Sonoma County dive bars are the places we go for a solid gin and tonic served up without the distraction of atmosphere. They’re no-frills, no-judgement spots to forget your troubles, drink well tequila and maybe get a bit of advice from a guy with two teeth and smile a mile wide. He seems pretty happy, after all.
What we know from our years of of tippling at spots without cover charges, rap on the jukebox or bartenders willing to make any drink with more than two ingredients? Anyone’s welcome as long as you don’t act like an ass.
With that said, here are some of our favorite Sonoma County dive bars at varying ends of the pool — some you gotta dive a lot deeper to find, others are on the beaten path.
The Tipsy Triangle: Gary’s At the Belvedere (727 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa), 440 Club (435 College Ave.,Santa Rosa), Round Robin (616 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa)
If you think about the intersection of College and Mendocino Aves., you may notice that three of the four corners (okay, it’s an obtuse triangle) have bars. Hence the name Tipsy Triangle, referring to Gary’s at the Belvedere, the 440 Club and The Round Robin. These old-timers pre-date most of the people going to them by at least 20 years. Sometimes much more. There are lots of cool old touches in each, if you look closely (fire pit, secret upstairs rooms), but not too closely. Nearby Joey’s Pizza and Adels are the after-party fuel-up spots.
The Zoo: A friend once told me this dive bar was once a Hell’s Angels hangout, naturally proving its dive bar cred. You may or may not see any motorcycle gang members hanging around, but expect a no-nonsense crowd at this notoriously colorful dive. 527 Barham Ave., Santa Rosa.
The Wagon Wheel: Years ago, they offered one of the best deals in town that you never wanted to accept — a “Get Out of Jail” coupon. If you were booked at the nearby Sonoma County Jail in Santa Rosa, upon your release you could walk three blocks to the Wagon Wheel and flash your papers for a free drink. Unfortunately these days, that’s the stuff of legend, since the new owners have stopped the practice, but it’s still the best bar to hit when you’re sprung from the joint. 3320 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa (John Beck, Sonoma Magazine)
Kozy Kar Bar: 70s and early 80s-themed nightclub, complete with waterbeds, shag rugs, bad lighting, pinball machines, 8-tracks and Penthouse pinup “wallpaper” from that freewheeling, all-natural era. Tastelessly divey. 404 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa.
Fiorino’s Lounge: One of the few spots this deep into Rincon Valley, and you’ll still have to hunt it down inside the Montecito shopping center. The younger crowd has discovered its old-school charm, but you’ll still find some decent grub and cocktails inside. 585 Montecito Ctr., Santa Rosa.
The Cotati Crawl is the Main Street of Sonoma State University drinking life, so expect lots of 20-somethings when schools in session.
Eight Ball: Probably the best neon sign of any dive bar in Sonoma County. Heavy sports, bar atmosphere, but solid drinking. 8 Charles St., Cotati.
Friar Tuck’s Pub: These folks love to party, making it one of the most lively, spirited, friendly spots in town. Plus, you can get deep fried raviolis at 1:30a.m. Of course its THE place to be for St. Paddy’s. 8201 Old Redwood Hwy, Cotati.
Spanky’s: I kid you not, I went to a Roller Derby team bake sale at this Cotati dive a few years ago. That kind of sums up the vibe. Live music, cold beer, good times. 8201 Old Redwood Hwy, Cotati.
The Buckhorn: Deer and elk heads hang from the wall behind the bar of this 1938 tavern which has become a top destination for Petaluma’s karaoke scene. Who knew? and located at 615 Petaluma Blvd. South, Petaluma.
Ernie’s Tin Barn: Lots of Sonoma folks drop in on their way to or from Petaluma and points south. Once a kind of rough can-of-beer joint, it has been yupped up a bit with outdoor seating, flowers, new tin siding since a truck plowed through the west end of the building, and excellent barbecue. Pints $1.75 on up. -Kathleen Hill, Sonoma Index Tribune
John and Zeke’s: After closing the original location on the Healdsburg plaza, owners took over another downtown dive just blocks away. Still where the locals go to escape the tourists. 420 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg.
Casino Bar and Grill: I really hate telling people about this place, because its one of the last dive bars that hasn’t been “discovered” by 20-year-olds or tourists. Fortunately, the regulars will stare you down pretty good if they think you don’t belong, especially during the week. What’s amazing is that one of Sonoma County’s best chefs serves up wildly creative dinners at this outpost for very local-friendly prices. 17000 Bodega Hwy., Bodega.
Blue Moon Saloon: A former “card room” and the scene of fights and general rabble-rousing, Blue Moon Saloon now has a fun paint job and a whole set of regulars, some of whom show up early in the morning. Sundays bring Sunday Blues music featuring loads of local musicians such as Stuart Sperring, Nick Cordellos, Sean Carscadden, Phil Herrschaft, Zakk Murphy, Ryan Tatarian, and Steen Berrig. Good drinks, good prices. In fact that is true of all of our “dives.” -KH
Steiner’s Tavern: Several years ago Steiners moved up the street from where Harvest Moon Café is now located to a bank building, and thankfully took its original swinging doors along. Steiners is the ultimate local dive bar that attracts a crowd that has been going there every day for decades – plus young almost hipsters, wedding parties, motorcyclists and general noise makers. Lots of deep fried foods, burgers, and even a good shrimp Louie salad on the menu all the time. -KH
Harold’s Dante Hotel & Bar on the corner of Railroad Avenue and S. East Street is something of a Cloverdale institution. Constructed of local redwood in 1888, it was originally known as the New Toscano. Although no longer used for lodging, it is still one of Cloverdale’s oldest businesses and holds the distinction of being the town’s longest running hotel. Today, it is operated strictly as a bar by Cort Amelung and his wife, Marilynn. In addition to attracting a lot of locals, the Dante is on the “must see” list for out of town visitors. It is also the one place where those who’ve grown up here want to go when they come home to visit. After 125 years, the Dante still looks pretty much the same, and according to the Amelungs, there are no plans to make any changes any time soon. – Mary Joe Winter, Cloverdale Towns Correspondent.