There are two kinds of alcoholics. Or more charitably, aficionados. One is affluent. The other, working class. They aren’t defined by status as much as where they pick their poisons. True dive bars are populist in a way boutique, high-concept dens of mixology are not.
At a dive, the ubiquitous streaming jukebox (with requisite phone app) is decked out like a Vegas slot machine, dispensing bass-heavy sonic cocktails to a diverse cadre of neon-bathed, pool-shooting revelers who, almost without fail, become a choir during the last two-minutes of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Drink specials with absurd names are garishly scrawled on tiny mirrors, and you can smoke more often than not. If you’re lucky you’ll find a machine with Parliaments that cost the same eight bucks as any other brand of coffin nail. Like everything at a dive bar, it’s a level playing field.
The tourists are obvious, and the regulars even more so; satiating themselves on five-dollar Jameson and PBR combos like mile markers to a collective, inevitable destination.
This is a survey of some favorites. Like a humanities class with booze.
Another Round (3307 S. Peoria) - Formerly known as Brookside Bar (under that name one of Tulsa’s arguably oldest watering holes), Another Round is closer to an entry-level dip. Nothing on Brookside is truly trashy; though The Warehouse, across the street, is a magnet for the kind of Fireball-swilling douchebros that make Another Round feel like a fucking oasis.
Strong pours (always a concern), a pleasingly inexpensive selection of well-curated craft beers, and a back porch with darts and giant Jenga, Another Round is the place to get a massive buzz in the warm familiarity of a neighborhood pub where, in all likelihood, nobody cares if you smoke a bowl at the picnic table.
Bamboo Lounge (6810 E. Pine) – Located in a derelict wasteland of dystopian junkyards and mechanic shops, Tulsa’s oldest gay bar opened in 1957.
Bamboo feels out of place and perfectly at home. Cheap drinks and people-watching fit in with any dive, but Bamboo’s off-the-beaten-path locale and eclectic patrons are a unique mélange of the familiar and unusual.
Home to drag-themed karaoke and comedy open mic nights (both of which feature a burlesque-inspired roster of amateur and professional entertainers), Bamboo’s improvisational theater-nerd esthetic sublimely complements its working class veneer.
Cellar Dweller (417 W. 7th St.) - A 70s basement bar under the historic Del Rey building, the Cellar is something of a hidden icon that wouldn’t be allowed to exist if it didn’t already.
Red brick walls are festooned with kitsch, non-sequitur bits of Americana art, and on Wednesday there’s free, live music from Grazzhopper. Over $5 Jamey and PBR’s some of Tulsa’s most influential people, and the occasional celebrity, find themselves faux-slumming in a cult of personality.
It’s the place you bring a date because the low-key crimson lighting makes everyone hot. And depending on the soundtrack, curated by Western or Olivia’s Pandora playlist—thus augmenting everyone’s game—will most likely get you (or someone way cooler than you) very laid.
Centennial Lounge (1109 E. 6th St.) – Located in a VFW building, itself an old speakeasy, Centennial is the “Purple Heart of the Pearl”— bordering downtown and the revitalized arts and drinking Pearl District, between Utica and Peoria Avenues. You can’t miss its fantastically vintage neon sign.
Over a weekday afternoon of cheap Marshall’s on tap—unless you like to go hard early—you might find yourself in the company of storytelling vets who killed actual Nazis. Sadly retired.
At night Centennial regularly hosts live music (it was the last place I saw Tulsa’s late blues legend, Steve Pryor, perform), and boasts a long-running comedy open mic where, if you show up on the right Wednesday, you can watch some of the best comics in Tulsa working out new material.
Orpha’s (112 W. 4th St.) – Billing itself as the oldest bar in Tulsa, circa 1958 (which the next bar on this list famously disputes), I was always leery of Orpha’s.
Sitting across the street at lunch 10 years ago, in the former location of Tulsa’s oldest Coney Islander, I’d gaze at its sunken, extracted tooth entrance in the harsh light of noontime wondering what kind of sordid shit was going on. A bar befitting of Bukowski.
Now, it’s a little different. Orpha’s is still the most unpretentious downtown bar; the definition of dive in a sea of high concept baubles. Shockingly cheap drinks, salt-of-the-earth lushes who are there every day because some of them live in the one-room apartments upstairs, and the occasional working girl with a trick; crossing streams with adventurous hipsters who always heard how dangerous this place was and finding that it really isn’t anymore.
The Buccaneer (1120 S. Harvard) – The Buc claims 1932 as its birth year, and thus is Tulsa’s oldest bar (a subject entirely up for debate).
As a dive, it’s textbook—catering to the TU crowd, with flat panels of sports and vintage home stereo speakers pumping out whatever’s on the jukebox. The drinks (like all of these places) are cheap and plenty, and the regulars a culture.
One of my fondest memories of the Buc was a friend’s birthday where a fat, balding white guy and his Mexican sidekick started lining out rails of coke on the long, thin table that bisects the space, offering lines to anyone who might be interested. He never got busted.
Like the night itself, that’s definitely not the norm. But it’s also the kind of weird moment you never forget.
Yellow Brick Road (2630 E. 15th St.) – I used to live across the street from Yellow Brick Road before moving next door to the Cellar Dweller. It’s hard to overstate the privilege of getting hammered at institutions from where you can walk home in less than three minutes.
An LGBT bar in spirit (there used to be a one-person prison cage between the booths), now YBR is really a pub for anyone. I watched the opening of the Beijing Olympics there.
A nerdy beer selection and tailored concoctions from midtown-centric bartenders who love their friends, housed in a vintage 40’s train row building—with unassuming, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, aesthetically minimalist signage—YBR is unrefined sophistication.
Joe O'Shansky is a Tulsa-based entertainment writer, mainly covering film and television. O'Shansky is fueled by cheap bourbon and Pall Malls… like Kurt Vonnegut, just not nearly as cool.