This holiday season, after you power through those awkward holiday situations, you might just need a moment to get away and unwind — nothing fancy or pretentious, just a low-key watering hole where you can relax and be yourself, a place with personality and friendly folks, where you can strike up a conversation over a cold brew and forget all your worries. They say “Perfection is the enemy of good” — and perfection is also the enemy of the dive bar. A true dive takes you in just as you are, no matter where you are in life, welcoming you in with open arms into its time-worn seats and offering you a drink and a moment of respite, stripped of all pretense.
“A dive cannot be opened; it has to become one over time,” says Pam Stallings, vice president of The Nick. And, as we scoured the city for Birmingham’s best dive bars, we found Pam’s sentiment to be true. Dive bars have histories as textured and rich as the patina and personality of the decor, with one-of-a-kind traditions and loyal regulars who become unique little families. So, let’s explore Birmingham’s storied and singular dive bars.
Birmingham’s Best Dive Bars
2514 10th Ave. S., Birmingham, AL 35205 • (205) 252-3831
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 2 p.m. to 4 a.m.; Friday & Saturday, 2 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The Nick Rocks, widely known simply as “The Nick,” has hosted many famous bands over the years, and several got their start at this unassuming little shanty nestled in Southside. You might recognize some of the famous names: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Widespread Panic, Maroon 5, Black Crowes, Kings of Leon, Little Big Town, Weezer, Alabama Shakes and Drive By Truckers, among others. “What The Nick has tried to do from the beginning is give every band a chance,” says Pam Stallings, where she got her start as a waitress before working her way up and becoming partner with Dan Nolen in 1988. “There was nowhere in town to play your own music when we started the club. So we try to find bands on their way up and book them. You may see a band at The Nick in January and see them on a big tour in March.”
The Nick is a quintessential dive bar — dimly lit with its own rock-and-roll version of cozy and warm. The black walls feature a smattering of staples, a monument to 30+ years of bands’ posters, graffiti in the bathrooms, posters for upcoming shows and photos of bands from yesteryear on the ceiling. There is no shortage of character. “You can always find something you’ve not noticed before on the walls,” says Pam.
And while this shots-and-beer style bar and no-holds-barred music might suggest a toughness, it’s actually a gathering place with no boundaries. It has played host to baby showers, weddings, funerals, receptions, birthday parties, after parties for shows, after parties for the Apollo Ball and more. “We are open to being there for all people in their time of need and their celebration. We have always been accepting of all kinds of people,” says Pam. “On any given night or day you could be sitting next to someone who has a background completely different than your own. We try be as welcoming to the person that is a doctor, an artist, a musician, an accountant, a Christian, an atheist, a Muslim, a black person, an Asian person, a white person, a brown person, a woman, a man, a transgender person, a gay person as we are to any other person — you get the point. Because of this, we tend to bring in a crowd that is accepting as well. There is a sense of family and community amongst the staff and customers. This is what makes me the proudest of what we’ve done over the past 30+ years.”
1926 29th Ave. S., Homewood, AL 35209 • (205) 871-8552
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. and “after the last ball game” on Saturday
The Red Lion Lounge is Birmingham’s hidden bar. It was originally opened in 1936, underneath the Cathay Inn, a once-popular Chinese restaurant that was destroyed by a fire around 1960. That is when longtime bartender Pat Foster learned of the abandoned bar downstairs. She bought it, spruced it back up, and it has been up and running ever since. Warm lighting, arched ceilings and walls featuring caricatures of the bar’s regular customers make this spot feel like nothing else in Birmingham. “The caricatures were done by Dennis Huey,” says Pat, one of the few women bar owners in Birmingham. “To me, he was like an angel. He saved the bar three different times. Business would get really slow and he’d come in, start doing caricatures, customers would like it, and business would pick up!” And with its caricatures, Elvis paraphernalia, a board featuring regulars’ birthdays for the month, old-school jukebox and funny sayings on the walls, you can’t help but find this laid-back, one-of-a-kind gem charming. “There are the people that have been there since day one, and then there are always new people. I enjoy going in there and talking to everybody,” says Pat. “I don’t care how old you are or how young, everyone gets along here. Everyone talks to everybody. That’s what I love most about it. That, and I have some of the best bartenders in town.”
2012 Magnolia Ave. S., Birmingham, AL 35205 • (205) 930-0333
Hours: 7 days a week, 3 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The Upsidedown Plaza began in 1962 and was originally located at the famous circular building now occupied by Hot and Hot Fish Club. It has been at its current location, an unforgettable underground dive in Five Points South, since the late 1980s. Pool tables and games, seating areas and a large bar comprise this sprawling bunker-style dive bar, where you can enjoy their signature drink flight called “The Trifecta” — the Joe Ingram, Sledgehammer and Mind Eraser with a challenge to drink all three in one hour. Or you can enjoy a “Baby Bomb,” which is a mini Jager-bomb, which is very popular with the Upsidedown crowd. They are a fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants venue when it comes to event planning, hosting random seasonal celebrations and live music nights, but they are consistent about their extremely popular karaoke nights on Wednesdays and Fridays, which are super-packed and lots of fun.
“Everyone is your friend at the Upsidedown Plaza. It is a melting pot of different backgrounds, and you know you can get along with everyone, feel welcome, relaxed and surrounded by free-minded people who won’t judge you,” says Kimbo Walker, a famous Birmingham bartender and employee of the bar. “What sets Upsidedown apart is the people and how open-minded everyone is. There aren’t many places in this city where you can be completely yourself and feel accepted, and this is one.”
1813 10th Court S., Birmingham, AL 35205
Hours: Sunday through Friday, 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 a.m.
Marty Eagle owned and operated Marty’s PM for 20 years. The late-night joint, open from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., naturally attracts the service industry crowd. When the Magic City’s restaurant managers, bartenders and waiters hang up their aprons and close down their eateries, they head to this beloved watering hole, where they can enjoy visiting with fellow servers, live music and a cold brew or whiskey, their most popular beverage of choice. When Marty passed away in 2013, his longtime partner Kay approached Phil and Marsha Mims, two hard-working bar managers at The Upsidedown Plaza, to let them know that Marty left instructions to offer the bar to the couple. “We were like, ‘Of course!’ This bar is an icon,” says Phil, who primarily runs the food side of the business. Marsha books and promotes live bands about three nights a week and DJs on other nights, and she partners with local joints like Trim Tab Brewery, Saturn and the Syndicate Lounge to bring their acts to Marty’s for late-night gigs.
While Marty’s PM has a rich history, you wouldn’t know it from the brand-spanking new interiors and sprawling patio. The duo not only renovated the interiors, but also brought a new level of culinary prowess to the menu. Phil spent his life in the restaurant industry, cutting his teeth in the kitchen as a youngster, then traveling the country working for restaurants and even studying cooking in Thailand. When he’s not in the kitchen or grocery shopping across the city, he’s whipping up authentic tacos, coconut-curry cauliflower soup, fire-roasted jalapeño pimento cheese or their to-die-for corned beef reuben with hand-trimmed beef brisket, cured in house. And they’ve repeatedly garnered accolades for their Patty Melt, eight ounces of angus beef with grilled onions and Swiss and American cheese. For Phil, the food is what sets this dive bar apart, and it’s his favorite thing about their bar. “Coming from the Upside Down Plaza, it meant a lot to me to be able to serve people food in the middle of the night, not just getting people drunk. They might need it to get them through the night and back home,” says Phil. “We’re proud of our food. It’s a lot of work.”
The husband-and-wife duo is also proud of their team, who have, for the most part, been with them for the entire three years they’ve owned Marty’s. “We’ve had very little turnover. We’re very close to our employees. Every six months, we close the bar for two days and take our team to the beach or the mountains, and Marty’s partner, Kay, joins us,” says Phil. It’s only right that a bar so beloved by Birmingham’s service industry should treat its employees like gold.
2304 10th Terrace S., Birmingham, AL 35205 • (205) 322-3220
Hours: Monday, 3 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. to midnight
Opened in 1994, this watering hole and Birmingham staple certainly has the hallmarks of a dive bar: history, personality and a family of regulars. GQ magazine called it one of the 10 bars in the world worth flying to; Esquire named it one of the best bars in America; and Big Fish author Daniel Wallace called it “uniquely itself, impossible to replicate.” Once you visit this funky bar, you’ll never forget the courtyard, an antiques graveyard seemingly forgotten, overgrown with patches of greenery and wisteria vines and adorned in twinkle lights. The cash-only bar offers a fine selection of beer, wine and liquor, as well as some impressive soups and rave-worthy sandwiches, a huge selling point for those die-hard sandwich fans. Every now and then, they’ll feature live music on the quirky yet magical patio. If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind, almost otherworldly patio experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find something like this gem — not only in Birmingham, but in the country.
3630 Sixth Ave. S., Birmingham, AL 35222 • (205) 595-0067
Hours: Sunday through Tuesday, noon until around 11 p.m., unless busy; Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday, noon to 2 a.m.
While we were at this downtown spot somewhere between Forest Park, Avondale and Lakeview, we met a professional baseball scout and Austin, TX native who now calls Birmingham home. The scout and dive bar aficionado said that The Brown Derby reminded him of the authentic, cool dive bars that he knew from his youth in Austin, before Austin became the booming hipster city it is today. He loved that it was in this undeveloped downtown spot. And we see his point. This quintessential dive bar looks a little rough around the edges when you park your car, but there’s nothing but friendliness inside, as evidenced by all the strangers we engaged in conversation! And the crowd is as diverse as they come. One minute there are guys in camo, the next a gaggle of ladies from a bachelorette party, an elderly nurse, construction workers, lawyers or a professional baseball scout! James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are a running theme in the dive-y decor, and a birthday board features the birthday girls and boys of the month, a classic dive bar touch. A sprawling patio with a Tiki bar under twinkle lights is popular, as is their pool table area and Thursday dart night for $5, but the karaoke on Friday and Saturdays are king. Sometimes hosted by an Elvis impersonator on their adorable stage from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., Brown Derby karaoke will have you on your feet!
Now get out there and enjoy the unique charm of Birmingham’s best dive bars!
Want the best of local restaurants and happenings? Download our SB App. It’s FREE!