In Defense of Dives
By Anthony Head
Photos by Kirk Weddle
Writer (and former bartender) Anthony Head and photographer Kirk Weddle travel to 12 iconic bars — including A Great Notion — to uncover the true essence of what makes a neighborhood joint so enduring (and endearing). The result is a book that makes you want to pull up a stool and order a beer and a shot.
In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously explained (almost) how he could judge whether a film was or was not hardcore pornography: “Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so,” he admitted at first. “But I know it when I see it.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio). Yet, Potter certainly had to realize that such a lazy, subjective standard could be applied to almost anything with a whiff of disrepute, like social media influencers, nonfungible tokens and bitcoin.
And then there are dive bars, the hardcore dens of drinking, right?
Not quite, as I see it. In fact, I think they’re unjustly perceived as places where the country stockpiles its broken dreams. Sure, there are some scary bars that — by societal agreement — remain unwelcoming to outsiders. We can agree to call them “private clubs for the intellectually unreachable.” Most dive bars, however, are neighborhood spots where you can relax, have a drink, maybe make a new buddy.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I bartended in college and after because I needed to make ends meet. The only reason I stopped bartending was to begin writing. So, I moved over to the other side of the bar, as a customer, and wherever I lived I found a neighborhood joint within which to drink in comfort.
After nearly 30 years of writing about beers, wines, spirits — the last 15 of them in Texas (and a few of them writing for this magazine) — I’ve found and frequented some bars throughout the state that pass the dive sniff test, which sometimes includes the aroma of stale beer and, with less frequency, cigarette smoke. Most also feature common tropes like jukeboxes, pool tables and Christmas lights.
But I believe a dive is first and foremost a “dive” only when it has achieved a certain level of invisibility that comes from being around forever. Or at least long enough to make it ubiquitous within its neighborhood. Long enough that some folks have just stopped seeing it.
Except for the regulars, that is. They’re the ones who take pride in the place because they’ve grown close to it and to the other regulars. They keep coming back because there’s no agenda. No pressure to conform. They feel like they own the place or, at least, they’re responsible for it.
A couple years ago, I found that kind of bar in Fort Worth. It’s called A Great Notion, in Ridgmar. I’ve only been there a few times, admittedly, but that’s because I live out of town. Otherwise, I think I’d be regularly hanging out with Gail Oshier, who runs the place along with her terrific lineup of night and day bartenders.
Ask Gail if the “Shakies” (the Notions’ Kamikazes) are any good today, and she’ll bend your ear about why they make the best around.
Gail took over the place from her mother, Sylvia Donovan, who passed away in 2017. Sylvia had been in charge since 1991, and her spirit is very much a tangible presence and a regular topic of conversation. Most everyone on both sides of the bar has fond memories of her. Because of Sylvia and Gail, this is the kind of neighborhood bar that happens to convey a civilizing perspective in a world gone nutty. It’s a place to avoid overpriced drinks, cover charges and trends of most kinds.
As for the regulars, what can I say. It was really easy to get a barwide conversation off and running when I casually asked about the history of the place (which dates back, as a bar, to at least 1972). And most everyone has a story to tell.
If you go, it wouldn’t hurt to mention how much you’d love to see anyone’s photos of SandFest in Port A. That’s a big deal at the Notion.
Some of my favorite Texas dives didn’t survive the pandemic. While I mourn those joints, now lost forever, I’m relieved that A Great Notion is still around, anchoring its neighborhood. I’ll be dropping by again soon.
I’ll also keep seeking out these old bars in the state, the ones that possess the wonderful charm of … of … actually, it’s hard to explain, but I’ll know it when I see it.