Smoke ’em while you got ’em

Riverwest Tavern

By - Jun 30th, 2010 04:00 am
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Ed. note: While preparing for this series on TCD, I sat in a few brainstorming sessions with our writers as we tried to hone in on some of favorite bars; those quintessential watering holes that welcomed massive plumes of smoke, places where even non-smokers occasionally light up because it just feels like the thing to do.

For Sarah and myself, that place is The Riverwest Tavern, located on a sleepy block of Auer Street in a quaint part of the neighborhood. If you don’t know it’s there, you’ll walk right past it — in daylight, at least. Once night falls, a blaze orange “Riverwest” beckons would-be patrons from the street with it’s humming neon glow.

Sarah: I lived across the street from the RW Tavern for years without realizing it was a functioning bar. No one ever suggested a meeting there. No  one I knew had ever stepped foot inside.  There was no sign, just a seedy light over a ragged pool table, and a jukebox in the corner.  Upon getting up the guts to finally step foot in this mysterious place, it turned out to be the neighborhood’s best kept secret.

Erin: It just never looked like a place that…how do I say this… a place where people under the age of 50 were welcome to drink. There are a few places like this around the neighborhood, mysterious little holes-in-the-wall with perpetually locked doors and minimal lighting. It can be a bit intimidating. The first time I actually went into the RW Tavern, though, I remember a sweet old gal behind the bar who had the most immaculate hairdo. She gave me shit for ordering a soda and then we watched an episode of Law & Order. It was great.

Sarah: I realize there’s a chance I may be ruining it by giving away it’s location, but there’s a buzzer at the door, and if Dallas doesn’t like the look of ya, he’ll pretend he didn’t hear a thing.  Luckily, the regulars are extremely friendly, sometimes surprisingly so, with Big Mike, or Dan-O buying drinks all around, or putting $20 worth of songs in the jukebox and telling you to go nuts.

There are gambling machines, pork rinds, a giant screen T.V. magically propped up behind the bar, and tiny bathrooms that work half the time. Drinks are under $5 and the tunes are fantastic.

Ladies of the night and bike-riding cops alike can find a friendly word and a stool to lean on at the RW Tavern. The crowd is amazingly diverse, ranging from cowboys and  Harley riders to college professors and rag-tag 20-somethings. It’s a blue collar, townie bar in all the best ways.

Erin: And like every other townie bar, everyone in the joint has their trusty pack of smokes close by… on this particular weekend night, myself included. I remember telling myself that I didn’t want to smoke that night, much less purchase cigarettes, but a few glasses of whiskey later and there I am, sinking $8 into the the cigarette candy machine.

I feel at home lighting up in a place like this, the plumes of smoke just seem to go with the decor. Before I can even break the cellophane seal, Dallas is there with a fold of matches, ready to strike. It’s like something out of a movie. In between rounds of pool, I ask him what he thinks about the ban.

As a bartender, is he worried about a drop in business and, subsequently, income? He is indifferent, echoing the sentiments of most of the people that have been featured in this series. Basically, so long as every other bar has to do it, he’s okay with it.

“It’s going to suck, I guess,” he says, lighting a cigarette of his own, “but what can you do? People will get used to it.”

The other guys in the bar that night weren’t so laid back, though. An older gentleman across the bar gives up a dismissive wave. “That kind of thing don’t apply to us,” he laughs, gesturing toward the bar’s always-locked door. Another man jokes, “we just won’t buzz anyone in!” and gets a good laugh out of everyone in the bar.

And by “everyone” I mean Sarah, her fiancée, myself and Dallas, as we are the only other people in the place near Midnight on a Saturday.

God, I love this bar.

Sarah: When I’m feeling blue, or down on my luck, I ride my bike to the RW tavern, set up a few shots of rail whiskey and put some Patsy Cline on the jukebox. Before I know it, everyone’s singing along, and I’ve got a warm feeling inside … which is probably the whiskey, but definitely has something to do with the sense of community.

It’s not about being there when something big happens, but about being there for all the stuff in between. RW Tavern is a hold steady in tumultuous times. Even without smoking, this establishment will manage to hold its own (albeit begrudgingly) through the ban.


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