No diners or drive-ins, only dives: Appreciating Edmonton’s hole-in-the-wall watering holes

What makes a dive, a dive?

Well, the place is owned by the person who just poured your beer, and when an unruly drunk steps outta line, they’ll be the same person to put ‘em in a headlock. A dive has décor that’s gone as unchanged as your great uncle’s wardrobe, and a jukebox that can’t seem to play any music released after ’79. Dive bars are the social trash cans of the neighbourhood, but have wicked wing-night specials, and a pool table that takes quarters. The bathroom permanently smells like piss, and someone wrote “For a Good Lay Call (xxx)-xxx-xxxx” on the wall of the stall. There ain’t no time like you’ll have in a dive.

Joshua Storie

Drinkin’ and divin’

“What’ll it be darlin’?” In a place like this, I can tell you it won’t be a $12 Caesar or $8 pint — but that’s just the way I like it.

When you’re ready to wet your whistle for some post-midterm debauchery, the local dive is the best place to sip yourself headfirst into the deep end. As a fresh-faced first year, it didn’t take long to stumble into the university area’s most infamous locales: the Garneau Pub and Strathcona Hotel bar (please, call me “the Strat”). Let’s be honest, it’s wasn’t the sights or sounds that brought me into these establishments, it was the drinks menu that was love at first-year sight. And hoooboy do each have their doozies.

Joshua Storie

The legends of Garneau Pub’s combat juice spread from the 109 street haven to my classroom faster than an epidemic of [insert STI name here] through Lister. The drink embraces the bar mat format: mix up some rum, gin, vodka, and beer, drop in orange juice and grenadine for disguising sweetness, and serve it in a pitcher, with a straw of course. Let’s just say it’s lucky 19-year-olds don’t get hangovers.

Strat beer however, has always held a prized place in my heart (or should I say liver?). Whether pre-drinking, or capping the night off, the cheap pints of yellow swill have never failed to accomplish their mission. After a five year or so hiatus from the Whyte Ave staple, I recently introduced the Strat to a friend. When the waitress failed to ask him what his preference of pint was, he looked bewildered. Buddy, there’s only one beer you drink at the Strat, and that’s Strat beer.

As we stood up to leave, the bartender hollered over to us, “How ‘bout a round of ugglies before you go?” Ugglies? Never heard of it, but it was only 1:30 pm, so why not? She filled a short glass with Strat golden glory, and poured into it tomato (not clam) juice. As per instructions, we took a handful of salt, slammed it into the drink, and pounded it all back. I may not be a first year anymore, but damn it was good to be back at the Strat.
— Sam Podgurny

Aesthetics are for assholes

Walking into The New West Hotel Lounge was like stepping into the weirdest Where’s Waldo? book ever. At the counter there’s a waitress knitting, over in the corner are two old boys enamoured by the jukebox, and off in the other direction is a man in black overalls who looks like Captain Ahab’s doppelganger (less the pegged leg). Where’s Waldo? Probably out for a dart before testing lady luck again at the VLT. These are just some of the good folks you’ll spill your drinks with at
Edmonton’s dives.

I imagined the knitting waitress was fashioning beer koozies for the fellas mumbling along to music with their bottles of OV or Extra Oldstock — old men seem to like listening to old music while drinking old brands of beer. The music and aura that filled the lounge suggested it was built in the ‘70s and the vintage toques fashioned on the old boys’ heads confirmed it.

Joshua Storie

A few other patrons came and went after a quick drink up at the counter, and there was the pungent smell of marijuana coming from the door to the parking lot. Someone was reading the paper, and there was a sign up that read “No Cell Phone Charging Thank You, New West Hotel — Except for Emmett,” scribbled in pen underneath.

Near the pool tables, Captain Ahab said something to me about old cars and pointed to a vintage photograph hanging on the wall. We began to talk about metal (the material, not the genre), arc welding, and pipeline politics. I agreed with a lot of what Ahab had to say — I was a mechanic for over a decade. But I cringed when Trump’s name came up. However, Ahab seemed like a legit dude and expressed a lot concern for the homeless population in Edmonton.

I wouldn’t want to eat anything off the floor, but it was comforting to be in an earnest establishment with some of Edmonton’s most homegrown. A dive is all about the atmosphere But aesthetics? That’s for assholes.

­­— Jonah Kondro

Business behind the bar is batshit crazy

Getting a job in a dive bar isn’t a suit, tie, and cover letter process. One night you’re pounding back hot wings and sipping on shitty draft, when your bartender slides you a Jager shot and tells you his dad is hiring. Before you can say “another Jager,” you’re in a job interview. The owner puts his hand on your neck to make sure you have a pulse, and pulls out an eye exam chart.

“First line, what’s the letter?”


“Good, you’re hired.”

Congratulations, you’re now a bartender/server/bouncer/deejay/babysitter/uncertified therapist. First off, grow a second, thicker layer of skin because you’re going to need it. Forget a regular’s name or choice of drink? You’ll be mocked. Have a shaky hand while pouring shots? You’ll be criticized. Show a bit of skin while working? You’ll earn an extra five dollars in tips for every piece of sexual harassment hurled your way.

Joshua Storie

Next, you’re going to have to accept people will do unbelievable shit, and learn that responding sanely may not always be an option. Walt will walk into the bar barefoot and take a shit in the women’s bathroom while waiting for his takeout order. Brad will try to sucker punch you if you have the balls the cut him off. And yes, you’ll possibly have to chase a dine-and-dasher through a residential street, and into a complete stranger’s house — their terrier will yip at you but for whatever reason the home owner who just came out of the shower seems less concerned than he should be about a random person hiding in his basement. But hey, at least you’re not out a hundred bucks.

Once you get over the bullshit, the job’s not half bad. There’s usually not a dress code, you can get drunk and play pool on shift, and for every tough customer that give you a hard time, there’s 10 regulars who will have your back if it all goes south.

­­— Jon Zilinski

Jonah Kondro
Jonah Kondro

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