Ode to a Dive Bar

Amestoy's Bar BakersfieldThe first seven years of my drinking life were spent in a dive bar – although back then it was just known as a bar. The place was called Amestoy’s on the Hill, and it was located in a dicey neighborhood in Bakersfield, California, not far from where I lived.

I went there a couple nights most weeks. Cheap draft beer was what I drank, with the rare Gin and Tonic when I was flush, and maybe a shot  if someone else was buying. Amestoy’s was small and dark and old – it opened in 1948 – and had a crowd to match. Working men and women, most considerably older than me, with a lot of rednecks and Basques.

There was no entertainment to speak of. No shuffleboard or anything. The room wasn’t big enough. (If you wanted shuffleboard, you went to Murphy’s.) I think if you went during the day, they’d sell you a pre-made sandwich. But I never went during the day.

There was a jukebox that played Frank Sinatra, Merle Haggard, Bob Seger, and some more modern stuff like Guns N’ Roses. But not much. The selection mostly stuck to the classics: classic rock and classic country. You could put a couple of bucks in the jukebox and pick enough songs to last for an hour. The bartender had a button behind the bar that he could push to advance it to the next one. When it was someone’s birthday, they’d play “Happy Birthday” on the jukebox. But sometime the guy behind the stick would have to skip through 20 people’s songs before it would come up.

The ceiling was full of darts pinning $1 bills to the plaster. People would throw them up there, although Frankie, the bartender/owner, seemed to be the only one who could make them stick. Once a year, Frankie would pull them all down and use the money to throw a barbecue for the regulars.

The walls were decorated with gimee mirrors from liquor companies and the bottom halves of neckties. As the story went, if a customer walked in wearing a tie, they’d cut it off and hang it on the wall. I never saw it happen. It wasn’t the kind of place that one wore a tie.

They did a few “cocktails” there. The bartender’s specialty was the Flaming Dr. Pepper (a shot of amaretto and 151-rum, lit on fire, and dropped into a glass of draft beer.) Another favorite was the Waterfall, an elaborately poured concoction made of peppermint schnapps and beer.

Frankie would also do the occasional round of Blueberry Kamikazes, usually for a crowd of young women who’d somehow stumbled in the door. That was the only time I recall him getting out the shaker. People mostly drank beer, and there were two types on tap: Coors and Coors Light. A small glass was 75¢ and a pitcher was $5.

The reason I went there was because the drinks were cheap, the people were friendly, and they all knew me. (They thought I was named “Jim” but that’s a different story.) The atmosphere also appealed to me, although there wasn’t much of it that you could point to. But it felt like a bar was supposed to. It was a place where you could go and hang out with a few friends, enjoy some drinks, and forget about your troubles.

Amestoy’s was the only bar I’ve been to where strangers would regularly buy you a drink. If someone was celebrating, or got a piece of good news, or was just feeling generous, it was common to buy a round for everyone sitting at the bar. The drinks were cheap enough that you could do so without going too deep into your wallet. The bartender was also quick to buy a glass for a regular or a pretty girl. It was an easy place to make friends.

There were no windows, and the entrance was around the corner by the bathrooms, so you couldn’t see inside or out. Nobody every used the front door. If you opened it by mistake, you got plenty of dirty looks. Sitting at the bar, you were immersed in the environment, which made it that much easier to forget about what was going on elsewhere.

When you walked in and the door closed, you left the outside world behind. The feeling of the bar – the cramped, dim space that somehow held the promise of good times — took over. There was music and booze and company, the air filled with laughs and the occasional shout, along with the clouds of smoke. Everything you needed when you get right down to it.

Amestoy’s is still there, although I haven’t been in over fifteen years. The two owners – father and son, both named Frank – are dead now, and the bar is owned by someone new. From what I’ve read online, it’s a very different place these days. Supposedly, they even serve gourmet food and craft beer. It hardly matters now. The place I knew and loved is gone, except in my memories.