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Neighborhood bars of character 

Summer is a thirsty season. And we had this idea about going to a bunch of dive bars, drinking on the company dime then writing about it as some sort of weak justification for the whole exercise. It's a tough job and we're the someones who have to do it.

But when we actually started visiting these tippling establishments it turned out that the word "dive" wasn't always appropriate. Dive bars serve three types of beer: Bud in cans, Bud in bottles and Bud on tap. Dive bars leave the Christmas lights up all year round. Dive bars are crowded in the middle of the day on Tuesday. Dive bars do not have karaoke.

Some of these places just don't fit the mold -- they have big-screen TVs, jukeboxes with bands other than Skynard, they may even serve salads. So we tweaked the mold a bit. Henceforth, the following drinkeries will be known as "neighborhood bars of character," or NBCs. It's a little PC, granted, but this way we don't have to reimburse the company for the drinks.

The ratings are clear as a shot of Jaegermeister: one is low, five is high. Totally subjective, of course. Cheers!

Editor's note: The following is not to be construed as a comprehensive list of Orlando-area NBCs. These are only the places we knew about/stumbled upon during our "research." There are scores of places out there we've yet to visit and we are working diligently to correct that fact.

Wally's Mills Ave. Liquors

1001 N. Mills Ave.

(407) 896-6975

It says a lot about a place when customers bring in pieces of decor stolen from other establishments Ã? and the management calls to offer them back. Such is the case with Wally's, the beloved imbibing room whose 49-year history includes a few hours' stewardship of memorabilia "liberated" from the closing ceremonies of the Langford Resort Hotel -- but ultimately restored to its rightful place in the cocktail-legend pantheon by a considerate staff.

Seediness is indeed next to neighborliness at Wally's, where veteran swillers mingle amiably with slumming college kids practicing for their own golden years of dissipated bonhomie. The whole culture klatch gets started at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m., when this highly convenient liquor-store adjunct opens its doors on another day of marathon self-abuse. As a result, nighttime revelers who may think they're arriving "early" are guaranteed to run smack-dab into more serious drinkers who have already amassed several hours' (or is it days?) worth of a head start. It just makes introductions easier: On a recent visit, we were immediately set upon by a friendly fellow who wanted to point out our resemblance to Elton John. (Which is zero, but an Elton track was playing at the time, so give credit for some sensory activity.) Even better was the attempted pickup recalled by one amused patron: "Let's get out of here and go to Wally's."

Think about it.

It's a good thing the atmosphere is so congenial, because the layout offers nowhere to hide. It's literally a bar, with customers facing each other on three sides and not a table to be had. Expect to do some standing, perhaps occupying your time by scrutinizing the famous topless-babes-with-daisies wallpaper. Drinks are predictably cheap, though signs of inflation are evident: A Bloody Mary now goes for $2.75, a marked increase from the $2 we had listed in our records. What is this world coming to?

— Steve Schneider

Charm: You have to admire the utter lack of pretension. This is real (w)rec(k)-room character, not a self-conscious attempt at same.

Economy: A perfect "5" wouldn't have changed its prices since Ford was in office. But it's still way cheaper than detox.

Fear Factor: The intermittent country hits, carefully draped American flag and redneck tans might put sheltered lefty larvae on guard, but on the whole, if you have a problem here, it's because you have a problem here.

Tom and Jerry's Lounge
1117 N. Orlando Ave.
(407) 647-6519

If you were once a regular at Tom and Jerry's but haven't been back in awhile, don't go. Odds are you won't like it and they won't like you.

Things have changed at this house o'elbow bending. Where once there were pool tables and a drive-through window serving drinks (!), there's now blonde wood and top-shelf liquor. Framed photos of Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr. and other Rat Packers grace the walls. There's copper on the bar and the wood floor is polished, for god's sake. If it's cognac you want, you've got your choice: Remy Martin, Hennessy, etc.

The place is way high class for the neighborhood (a car-parts place squats next door). Prostitutes, bikers and other rough-hewn types are out. People with checkbooks are in.

The beer selection is excellent (Orlando Brewing Company's Right on Red is recommended), but we have to give demerits for the autographed photo of Creed. Otherwise, it's an NBC Thornton Park would be proud of. Except it's not quite in Thornton Park.

— Bob Whitby

Charm: Check out the framed photo of Old Blue Eyes by the door.

Economy: Top-shelf booze, prices to match.

Fear factor: Attributable to the neighborhood.

The White Horse Inn
15200 E. Colonial Drive (407) 568-5390

Bottle Caps Bar and Grill
17502 E. Colonial Drive (407) 568-6669

If your neighborhood is the ugly gash of commerce that is Colonial Drive east of Semoran Boulevard, then you my friend are in desperate need of some relief from big-box stores, used-car lots and fast-food joints. You need a dose of authenticity. You need to stop in at The White Horse.

This tiny juke joint inhabits a lonely stretch of Colonial. It's on the right-hand side of the road if you're headed east, look for the sign with the mustang (the horse, not the car) on it. Inside, the U-shaped bar takes up most of the place, but there is a single pool table squeezed in at an angle. The owner, a retired Navy guy, has a nice collection of framed, studio publicity shots of famous cowboys on the paneled wall -- Gene Autry, the Duke, Clint Eastwood, etc.

Grab a seat at the bar and you'll soon get to know the guy/girl sitting next to you -- there's no room for strangers. If you're lucky, somebody will put a dollar in the jukebox and before long you'll be in a "Sweet Home Alabama" sing-along. Beats the hell out of TGI Fridays. Just mind your manners -- the owner has been known to bar people for life for loutish behavior.

A mile or two further east is Bottle Caps, formerly known as Brenda's Red Door. Those days were, shall we say, a little more colorful. (The motel across the parking was open back then, and got a lot of use.) Now it's all about the cheap beer ($1.25 Bud at happy hour, $1 drafts on ladies' night), the pool tables and the camaraderie. This is the kind of place where they'll buy you a beer if you tell them it's your first visit, and they'll know your face if you're lying. D?cor-wise, Bottle Caps is a hodgepodge. The wall of signed dollar bills behind the bar is a nice touch, but we'd like to see more bras hanging from the ceiling. Can that be arranged?

— Bob Whitby

Big Daddy's Roadhouse
3001 Corrine Drive (407) 644-2844

There's a difference between a neighborhood bar and a dive. Big Daddy's is a neighborhood bar. As evidence we present the big-screen TV, the smooth pool tables, the existence of a menu and the bathrooms that don't look like something out of Trainspotting. Karaoke on Thursdays seals it. No dive bar -- none, ever, anywhere in the civilized world -- has karaoke. It just isn't done.

Dive bars often feature a rotating cast of drinkers; whoever just gave blood or got a disability check or found $5 bucks in their jeans that morning.

Neighborhood bars are insular. A colleague got booted from Big Daddy's for life after getting in a tiff with a regular. Big Daddy's also has imported beer on tap. We rest our case. Neighborhood bar it is.

— Bob Whitby

Off the Edge Lounge
3925 Clarcona-Ocoee Road (407) 295-9065

More of a nightclub for the over-40 gang, Off the Edge's motif is wood, wood, wood. The tables and chairs are wood, the bar stools are wood, the rails around the dance floor is wood, the walls are wood. The effect is a large, dark playground for older folks who measure their hours in cigarettes and beer, and whose conversation ranges from hair cuts to car insurance to the great party they missed last night. Everything about Off the Edge is retro: a poster on the wall introduces the 1995 Super Bowl, flyers welcome guests of the 2002 Bike Week and, for no apparent reason, the numbers 1982 are scribbled next to a Busch beer calendar.

For the ladies, there's a pecker stretcher in the men's bathroom, along with a ketchup bottle filled with soap. Fridays is wet T-shirt night along with house band The Thunderheads, whose forte is 1970s-era classic rock. For the long summer months, Off the Edge offers two horseshoe pits out back along with a comfy patio bar. The clientele is welcoming, though somewhat indifferent to strangers.

— William Dean Hinton

Betty's Laughing Horse Tavern
907 N. Goldenrod Road (407) 282-1010

Two pool tables, two dart boards and a wall of Budweiser welcoming stock-car race fans with the slogan, "True fans, true racing," Betty's Tavern is a tribute to the dying redneck breed. Betty offers a special place for motorcycle parking, and you can order out from the convenience store next door, which offers, among other things, a large margherita pizza for $8.95 and a tiramisu dessert. For entertainment, Betty's offers a jukebox full of songs with lyrics like "I want to fuck the shit out of you," and titles like "Nigger Fuckers."

On an average day, conversation among patrons ranges from Viagra, anal sex and cell phones. Only hard-earned cash at this dive bar; Betty's doesn't accept credit or debit cards. But Bud in a mug is $1.50. The atmosphere is so-so. Betty's is a place where everybody knows everybody. Strangers are viewed with suspicion.

— William Dean Hinton

Lou's Lounge
121 N. Bumby Ave. (unlisted)

Any bar that opens at 9 a.m. is serving a clientele that takes drinking seriously, and Lou's is no exception. The NASCAR-painted exterior betrays a dark and cozy environment governed by (among others posted at the bar) one of the cardinal rules of serious drinking: no loud conversations. Though several enormous television screens are constantly on, nobody's watching and the volume's down. The pool table lies dormant and, during this particular Happy Hour, the regulars are hunkered at the bar bemoaning brake problems and the evening traffic on Robinson. Quietly. And though the AARP-qualified barmaid continually breaks one of the other posted rules (no profanity) with a copious stream of "fuckin'" this and "fuck" that, Lou's remains quiet and focused on the task at hand: drinking.

With a wide selection of top-shelf liquors and a surprising array of import beers, it's still not too surprising that the majority of the bar is swilling refreshingly ice-cold Budweisers that cost the all-American price of $2.25. After all, this is a bar whose entire exterior is painted to look like the last lap at Talladega, so though you might not find a whole lot of boisterous conversation, you're not going to find a whole lot of pretense either.

— Jason Ferguson

Charm: Pretty standard neighborhood bar, but potty-mouthed barmaids are always a plus.

Economy: The wide selection of "premium" hooch tips the scales away from a cheap drunk.

Fear Factor: Everyone was either friendly or politely ignorant of my existence, although goth kids and drag queens would be advised to strut their stuff elsewhere.

Jerry's Tap Room
2311 S. Orange Ave.
(407) 423-7049

It's a little after 1 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, so it's logical to expect Jerry's to be somewhat empty. After all, people have to work, right? Well, if you're a roofer or a dry-waller, apparently Jerry's is the place to go on a hot-as-hell summer afternoon for a liquid lunch, as there are a couple of trucks bearing such insignia in the bar's back parking lot. Jerry's doesn't offer a whole lot of variety within the cramped confines of its wood-paneled walls, and that's probably for the best. You can get Bud on tap ($1.25), Bud in a can ($2.00) or Bud in a bottle ($2.50). The barmaid (her name was Amy; I know because it was written in sequins on her blue tennis visor) began to get a little fuzzy after that, trying to remember the other brands. It's not likely that a whole lot of people come in looking for Sam Smith's or Chimay. But the Bud is appropriately frigid, and on this particular afternoon, an episode of Cops featuring an abandoned domestic pig was on the big-screen TV; upon seeing said pig, Amy proclaimed, "That's just like our neighbor's!" (You'd best stick to watching TV, as the posted rules for the pool tables -- "No beer!! No cigs!! No sitting!! No sex!! On the tables" -- seem unnecessarily restrictive.)

— Jason Ferguson

Charm: Did you notice the bit about the giant pig on Cops?

Economy: You can drink all day with one Andrew Jackson. Unless you're a total alcoholic.

Fear Factor: The coziness of the bar requires a certain intimacy, which means you'd better damn well fit in.

Casselberry's Patio Bar & Lounge

2671 S Highway 17-92
(407) 339-0511

"This is kind of a working man's bar," our bartender explains as she runs through the beer selection at Casselberry's Patio Bar and Lounge. Casselberry's doesn't serve draft beer, bottles only. And few imports. The bar has the basics covered -- Beck's, Corona, Heineken -- but it really caters to the blue collars with Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob and other common domestics.

Nothing wrong with that. It's 2:45 p.m. on a Wednesday, and there's maybe a dozen people in here, only two of whom are women, including our bartender. Most are white men in their 40s, drinking Bud Light or Michelob. The jukebox is packed with modern country and classic rock. We hear Santana, Aerosmith and (ick!) Creed during our visit. There's a karaoke setup behind us, but thankfully no one is demonstrating their talents. In fact, most everyone seems content watching Fox News on the TV and munching on the complimentary popcorn.

Casselberry's is reasonably priced. We pay $10.50, plus tip, for a Beck's, a Michelob Ultra (got to watch that weight), and two Mich Lights. There's what looks like a liquor bar, but no one here is ordering anything nonbottled.

— Jeffrey C. Billman

Charm: Nothing terribly unique, but a relaxing place to have a beer. The jukebox kind of sucks.

Economy: Cheap beer served cold. And in bottles. Good.

Fear Factor: I was a little timid at first, but the clientele seemed happy to keep to themselves.

Burton's Bar and Grill

801 E. Washington St.
(407) 425-3720

Burton's Bar and Grill in Thornton Park is everything a community bar should be. There's cheap beer -- $2 for an Amber Bock draft, $2.35 for a bottled Icehouse -- "interesting" folks, and a bartender who's perfectly willing to discuss her unmentionables.

We showed up around 3:30 p.m., and there's four patrons in the bar: two men, both drunk and relatively silent, and two women, intoxicated and proud of it. We walked in amid some discussion about sports bras. The bartender has one at the bar and shows it off. "It's not that my titties ain't big," explains one customer, telling why she doesn't need one. "It's just that they stay where they're supposed to."

Damn, I love this place already. But it gets better. "How many male chauvinists does it take to change a light bulb?" the barkeep asks. "None -- let the bitch cook in the dark!" All four customers laugh.

This is so cool. A few minutes later, one of the male patrons begins lecturing the patrons on not trusting the government. The conversation started when we played old Black Sabbath from the very excellent jukebox. I couldn't figure out whether he approved or not. I gathered something about him serving in Vietnam, but his speech was pretty slurred. "You young dudes. What the government tells you isn't always right."

— Jeffrey C. Billman

Charm: This place rules.

Economy: Icehouse should never cost more than $2 in a bottle, but cheap draft Amber Bock is a plus.

Fear Factor: Few threatening figures here, though I thought the old drunk guy wanted to start a fight. But he was wasted, so I could have taken him.

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