissipate as I enter Rick’s. This place is clean and well lit. Microbrews rule the draught handles. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t take my mom here — OK, maybe I would. What I’m saying is, this place doesn’t depress me. There are ping-pong tables here, for God’s sake! I’m out. After a pint, of course.

Pouring myself into the BROWN DERBY, I know my luck is turning around. The place is packed with people decades older than me, all drinking nearly translucent beer.

The bartender comes up all sunshine, and a pint of Rainier follows. Draining that frosty delight, my head almost gets taken off more than once by the butt end of a wild pool cue, and I’m sure of it: This place is simply the epitome of dive bar. Can it get any better?

I think of the Sunset Junction, the city’s latest “It” place. Two months ago, it was a dive. Now, clueless young hipsters mingle with the snarling old guard. Yes, you can buy a knife with your beer — really — but you can also see some of the best live music in town here. Not a dive bar.

And I think of Bigfoot Pub & Eatery, on the Division Y. The beer is cheap, the clientele old and the food very bar-like. That makes it dive-worthy. But then I heard from an alum recently that Whitworth University has a “Bigfoot Night.” Young Presbyterian academics do not a dive bar make.

So, sitting at the Derby, I was sure I was done. The Derby is the winner. The dive-iest. And then I remember PJ’S, and I set course. On my way, zipping down Monroe, I ponder all the other haunts that coulda been contenders: The Hub, Moezy Inn and Casey’s. The Mayfair, Rainbow Room and Red Dragon. Would there ever be a night that could contain all these dives?

In PJ’s, my ears are assaulted with loud rock music in the vein of 3 Doors Down, Staind and Daughtry. I flinch. I’m on a level a few feet higher than a pool game and the bar. Stairs lead up to another level with more pool, darts and a karaoke pit. Some raucous and strange woman is yelling at me. I smile and ignore her.

Sitting upstairs, I see layers of different decorating philosophies — and perhaps eras — from this one vantage: stucco on one wall, wood paneling on another, straight-up wood on one more and brick. This, without a doubt, is a dive.

But which is dive-ier? The Derby or PJ’s? My mind reels. I’m drunk. And hungry. For Jo Jos.


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About The Author

Nicholas Deshais

Nicholas Deshais is the Editor of the Inlander, where he oversees the entire editorial operation and supervises news coverage. He was a staff writer for the paper from 2008-12, and has worked for various news outlets, including Portland’s newsweekly Willamette Week, the Spokesman-Review, Northwest Public Broadcasting...