JOHNSON STREET YACHT CLUB
710 W. Johnson St., Raleigh
In downtown Raleigh, dive bars are a dying breed.
Sure, Slim’s isn’t going anywhere, but not everyone wants to have their eardrums ruptured on a Tuesday night. Elsewhere, true dives—dimly lit haunts with an unmistakable grime, the waft of stale tobacco from the patio’s cigarette graveyard, and more than one $3 beer—are hard to find in a downtown populated by an ever-increasing supply of high-end wine and cocktail bars.
You can get your whiskey on at Fox Liquor Bar, but it’s going to cost you fourteen bucks.
Johnson Street Yacht Club, the latest venture from Bittersweet’s Kim Hammer, may be the city’s last true new dive. That’s because you can’t just build a new dive bar. A dive bar cannot be fabricated; it must be born out of filth and desperation, baptized in PBR and sweat, branded in moon-shaped burns on duct-taped bar stools. It can’t be realized with a vintage Doors poster and distressed oak bar. You can’t hock artisan pretzels and call yourself a dive.
Johnson Street is, in some ways, a resurrection of The Office, the beloved neighborhood bar that occupied these black-painted walls until 2017. But it’s also its own species. Instead of an Addams Family pinball machine, there’s 007. The jukebox contains only female musicians. The décor consists of haphazardly strung Christmas lights and disposable-camera photos stuck to the ceiling alongside baseball cards.
If you’re hungry, I hope you like pork rinds or pistachios.
While there are irony-drenched “yacht clubs” lots of places, from Asheville to San Francisco to Greensboro, this isn’t a chain, though the basics are the same: Beer comes in a can, and the priciest drink (a $13 Johnny Walker Black) comes in a plastic cup.
On a Sunday night, when I nestle into the corner of the bar and order a shot of whiskey with a Tecate chaser, the bar is mostly full of industry folks—waitresses and bartenders fresh off shifts elsewhere.
The guy next to me orders a shot, too. He introduces himself as Mitch. A good dive-bar name.
“Dear sweet Evan Green,” Mitch declares. “Here we are.”
Indeed. I glug and shiver.
The yachtless club is a legacy of the great Raleigh dives of yore, Mitch says. Deep South closed in 2018, DIVEbar Raleigh some years before that. Just two blocks away, Cornerstone Tavern—a strip of oversized dance bungalows that lures a line of frat boys to its gates on weekends—is bribing patrons with free barbecue and Rice Krispies treats. Nearby in Glenwood South, a five-hundred-square-foot studio rents for $1,200 a month.
“A dive bar is the great equalizer,” Andrew Baker, a Cancer with a rhinestone on his forehead, tells me over Fernet and Montenegro shots.
Before he can explain, a pool stick slaps the floor as Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” blares through the speakers. A group gathers on the nondescript dance floor, and a guy in a patchwork sweater falls on his ass.
Some people are eating cake on paper plates. It’s someone (allegedly) named Andrew Robb Rager’s birthday. (I’m too drunk to question if that’s really his name). The entire bar migrates to the smoking patio, and a woman dressed as if Mad Max’s Furiosa were a mermaid is standing on the roof holding a paper lantern and a lighter. The delicate bubble of light gracefully floats up into the foggy black sky. Another bursts into flames before leaving the ground.
“Put it out! PUT IT OUT!” a woman shouts.
A true dive bar is where moments like this happen, and where they’re unscripted. Where the single-stall bathroom rarely has a line, and where you don’t need tattoos to feel welcome. Where all of the photos you take will be blurry, and where it’s always cool to buy a stranger a shot.
Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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