Cigarette smoke hung in the air so thick, I could have cut it with a knife and spread it over toast. As the bikini-topped bartender poured me some kind of Jäagermeister-based shot that looked like toxic chocolate milk, one of the more enthusiastic regulars regaled me with stories of her recent karaoke slight at a Division Street bar.
"I mean, I only got to sing one song all night," said Monica Cazares, who was speaking of the nearby Caves Lounge, and the Machiavellian maneuvering and blatant favoritism of the Caves' karaoke scene.
As we sat at the bar at Bogart's, a boxy, windowless, charming dive bar on East Lancaster Avenue, on the Arlington-Fort Worth border, she went on to tell me about how she learned English by watching television and doesn't like any foam on her beer, because "she wants to get as much beer as possible." I took the dark, milky shot (a Jäger Shaker, I later learned), and listened as she meandered from topic to topic at the pace of an auctioneer.
"This bitch right here," she said, pointing at bartender Brandy Wood, "she knows how to pour a beer."
Bogart's was but the first stop on my Division Street pub crawl, which spanned two days and 11 bars. I wanted to explore the seedy underbelly of Arlington and to find out why Division Street, which runs from Fort Worth to Oak Cliff, has such a densely concentrated collection of booze peddlers -- from Interstate 820, to just beyond Bowen Road.
Though most locals revere the rich history of Division Street, sordid though it may be, it hardly makes for a good chamber of commerce commercial. The street was once known as an easy place to get stabbed, as much as it was a place to cozy up to a bar stool for a long, rowdy night of binging. Originally known as Bankhead Highway, named after Sen. John Hollis Bankhead, Division Street isn't a dangerous place anymore, but it's not exactly the image the city of Arlington would like to project to outsiders.
In recent years, the city is known more as a sports mecca, after hosting Super Bowl XLV, the 2010 NBA All-Star Game and last year's World Series. Now, the eye of the sports world is once again firmly affixed on Arlington, as the Rangers make another postseason run, and the Cowboys continue to lay eggs at Jones' Cowboys Stadium.
A lot of people in Dallas-Fort Worth still view Arlington as a lot for giant sports stadiums, amusement parks and car dealerships, with little else to offer. But anyone who has bothered to look beyond Hurricane Harbor and Jerry World knows that Arlington houses some of the most storied and unique watering holes anywhere -- and Division Street is a perfect example of that. It's like a vein that runs through the heart of the city, connecting Arlington's past and present. My tour de Division featured bars that were, for the most part, interesting, eclectic and oozing authenticity out of every pore. The people were friendly and quick with an anecdote -- even if their stories were colored by a little too much imbibing or just flat out too naughty to retell.
As my booze-powered party train roared through Division, I was struck by the loyalty of each bar's patrons, many of whom were short only pom-poms when asked to describe their favorite bar.
Perhaps Jeanette Richardson, a regular at Stumpy's, summarized Division Street bars best:
"You can just be yourself," said Richardson, decked out in a leopard-print dress, and matching stockings and hair bow. "You don't have to worry about being a player. If you're just being yourself, you'll have a damn good time."
Our first stop on the tour was Bogart's (6409 E. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth). While it's technically not on Division (Lancaster turns into Division), it is a pretty typical Division Street bar, aesthetically. The boxy, windowless room was filled with a couple of pool tables, four flat-screen televisions and 40-line slot machines. The decor is upscale dive, with swanky leather banquets. The crowd on a recent visit was a mix of bikers, hipsters and everyone in between. The jukebox selections ranged from White Zombie to Night Ranger.
We were greeted by the very energetic bartender, Brandy Wood, dressed in a bikini top and denim shorts. She insisted we try a Jäger Shaker, which tasted like spiked chocolate milk. I'm always leery of shots that are too easy to drink -- it's often a precursor to me wearing a lampshade and having to make a round of apology texts the next day.
Wood gushed over her regulars but said the servers are what make the difference at Bogart's.
"It's happy here, no one ever gets into a fight ... we turn it into one big happy family."
Part of that happy family was Tom Lulloff, whose gray billy-goat goatee and sleeveless black T-shirt made him look like the sort of guy you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley, but he ended up being a nice ambassador for the place.
"It's a friendly environment," he said. "The people who come here are good people. The bartenders are all great."
Then there was Cazares, the lively tattooed regular who insisted Wood was the greatest bartender in the history of Western civilization.
"I never have to ask for a beer," she said. "It just appears."
A sandwich and hotdog vendor, Eat Out Dine-In, comes by Tuesday-Saturday, selling delicious pulled pork sandwiches ($4), hot dogs ($2) and tamales ($6 for a half-dozen). Every Sunday, Bogart's sells margaritas for $1, and the bar hosts karaoke night Tuesday and Friday.
Look for Cazares on karaoke night -- she claims to have serious skills.
The Ozzie Rabbit Lodge
The next stop on my booze-y adventure was a scant walk from Bogart's, The Ozzie Rabbit Lodge (6463 E. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth). It would be very easy to dismiss The Ozzie Rabbit as another hipster bar -- it has all of the trappings: tattooed and pierced crowd wearing band T-shirts, superior nondigital jukebox, ironic animal heads and skulls on the wall. The Oz is, in fact, just the opposite. The crowd is typically a young mix of punk rockers, college kids and neighborhood folk. The decor is roadhouse dive-chic, with license plates hung carefully askew on the walls.
On my visit, the crowd was mostly regulars, and there was a lot of laughing coming from behind the bar. Every so often on the weekends, a staffer will spin "the wagon wheel of fortune," which hangs over the bar, to determine the drink specials. During my visit, the wheel landed on $5 you-call-it bombs. After my chocolate milk shot at Bogart's, I couldn't quite muster the courage to get bombed.
Bartender Melanie Higgins described the place as "an eclectic dive bar," and said the crowd is generally very laid back. The drink specials are outrageous at Ozzie Rabbit. From 3-7 p.m., it offers $1 Miller Lights and Pabst Blue Ribbons. The well drinks start at $1, and the price goes up 50 cents every hour, topping out at $2.
Ozzie Rabbit has a little bit of a lighthearted attitude, too. There's a sign on the cash register that reads "There is a $1 surcharge for credit card purchases under $10. Don't like it? Bring cash."
The Peppermill Cocktail Lounge
After putting away a couple at Oz, we worked our way north to The Peppermill Cocktail Lounge (6825 E. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth). We were greeted by a small-but-lively crowd on the dance floor, spinning and dipping to the twangy sounds of Robby White and the Tejas Gringos. The Peppermill is a throwback country dance hall, which recently reopened in March, after some remodeling. Luckily, the remodeling hasn't taken away from the authentic charm here. It's like a time portal back to the early '80s.
The decor is that of an off-ramp roadhouse party shed; you just know a lot of good times have been enjoyed here. The shelving of the bar itself has its own rich history. The owner purchased the ornate Western-style shelves from the Blackstone Hotel in Fort Worth, where John Wayne and other celebrities would party the nights away. The crowd was a little older than the ones at our previous stops, but they were rowdy and ready to party. The middle-age couple making out on the dance floor might have turned my stomach under normal circumstances (repressed fellow that I am). But it's easy to see how a couple could get a little carried away in the throes of that crowd and that music.
The bar sells Jello shots for $1, and after a couple, I was looking for someone to make out with on the dance floor.
Stumpy's Blues Bar
The vibe at Stumpy's Blues Bar (2811 W. Division St., Arlington) couldn't have been more different than the Peppermill. The brightly lit parking lot was filled with rows of Harley Davidsons. The hardcore-ish band, Cushpoint, was rocking out the stage, which is normally reserved for blues acts. The cavernous interior is filled with pool tables and rows of standard-issue tables and chairs.
Manager Gina Williams said she likes her bartenders sassy. On our visit, the bartender's shirt, which read "It ain't gonna lick itself," was wrought with sass. Williams described Stumpy's as "biker-friendly" but warned that it's not a biker bar.
Regular patron Jeannette Richardson, who stood out in her leopard-print ensemble with bright blond hair, said she enjoys the comfort and security of the place.
"You don't have to worry about people stealing your s---," she said.
Williams took me on a tour of the beer garden on the back patio, which was filled with picnic tables on the grassless ground. Stumpy's has live music every weekend, free pool every Tuesday and Wednesday, a dart league Monday and Tuesday, a pool league Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, and happy-hour prices until 9 p.m. every evening.
It was at this point in the night that I felt handsome and funny. And I spilled a drink.
Our next stop on the crawl was Caves Lounge (900 W. Division St., Arlington). I love the Caves, an unpretentious tavern that's a hip hangout for college kids and boasts an enormous party patio out back. The decor is garage-sale eclectic, with a television broadcasting a fire in the zebra-print fireplace, far-out art on the walls and a red velvet curtain. The crowd is artsy, loud and generally very young. The jukebox is famously cool, featuring a wide-range of great tunes on mixes burned onto CDs by the staff.
Though Caves is hardly obscure, bartender Taylor Witt said it only attracts a certain kind of person.
"It's a spot for regulars," he said. "You're not going to know about it unless you have a friend who knows about it."
There is always something going on at Caves. Monday is movie night, Thursday is college night, which features $1.50 wells, and you can get $2 mimosas and cook out on "Sunday Fun Day." The bar has its very own brand of delicious wheat beer, Osbakken Dunkelweiss.
During my visit, the Caves patio was packed, but there were plenty of seats at the bar. I had a very confusing conversation with some band-shirt-wearing, tattooed hipster kid, who stole my chair. He had apparently been imbibing as much as I had, and once he figured out that I was asking him to get out of my chair, he felt the need to give me a man half-hug. Nice guy.
Our final stop on Day 1 of our booze tour of Division was the Sunshine Bar (902 W. Division St., Arlington), the quintessential Arlington dive bar. The boxy, yellow building is dimly lit and smoky as a campfire on the inside. The place has been there forever.
Regular patron Lindsay Blake said her parents used to frequent the watering hole back in the '70s and '80s.
"It's the heart and soul of Division," she said. "A dive's dive."
There is nothing fancy about the Sunshine Bar, but there doesn't need to be. Bartender Amber White said the day crowd is older -- people who have been going there for 30 years. On our visit at last call, the crowd was younger, similar to the nearby Caves' crowd.
According to White, the Sunshine Bar has shaped the character of Division Street bars.
"If you come in here for a beer, someone will start a conversation with you," she said. "There is nothing pretentious about it, no attitude. It's a melting pot, where everyone is welcome."
During my interview with White, I spilled yet another drink, gesturing wildly. A patron offered to buy me a shot, and the look on my face must have been one of sheer terror. My crew and I left, our mouths and clothes coated in cigarette smoke, stumbling drunk into our designated driver's car for the short trip back to Fort Worth.
Day 2: Marie's Pearl's Cherokee
Our first stop on Day 2 was Marie's Pearl's Cherokee (2607 W. Division St., Arlington), which, according to our bartender, is the oldest bar in Arlington. Interestingly, the neighborhood dive also employs the oldest bartender in Arlington, a woman named "Slick," who is still slinging drinks at age 77 (she's worked there since she was 18). The crowd was older and full of rowdy and fun characters.
The owner, Marie Williams, makes food for her customers every weekend. The day of my visit, she prepared chicken-and-dumpling soup and insisted I try it. It was delicious. The food is always free, too. Imagine your cool grandmother getting you drunk, and then feeding you, and you've captured the vibe.
The bar's specialty shots are whipped cream-topped, flavored vodka shots. I tried a Whip-It, which tasted like a Creamsicle. Guitarist Danny Rowlett was playing on the tiny stage. His rendition of You Can Leave Your Hat On filled the dance floor with that familiar older-white-people-overbite dancing. That was a fun bar.
1851 Club Arlington
The only gay bar in Arlington I'm aware of is the 1851 Club Arlington (1851 W. Division St., Arlington). The "gay Cheers," as it's known, had that same Division Street dive-bar aesthetic: boxy, dark, windowless and smoky, but comfortable. The bartenders at 1851 were among the friendliest, and the jubilant crowd was cheering on the regular weekend drag show (Friday-Sunday).
The joint has been around for 30 years, and though it's had several different names, it's always been a gay bar. The crowd was surprisingly eclectic, with gay and straight men and woman of all races partying together.
Bartender Johnny Smith poured us the pub's two specialty shots: the blue balls, which tasted like a melted Jolly Rancher, and the pop rocks shot, which was like slamming spiked Big Red. Taking the two back-to-back was like getting drunk on Halloween candy.
The drinks are cheap, the bartenders are great, and the crowd is fun. Happy hour specials run 3-9 p.m. every day and feature $2 wells.
Milo's (501 E. Division St., Arlington) stood in stark contrast to the relaxed 1851 Club and Marie's Pearl's Cherokee. The place was packed, and the bartenders were flying all over the place. The decor is dressed-up dive, with red sectional couches lending an air of sophistication. There was a DJ playing loud, up-tempo dance music, though it was hardly a dance party. The crowd was young and loud, and the backward cap was well represented.
My booze buddy and I only stayed for one drink but occupied our time playing ping pong. The staff seemed nice, but I didn't want to bother them with questions. I'll be back.
Ron's Good Times Sports Bar
The folks at Marie's Pearl Cherokee suggested that we check out Ron's Good Times Sports Bar (931 W. Division St., Arlington). Compared to the other dimly lit bars we'd experienced, Good Times seemed like a tanning bed. The crowd was mostly pool players, who seemed to all be wearing sweat pants. After having just come from the frantic Milo's, the super mellow Good Times felt like a funeral after-party.
Once we settled in, the bar grew on us. We only stayed for one drink, but the bartender was nice. I might have to go back for the $3 bloody Mary special.
Xtreme Sports Bar
Our last stop was the upstart Xtreme Sports Bar (916 W. Division St., Arlington). It's only been open a couple of weeks, which might explain why the place was so empty. The deflated balloons on the floor (left over from the opening) and blaring Tejano music made the place feel like no one showed up to a quinceanera. The staff was very optimistic, even gushy about the bar's prospects. And who can blame them? Bartender Carolina Hernandez was warm and very tolerant of my slurred speech.
I share their hopes for this place, and will be back for the Sunday specials: $1.50 domestics, $2 imports, and $3 shots.
There were at least a dozen other places on and around Division Street that I didn't go to, for the sake of my beleaguered liver. My booze team and I had a fantastic time, and met some wonderful characters.
The thing that stood out about our Tour de Division was the authenticity of the places. They had history, and more than a few had multiple generations of loyal patrons. The customers interviewed for this story spoke of their favorite bars like a proud parent would their underachieving, but lovable black-sheep child. They know the bars are dive-y but wouldn't have it any other way. To them it's like coming home. To me, it was a window into the world of the people who hang out and work in those bars. I was a guest in their world and was treated very well.