Washtenaw County Dive Bars: A Thorough Review
*This story was originally published June 7, 2018.*
A truly excellent dive bar is an exceedingly special place. Slipping in through the door -- preferably dirty and unmarked -- one should lose all sense of time and place. The bathroom walls should be scrawled upon; the darts, the pool, and the jukebox should be cheap; and there should always be the sneaking suspicion that the bartender is watering down your drinks, even if all you’ve ordered is a pitcher of Labatt.
I’ve spent many a conversation lamenting that 8 Ball is the last true dive bar in Ann Arbor, once even making the bold statement, “If 8 Ball goes, I go.” After one of these conversations recently, I started thinking about other good dives in the area. I remembered fondly the summer afternoon I found myself at Fenders in Milan and wished for the umpteenth time that Powell’s in Ypsilanti was closer to me. But there had to be some other good ones that I was missing or -- gasp -- didn’t even know about, I figured. And that’s how the idea for this piece, in which I attempt to find the best dive bar in Washtenaw County, was born.
After making a list of all the potential dives I thought needed to be explored (and overcoming my disappointment that Zukey Lake Tavern is outside county lines), I asked my fellow dive-bar-loving friend to come with me on the journey. It turned out that the day that worked best for us to embark on the trip was a random Tuesday at the end of May. “Are dive bars open on Tuesdays?” I texted my friend. “They are if they want to be considered BEST OF WASHTENAW COUNTY,” he responded. “Excellent point,” I said.
Finding the best dive bar in any county is a marathon, not a sprint, so we started in the early afternoon at the county’s northernmost bar:
Whitmore Lake Tavern
9839 Main St., Whitmore Lake
My biggest concern leading up to going to the Whitmore Lake Tavern was that the weather wouldn’t be nice enough to experience the glory that is the “tiki patio” at WLT. Luckily, it was hot and sunny and we happily plopped ourselves down at a table with an umbrella. The bar looks out over Whitmore Lake but is across Main Street, so first you get a nice view of the parking lot and traffic -- excellent dive-bar placement. Faded, vaguely tropical signage and decals pepper the walls of the patio, including an oversize pair of flip-flops and a palm tree with a Corona as the trunk. “Is there anything better than a disheveled tiki bar in a small Midwestern town?” I had asked my friend before we started the trip. Although one would think the answer to that question might be, “Yes -- a real tiki bar somewhere tropical and beautiful,” I brought my friend along for a reason and he agreed that there was not, in fact, anything better.
Our biggest complaint with the WLT was its slogan, “A reputation built on good food at a reasonable price,” which is far too long and wordy for any bar, let alone a good dive bar. We liked the vinyl table covers, but they were sadly quite clean and not at all sticky. My personal favorite part of the WLT is the sign with arrows pointing different directions with various tropical locations and their mileage away listed on each arrow. Hawaii, St. Thomas, and Barbados are all listed along with, inexplicably, the Grand Canyon. After a quick Oberon (with a blood orange in it!) and a vaguely milky-tasting Sam Adams, we continued on our way.
110 W. Middle St., Chelsea
Walking into Seitz’s is the exact mixture of alarming and delightful that entering a dive bar should be. Taxidermied animals festoon the walls -- mostly deer, all wearing red, white, and blue leis around their antlers. Most of the beer is in bottles in a couple of jumbled refrigerators, although if you want Bud or Bud Light you’re in luck because Seitz’s has both on tap.
For some reason, Seitz’s bar itself has no seating in front of it, so we walked in and the bar was a mess with Budweiser bottles, shot glasses, and packs of cigarettes. It looked like we had just missed a raucous party. A group of men, one of whom had truly excellent sideburns, soon wandered in from out back and resumed their positions at the bar. Sadly, they weren’t as wild as one might have expected. I enjoyed the large cuckoo clock hanging from the wall and wondered aloud if it was wishful thinking that it would actually cuckoo (“Yes,” said my friend). Seitz’s also has a number of dime-store-type display cases near the front of the bar and, in appropriate dive-bar fashion, they are all completely empty. Round all this out with some Van Morrison playing in the background and, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve got a great dive bar on your hands.
11 S. Fletcher Rd., Chelsea
An off-the-highway classic, Stiver’s is half “family” restaurant and half dive bar with the main focus of the bar appearing to be Keno (at least on an early Tuesday evening). Stiver’s is a great place if what you want is a reasonably priced beer and nothing else -- no distractions, no knowledge of what time of day it is, and no desire to use a clean bathroom. We briefly attempted to learn how to play Keno, failed, drank a couple of Oberons (“We don’t have any oranges,” said the bartender), and called it good.
The most noteworthy part of this trip to Stiver’s was actually the bartender herself, who was clad in an “I’ve Been Stiverized” T-shirt and repeatedly shouted to no one in particular, “Holy shit, am I ready to go home!” I couldn’t relate because I felt like I could spend three days straight at Stiver’s and still not be ready to leave.
The Village Tap
237 E. Main St., Manchester
A full-size replica of a Hammerhead shark clutching an American flag in its teeth greets you as you walk into The Village Tap in downtown Manchester. This bar was the winner in photo boards --a staple in any good dive bar, but disappointingly lacking at most of the ones visited on this trip. Luckily, the one at the Tap made up for the ones missing at other locations. My favorite photo on the board appeared to be from the mid-1990s. A large man wearing a shirt that says “BIG DADDY” sits in the foreground staring off into the distance, while behind him a poster of naked cowgirls hangs on the wall. Other photos appeared to be of family dinners that had nothing to do with The Village Tap, or were of one man, in particular, smiling tensely and holding his dog.
A man at the bar drinking MGD struck up a conversation with us about fishing, but as this was our fourth dive bar of the day without a break yet, we regrettably didn’t engage as much as we later wished we would have.
Thompson Bar & Grill
10655 W. Michigan Ave., Saline
The most important thing to note about Thompson’s is that it is inside an actual house, with several floors and different rooms and engraved windows. The second most important thing to note about Thompson’s is that their mascot is a giant penguin with its tongue lolling out. There is a 7-foot-tall replica of this creature to greet you at the front door, and renditions of it adorn much of the glassware and walls. It is this writer’s belief that having any sort of odd claim to fame such as this really catapults a dive bar to the next level, so I was immediately partial to Thompson’s. Disappointingly, they didn’t have Old Crow behind the bar, but Jack Daniels did the trick for us.
20 Wabash St., Milan
Because of my previous experience at Fenders, I was looking particularly forward to returning to this bar. My favorite part of it is the signed Red Wings jerseys hung below many of the taxidermied deer heads -- can you imagine anything more fitting for a Michigan dive bar? I cannot and was pleased. Above the bar, a gator skull and a pig skull are arranged to appear to be fighting over a dusty softball, while some sort of stuffed swine hangs over the front door. The draft list here is standard, the food is not of the sort that one would want to eat, and the bathroom door doesn’t exactly lock. In other words, Fenders is ideal.
If you’re thinking of attempting this same dive-bar circuit for some puzzling reason, a good time to take a break is after going to Fenders. We did step about 500 feet outside of county lines to go to the park next door to the bar, where the greatest climbing tree I’ve ever seen welcomes you and there is ample space to throw a baseball. Walking over there will give you time to stretch your legs and contemplate why you’re spending a day driving around southeastern Michigan going to the worst possible bars that you can think of and then, if you’re a true dive bar fan, you’ll feel very proud of yourself.
The Regal Beagle
817 E. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti
The Regal Beagle came out of left field for this dive-bar trip because I had never even heard of it and my friend had never been there. We had no idea what a treat we were in for. Of all the places we went to, this is the only one that, when we drove up, I said, “This is actually scary.” Undeterred, we walked in and were met with a sight for sore eyes. There is essentially nothing in The Regal Beagle except a jukebox, a few rickety tables, and a video game of Big Buck Hunter (we played). Simplicity at its finest. They also have a game room with pool tables off to the side. Conveniently, there is security video of the parking lot visible when you sit at the bar, so you can watch your car the entire time you’re inside drinking! All killer no filler is really all there is to say about the Beagle, and this writer would suggest that it is a contender for the best dive bar in the county.
625 N. Huron St., Ypsilanti
Powell’s is the classic dive bar: metal music, two dirty, totally unclear entrances, bathrooms to make your grandmother weep … the works. Full disclosure that we did not go to Powell’s on the same day that we did the rest of the dive bars because both of us had just been there (twice in the same day -- long story, don’t ask), and felt that the experience was still burned well enough into our memories to accurately compare it. My favorite thing about Powell’s is that it’s just the right amount of scary. I like to go to Powell’s when I’m pretty sure I don’t want anything to go wrong with my evening while also taking comfort in the chance that something might.
When we were there twice on the same day, it was about five hours between the two visits. I tried to get my friend to bet against me that there would be at least three of the same patrons there on our second visit that had been there earlier in the day, but he refused because he was so sure that that would be the case (it was). And frankly, if that doesn’t make you want to go to Powell’s, why are you still even reading this piece?
3140 Packard St., Ann Arbor
Banfield’s is a dirtbag and I mean that in the best way possible. They’ve got a jukebox, they’ve got baseball on the television, they’ve got about six different weird rooms and a basement that’s open sometimes, they have Labatt Blue Light on draft, and they have a giant fireplace in the middle of the entire place. AND they’re open for breakfast! It was pretty quiet by the time we made it there, but someone (not me, unfortunately) played “Hey Good Lookin’” on the jukebox and we watched the Tigers get owned by the Angels, and if that’s not a classic Michigan dive bar experience, I don’t know what is.
8 Ball Saloon
208 S. 1st St., Ann Arbor
Even though I’d already spent a great deal of time at the 8 Ball over the years, I was determined to close out the trip with this top-notch dive. Of course, it was almost as great as always: lots of bathroom graffiti, darts, $1 pool and all that jazz, but I was disappointed that the entire place is no longer cash-only. I asked the bartender about it and he said that it has been that way for a couple of months now since it changed ownership over the winter. Although it makes sense, I thought that being cash-only was a great attribute of 8 Ball and really added to its dive-bar cred. If you’re looking to play pool on a weekday evening, though, 8 Ball is really the place to go. And as long as there’s no show at the Blind Pig upstairs, it’s usually dead, even later at night.
8 Ball also has an incredibly tempting video-game version of a Tetris-like game, where you can win ACTUAL MONEY, along with other cool prizes. I had to be dragged away from settling in to play (and likely losing every penny I own).
So, what did I learn from all this hard research work? Many things, but mostly that, if you’re seeking a good dive bar in Washtenaw County, you really have more options than you might think. For those really looking for the diviest of dives, this writer has to recommend The Regal Beagle, Seitz’s, Thompson’s or, of course, Powell’s. If you’d like to ease into your dive-bar experience, try the Whitmore Lake Tavern or Banfield’s. And if you’d like to attempt the entire circuit, as we did, take your time, bring snacks, and stop at the park in Milan to climb the greatest of all climbing trees.
Happy dive bar-ing!
Elizabeth Pearce is a Librarian at the AADL and the ultimate dive bar fan. This project inspired her to explore the best dive bars in other Michigan counties, and she is deciding whether to do Monroe or Lenawee County next.