Scary bars: Fun, fear, squalor, guns and drinking

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

I believe it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said that the secret of a rewarding life was simple: Each of us, every day, should drink in at least one bar that scares us.

OK, maybe that isn’t exactly what the first lady said. But scary bars have always held a certain fascination for explorers of a certain age and stripe.

“Nothing snaps my funk like the threat of a rusty shiv inserted into my kidneys,” wrote Joshua M. Bernstein in the New York Press not long ago, explaining his attraction to that city’s most dangerous-seeming saloons.


Yes, I remember the youthful thrill of ducking uninvited into a juke joint near Holly Springs, Miss. (followed by the deflating discovery of a dozen earnest folklorists inside). I recall the high-wire, high-altitude pleasure of drinking in Aguascalientes, Peru, with a bunch of country guys doing their best to look like natural-born killers while tentatively taking turns at the town’s first pool table.

And then there was the fun of stepping into Tony’s in Ocean Beach, San Diego, shortly after a stabbing and meeting my wife-to-be.

Now that I’m older, fear and squalor don’t hold quite the same appeal. OK, they hold virtually no appeal. But with Halloween coming, this seems like a fine time for a briefing on bars and fear:

Guns — real and unreal: First, and torn from the headlines: Four U.S. states now permit loaded weapons in bars. If this scares you, you can confront your fears directly in Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia or Virginia, all recently named in a New York Times article about evolving firearms laws.

If that seems a little too real, there’s the bar at the Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyo., or the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyo., both of which have almost daily pretend gunfights staged outside every summer.

Of course, if you feel safer drinking in a well-armed bar — as millions of National Rifle Assn. members may — you’ll need to scare yourself another way.


Ghostly doings: In London (where even the police do without guns sometimes), you see a lot of old buildings and hear a lot of ghost stories. Here is a list of 10 “scary and spooky” bars there, many with ghost stories attached.

Police blotter: In Hungary, when you get thirsty, be careful. Seven bars in Budapest have inspired such worries (mostly about theft) that the U.S. Embassy is citing them by name and warning Americans to go elsewhere.

And if these people can be believed, there’s plenty more trouble waiting at several other places in the same neighborhood.

Daunting dives: Of course, New York is a fine place to scare yourself too. In fact, a few years ago, the New York Press pursued a Scary Bar Project, in which a thirsty, smart-alecky reporter (the afore-quoted Bernstein) roamed the boroughs in search of daunting dives, measuring “perceived scariness” against “actual scariness” on a 10-point scale. Here’s one he dug up in Brooklyn. Sadly, the project seems to be over.

If you’re willing to settle for squalor, rather than downright fear, these people have dozens of drinking options for you in Portland, Ore., and Seattle. And these folks have some San Francisco and Los Angeles “dive bar” suggestions.

And then there’s Tony’s: As for good old Tony’s in San Diego, all these years later it might look a little more wholesome. But they’re serving absinthe now. Remain afraid.