Having grown up in eastern Wisconsin, I am no stranger to a well-worn corner bar.
In fact, my parents were experts at sussing out a great pub that served a specialty food item, from a good fish fry to a killer burger.
These days, the bars at which my sister and I spent our quarters playing Pac-Man would likely be called “dive bars.” In fact, when we visit each other (she still lives in Wisconsin), we make it a point of taking each other to our favorite such taverns.
Still, some people might take offense to the term, so let me say, before I give you a list of some of my favorites in the east metro, that I’m using the phrase “dive bar” as the ultimate term of endearment. I love a place where the booths are as worn as the griddle, where the regulars turn and look to see who has entered when the door opens — not because they’re hostile, but because most of the customers are friends.
There are certain characteristics that make a good dive bar, so I’ve included essential attributes of each establishment (pull tabs, meat raffles, dart boards, etc.) that will make it easy for you to find your own favorite.
My only criteria for a bar making the list was that these neighborhood staples serve something that can pass as dinner, because in my middle age, I don’t want to go to several places in one night. I need a one-stop shop that will feed me and offer libations.
One of our favorite bars, period, Skinner’s is the perfect mix of neighborhood atmosphere and really great bar food. The pizzas are killer, there’s crisp fried chicken, the hoagies are hot, the burgers infinitely snarfable and if you want the ultimate drinking-friendly shareable snack, go for the totchos, served on a giant pizza plate.
What’s up: Pull tabs, bar bingo on Wednesdays
Where to find it: 919 Randolph Ave., St. Paul; 651-228-1947; skinnersmn.com
So the furniture at this Rice Street pub and eatery might be new and the bar less well-worn than some of the other spots on this list, but the clientele here is definitely neighborhood, down to some guys probably playing cribbage at a high-top table, and they absolutely turn to look and see which friend is walking in when you open the door. The food here is a step above most bar food, too. McCarron’s uses house-made corned beef in their Reuben sandwich, a proprietary dry rub for their tasty wings and freshly fried tortilla chips for their nachos.
What’s up: Pull tabs, tri-wheel, bar bingo on Mondays and Saturdays, meat raffle Fridays and Saturdays
Where to find it: 1986 Rice St., Maplewood; 651-788-7362; mccarronspub.com
This has been one of our favorite bars since the 1990s, and luckily for us, in the past few years, they’ve added a kitchen that’s serving up some really great Irish bar food. Despite the kitchen addition, the decor and furniture have not changed a bit since we first started coming here, or since a bar scene from “Grumpy Old Men” was filmed here about that same time.We love the Paddy Shack burger, the house-made corned beef sandwich and the fish and chips. Oh, and it’s possible to order a pitcher of Guinness here, perfect for sharing with pals.
What’s up: Dart board, pool table, pull tabs and bocce ball in the basement, meat raffle on Fridays
Where to find it: 1013 Front Ave., St. Paul; 651-488-8245; halftimerec.com
Bare bones and appropriately dimly lit, this West Seventh Street bar is the epitome of a neighborhood watering hole. Pull up a comfy, padded bar stool and watch the game, or sit at a table with friends and order some seriously good food — we recommend the burgers, popping fresh, crisp shrimp in a basket or their serious-contender Coney dogs.
What’s up: Dart board, pool table, pull tabs, old-school jukebox
Where to find it: 620 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651-227-3840
We absolutely love watching the servers hand-patty burgers behind the bar at this Lowertown staple, and the smell from the tiny, behind-the-bar kitchen is intoxicating. The regulars here all know each other, so expect to be in the crosshairs of some good-natured ribbing, with maybe a few cuss words sprinkled in. Those loosely pattied, thick, juicy burgers are worth a trip, the Coneys are darn tasty, and the onion rings and crinkle-cut fries are top-notch, as far as deep-fried snacks go.
What’s up: Dart board, pull tabs
Where to find it: 241 E. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul; 651-298-0099
This bar, which has been around the North End in one form or another for nearly a century, is named for Rudolph “Tin Cup” Tschida, as Rice Streeters were quick to point out when we recently wrote that the apostrophe seemed misplaced. It’s fitting that the neighborhood is so attached to this place — the atmosphere is comfortable, and the food is a cut above your average bar food. The burgers are thick and juicy, and there are plenty of options, including the genius “dirty Lucy,” a juicy Lucy modeled after a dirty martini. It’s stuffed with blue cheese, olives, onions and jalapenos, and it’s delicious.
What’s up: Pull tabs, dart boards, meat raffle on Sunday, bar bingo on Wednesdays
Where to find it: 1220 Rice St., St. Paul; 651-487-7967
West Seventh Street is a hotbed for great dive bars, and J.R. Mac’s is no exception. There’s a shamrock on the sign, but the food here is 100 percent American — good burgers, sandwiches and bar snacks like a boatload of crisp, deep-fried mushrooms or cheese-stuffed jalapenos for just $6.50. The only downside is that it can get really busy, and there’s usually just a few (really hard-working) folks serving the room.
What’s up: Pull tabs, dart boards, video games, bar bingo on Wednesdays
Where to find it: 1420 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651-224-8482; plumsbar.com/j-r-macs/
Tappers is, plainly put, always a good time. Regulars range from suburban moms to young hipsters to older neighbors, and the service, usually provided by a single bartender, is friendly and swift. The tap beer list is relatively short but includes a great mix of local beers, and the drinks are strong. A recent change in ownership means the place IS making its own frozen pizzas, cooked to order in a little oven behind the bar. Our favorites are the Coney Island pizza (chili as sauce, hot dog slices and cheese topped with raw onion and yellow mustard once it comes out of the oven) or the simple, tasty sausage and jalapeno.
What’s up: Pull tabs, dart boards, cribbage board (ask the bartender), meat raffles on Saturdays during colder weather
Where to find it: 879 Stryker Ave., West St. Paul; 651-457-6784