Calling all lushes! Wendy Mitchell’s New York City’s Best Dive Bars just hit the stands, and that girl can drink. Mitchell reviews 90 of the city’s skankiest haunts, or “places where real people settle in for real drinking,” meaning hardly any of these dank dens are reviewed by those wussy Zagat surveyors. And if they are, they certainly don’t titillate with Mitchell’s tawdry bar-stool tales, like when a guy invited her back to his place to “break some shit.” Come to think of it, Mitchell has a real knack for attracting crazy characters, Spartos included. She’s also clocked some serious drinking time in the name of book research, and well, that’s the sort of service-oriented chutzpah Spartos admires. So when Mitchell offers to take Spartos to some of her favorite dives, Spartos agrees: “Like Andrew W.K., let’s party till we puke!”
Their bar crawl begins at JIMMY’S CORNER (140 West 44th Street, 221-9510), a sliver of a Times Square dive commandeered by local boxing trainer Jimmy Glenn. In her book, Mitchell rates it with a “dive factor” of 4 (on a scale of 1 to 10—10 indicating Mars Bar-level sleaziness), and rightly so—with its swinging jazz jukebox and occasional suit from the nearby Condé Nast building, it’s far from scary. It is, however, a first-rate neighborhood joint for swilling pints of Beck’s ($4) with fellow drinkers who dig listening to Duke and watching tough guys put up their dukes (totally intense boxing photos plaster the walls, the tables, even the bar). So when Spartos and Mitchell score stools from a well-marinated guy in an FDNY hat, it’s time to start seriously pounding, but not before Spartos sizes up the competition. Has Mitchell eaten dinner beforehand? “Spartos, me and my friends have a word for food, and that word is buzzkill.” Spartos gulps, then reaches for the bowl of free pretzels.
A couple of brews later the duo find themselves walking west—and upping the dive factor—at SMITH’S (701 Eighth Avenue, 246-3268), which Mitchell rates a 6. (“It’s near Port Authority, so there’s always someone there with a limp,” she explains on the trek over.) While they don’t see anyone hobbling, they do spy those other telltale signs of dereliction—plastic bags that double as suitcases. But it’s these very tattered edges that make this cheesy cafeteria-style restaurant (linoleum floors, fluorescent lighting) possibly the last bastion of a bygone Times Square: Rumors abound that another neighborhood holdout—Howard Johnson’s—won’t be renewing its lease. Still, it’s not a bad place for a couple of ladies to imbibe, since most of the male relics are involved either with their drinks, the game on TV, or a combination of the two. But while the bartender looks rather dapper in his shirt and tie, he can’t make up for the fact that the relatively pricey pints of Pilsner Urquell ($4.50) don’t reflect what Mitchell calls “a downgrade in decor and clientele.”
Sufficiently lubricated, they brave the HOLLAND COCKTAIL LOUNGE (532 Ninth Avenue, 502-4609), which rates a whopping 8 on Mitchell’s scale. “Sometimes you need a little weirdness,” explains Mitchell, and the duo certainly get it: The long, narrow bar is filled with characters, including an old guy in a kilt! But when Spartos discovers she’s only paid $5 for a pint of Bud and a pint of Mich Light, she knows she’s struck liquid gold. Until an ancient couple vacate their stools, Spartos and Mitchell amuse themselves with the wall art, including collages of the regulars and a cartoon that depicts two guys drinking at a bar—one says to the other, “I’m doing my cardio workout.” But the best vantage point is from the old wooden bar, which—along with the beautifully scripted “Holland Bar” sign behind it—was lifted from the joint’s original location on 42nd Street. The bartender, a friendly bloke who’s worked at the Holland for more than a decade, not only buys back Spartos and Mitchell their third round, but regales them with neighborhood tales, like the real reason the Manganaro brothers split and formed rival Ninth Avenue Italian eateries. (Hey, Spartos doesn’t drink and tell.) Like Mitchell says in the book, “Sometimes you just need a shot of adventure with a beer chaser.” Spartos completely understands.