Norfolk Dive Bar Crawl
By Jeff Maisey
Neighborhood beer joints.
You’ve probably driven by one on your way home from work; often a cinderblock rectangle of a building with an outward appearance of borderline neglect and disrepair.
There always seem to be pickup trucks and banged-up cars in the parking lot at all hours, even during lunchtime.
The very name dive bar implies lowlifes and bottom-feeders, despicable types who’ve hit rock bottom and likely one stop shy of exiting life’s super highway. Who, you might wonder, would possibly frequent such an establishment: destitute prostitutes and all-around losers, drug addicts, alcoholics and wife-beating gamblers, penniless vampires who strayed too far from The Lord?
You’d be surprised.
All walks of life pop into dive bars. These places staple-gun unpretentiousness on their front door – come as you are and show respect. No one is pre-judged.
My friend Hal Weaver once said he took pride in patronizing every dive bar he knew of in Norfolk. As I recall, it was Weaver who introduced me to the Ghent Inn.
The Ghent Inn. Talk about the quintessential dive bar: Ghent Inn had it all.
Originally owned and operated by Irving Goldman in1963, Walter Mehard purchased the business in1982. Mehard had worked on the construction crew that built the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and owned a marine safety supply business, but he was also an entrepreneurial pioneer of Norfolk bars. He had the Hard Rock Café on Colley Avenue in Ghent in the early 1970s long before the now famous chained was conceived.
Mehard opened and close the Ghent Inn. He sat at the end of the bar by the cash register, downing cans of Busch beer.
Sharon, his longtime barmaid, would ask, “Ready for another?”
There was never a doubt.
“Get me another,” Walter would say.
Mehard watched the front door from his bar-end stool. He greeted newcomers are friends; asked your name and then introduced you to everyone else in the establishment. He never forgot a name or life story.
The Ghent Inn, in the location now occupied by the contemporary Tortilla West restaurant, was the typical cinderblock dive and with small, circular porthole windows like that of a boat. Little light – whether from the sun or street lamps – penetrated Ghent Inn’s interior.
The Ghent Inn also had an eclectic jukebox, pool table, pinball machine, and a pinball-like baseball game with base-running players and a whistling, cheering crowd.
Some would say these dive bar “amenities” are essential ingredients to differentiate true dives from plain ol’ shitholes, but not any longer.
While dive bars generally have a pool table, most are without pinball machine. Traditional jukeboxes have given way to digital internet-searching music players.
Walter Mehard sadly passed away in 2005 at age 70. Yet there are numerous dive bars throughout Hampton Roads, where if you become a regular everyone will know your name at the end of the work day.
Following are a few of Norfolk’s best surviving dive bars. Check ‘em out.
By Tom Robotham
Nestled deep in West Ghent, down by the Lambert’s Point docks, and just across the street from the popular Tortilla West, is a bar that few people would dare approach on first sight. It’s called Cruzers.
From the outside, it looks like trouble waiting to happen: a hangout for Hell’s Angels, perhaps, or something comparably unfit for the uninitiated. Indeed, it’s impossible to tell from the outside exactly what goes on inside, for the beige one-story cinderblock façade has only one window. Upon closer inspection, you learn that it’s not a window at all—just a glass pane covered by something on the inside.
Venture through the steel front door, however, and you’ll learn that any sense of intimidation that the façade might project is entirely unwarranted. As many locals know already, Cruzers is actually a welcoming karaoke bar—the perfect place for late-night revelry for good singers and tone-deaf wannabes alike.
It’s hard, in a brief article like this, to fully convey Cruzers’ eccentricities, but let’s start with the karaoke itself. Behind the bar is a simple setup containing computer-generated instrumentals that sometimes bear only passing resemblance to the original song. After the bartender, Gigi, has keyed in your request, the lyrics are displayed on a large video screen on the opposite wall. The screen is one of my favorite features. It doesn’t matter what you’re singing. Could be “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life.” The video footage is the same: a random collection of nature shots and old travel videos that look like they came from departments of tourism several decades ago. When your song is over, the computer rates you on a scale of 0 to 100 (somewhat randomly, it seems), and if you get a rating of 99 or below, it tells you, “You’re ready to be the best singer.” The whole presentation is campiness at its finest.
In front of the screen is a large open space where people often dance, and to the left as your facing the screen are two pool tables, often in use. There are tables for sitting as well, covered with clean white table cloths, which seem oddly out of place in a dive bar. Completing the furnishings is a large L-shaped bar along the front and backside of the room.
Gigi tells me that the bar has been open about 15 years. Before that it was a place called Wally’s. When Cruzers opened, it was designed exclusively to serve Filipino merchant seamen. The bar staff would actually pick the seamen up at the docks by van and bring them to the watering hole for an evening of relaxation, beer-drinking and song. Today it caters to a wide range of locals, from college students and local 20-somethings who are generally on the tail-end of a night of partying (the bar is open from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., Thursday through Saturday) to old, lonely looking barflies. And really, every kind of person in between, depending on the night. Indeed, during the Old Dominion Literary Festival, my colleagues and I often include Cruzers as a mandatory stop for visiting authors.
If you’re a beer snob, Cruzers is not for you. The selection is limited to the old American standards—bottles of Budweiser, PBR and a few other brands. The only unusual selection is Red Horse, a 7 percent alcohol Filipino beer. But the prices are reasonable—$3.25 for most beers. There’s no liquor, either, and while Cruzers was at one time a full-service restaurant, the food menu is now limited to fries, egg roles and a few other items.
Should you find yourself feeling a little tipsy, you can drop 50 cents into the breathalyzer near the front door and find out what your blood-alcohol level is. But take the results with a grain of salt. I once blew a 3.00, which meant I should have been in a coma, if not dead. A recording on the machine played sirens, told me I was “bombed” and warned me not to drive.
Fortunately for me, Cruzers is right down the street from my apartment building, just past a bunch of old and mysterious looking warehouses, and a large vacant lot. But that’s what makes the location cool—it stands in sharp contrast to the faux glitz of the “new” downtown Norfolk, and the sometimes hipper-than-thou vibe of Ghent, proper. If you’ve never been to Cruzers, in short, you need to check it out. You won’t be sorry.
Cindy Cutler told me the story of a mutual friend who visited the Willoughby Inn one dark and dreary night. As the tale goes, she entered with her husband eagerly curious to learn what lurked behind front door, a group of regulars at the bar, in unison, turned to see who was walking in.
One person aloudly proclaimed, “Here comes Ghent.”
That might be legend is some circles, but certainly not what I’ve experience at the Willoughby Inn.
Willoughby Inn Seafood Restaurant opened 41 years ago when owners Bobby and Mary Lou Lebby purchased the building soon after their wedding day.
“We opened the doors in November 1972,” said Bobby. “My wife wanted a bar and restaurant. I told her she was married to the Willoughby Inn.”
Bobby, now age 81, continues his daily routine.
“Every morning I wake up at 4:30, and open the doors here at 8:30, drink my cup of coffee,” he said.
Mary Lou is the night owl, working until closing most evenings.
The Willoughby Inn is located at the far end – the end of the road – of Willoughby Spit just beyond the last exit/entry point to join the highway crossing the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel heading over to Phoebus and the Peninsula.
The Willoughby is half bar, half restaurant. On the restaurant side, the wooden tables and chairs seem untouched by time. Wood paneling adorns the walls decorated with May Lou’s scenic landscape paintings and frames illustrations of the old Ocean View Amusement Park.
Plastic model ships rest upon a refrigerated cabinet storing condiments. The dining area feels like a home as corner tables are covered with paperwork and other office notepads. The experience is akin to being in someone’s home – and that is the appeal.
Everyone working at Willoughby Inn is welcoming.
“I enjoy this place because it feels like home,” said Tasha Wolf, a regular patron who lives right next door. “There are very good people here. It’s not rowdy.”
The Willoughby Inn has a digital jukebox and one pool table. Beer advertising promoting brands, NASCAR and the NFL cover the wall, as do a cornucopia of photographs of employees and patrons.
A small Florida room upfront has a window A/C unit and fan to cool the place. Vinyl album covers from country music greats are overhead; an old record player sits unused with records titled “Best of Country” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California” sit in a pile ready to be played.
The wooden bar and stools at Willoughby Inn are one-of-kind, irreplaceable.
As for draft beer, there are three options: Rolling Rock, Budweiser and Bud Light. Bottles run the gamut of major brand possibilities.
The restaurant serves a full menu including soft shell crabs, oysters in all varieties, shrimp and flounder.
Let’s hope more customers from Ghent visit this gem.
Love it! – Jeff Maisey
Jerry’s Café Lounge
She introduced herself as Alice.
“What’s your last name?” I asked
“Wonderland,” she said. “My name in Alice N. Wonderland.”
Somehow I believed this to be true. Alice, as she referred to herself, had a far-away stare though focused directly on me, a newcomer to the bar.
I’ve never been greeted by a fictional literary character before. Was there a rabbit hole hidden in the men’s room? Would the Mad Hatter make an appearance? I wasn’t quite sure. Tiny Jerry’s, after all, is about the size of a Jack-in-the-box minus the hand-crank.
Seemed Alice might have taken a page, instead, from the Jefferson Airplane songbook, if you know what I mean.
I probed further as she was friendly enough.
“What brings you to Jerry’s?” I inquired, noticing it was a can of Natural Light not a cup of tea she was drinking.
“This place accepts all people,” said Alice.
Indeed it does.
I have driven by Jerry’s Café Lounge for years on Little Creek Road. It’s easy to miss. The bar must be the smallest in Hampton Roads. It’s on a stretch of road dominated by used tire and rim dealers. Yet, Jerry’s stands out.
As owner Robert Chieco shared, Jerry’s is celebrating 46 years in business this August.
Jerry’s literally has “dive bar” written all over it. The front door is wallpapered with the words “Support your local dive bar,” as does a sign on the building’s side parking lot inviting folks to “dive in.” The large street front sign also implores drivers-by to “support their local dive bar.”
Chieco has owned the bar for two years. He has repositioned the elbow-shaped bar inside to accommodate more people.
I arrived at 2:00 in the afternoon on a recent Friday. The bar area was occupied with regulars.
Contemporary country music blared from the digital jukebox.
Smoke from cigarettes filled the air.
A billiards table and Elvira pinball machine awaited players.
Behind the bar is a sign: “People say I have a bad attitude. I say screw ‘em.”
In reality, that’s hardly the treatment given by bartender Tree Massingill.
Tree is friendly as they come. Always a smile and full of conversation, she’s everything you’d ever want in a bartender. As your beer nears empty, she’s ready with another.
Jerry’s has two draft beer options: Budweiser and, surprisingly, O’Connor’s Pale Ale. In addition to Devils Backbone Vienna Lager in bottles, the remaining lineup of packaged brews includes Bud, Miller and Coors Light.
Budweiser advertisements also touting the NASCAR and NFL seasons abound. The beer ads add color to the bar area.
According to Tree, the bartenders also serve as cooks. Order BBQ, chicken tenders, and hot wings. Breakfast is served with a can of beer on the weekends.
Jason Dowdy, age 34, lives three blocks from Jerry’s.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 20,” he said. “It’s the neighborhood bar. Everyone knows everyone.”
Including, I suspect, Alice N. Wonderland. – Jeff Maisey
A metal sign on the door proclaims the house rules and dress code at Thirsty Camel and mentions nothing of a hump or hunchback.
Must have ID card.
No gangs, group, club colors.
Must wear cap/hats straight.
No beanies/skulls or doo rags.
No pants hanging below waist,
Must have a good time.
Well, I like having a good time so I felt right at home.
The Thirsty Camel is certainly a throwback to another era, yet has modernized just enough.
It’s dark on the inside with little outside light creeping in. The ceiling, walls and booths are either black or dark brown.
The amount of in-house beer brand advertising provides a sensory overload. Signage for PBR and Miller Lite happy hour prices are dwarfed by Budweiser promotions. As a football fan, I appreciate the stream of NFL team logos stretched the length of the bar. Live music on the weekends.
The Camel has one well played pool table and a digital jukebox that seemed stuck on classic rock hits.
For years this place has had a great reputation for food deals. Wednesdays are buy one, get one on Prime Rib. Thursday the same goes for Ribeye and NY Strip. What a deal!
The bartenders and wait staff are super friendly and helpful.
A very wide assortment a craft, imports and domestic beers are available as well as a full bar of liquor and wine.
You won’t leave hungry – a thirsty. – Jeff Maisey
Greenies has expanded and upgraded so much over the past decade it hardly qualifies as a dive bar – just barely.
Enter through the front door of this historic Ocean View landmark and wait for your pupils to adjust to the darkness of the lounge.
I was delight to run into a friend, Tony DiFillipo, head of the Norfolk Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
“You can’t beat the prices during Happy Hour,” he said.
Tony and his charming wife live nearby. They are frequent customers.
The lounge area is classic dive bar material, though the actual bar, seating and adjoining pool room are decked out with newness. A black and white photograph on the wall reminds us of the past. It’s date 1930 and shows “Greenies” signage on the exterior as a trolley (light rail) whisks by.
Once you poke your head out to the deck the notion that this is a true dive bar evaporates. The view from the deck of the Chesapeake Bay is wonderful, of course, especially with Greenies inviting white tables and chairs.
Then there are the Greenies Girls. Clad is sexy swimwear and other comfortable attire, the vibe is totally energetic and fun, though not so much dive bar material.
Greenies sports a wide variety of beer and food on its menu. The staff is eager to please. – Jeff Maisey