Cleveland may be enjoying the craft beer renaissance, but it's still a shot-and-a-beer city at heart. You want a $6 specialty brew that's hoppy or has notes of something or other? That's nice. But veteran Forest City drinkers would prefer to put that $6 toward something better, like a shot of some brown liquor and a draft of whatever cheap beer is on tap, with enough left over for a tip.
What shot and what beer? It doesn't much matter.
For every brewpub, gastropub, pubbrew and gastrobrew dotting the landscape or popping up soon, there are dozens of bars — honest to God bars — where Journey is playing on the jukebox or, preferably, there's no music at all. No glistening taps of turbo IPAs or mocha porters or heife.... whatever. Just domestic lager — otherwise known as beer, the generic variety — poured into mugs and pint glasses, or plopped down in ice-cold bottles.
Sorta flat, sorta meh? Eh, it'll do. The bottom-shelf stuff is fine with us, and we'll sip it, thanks.
Here are eight places where a shot and a beer are still celebrated as the perfect distillation of Cleveland's soul. These are like home, places that warm our souls, and are always friendly to that ever-shrinking discretionary budget Clevelanders have to deal with. Who can afford $6 beers, anyway?
1219 Main St., Cleveland
The oldest bar in Cleveland is still the best. You'll find men who work with their hands nursing beers before lunch, like the longshoreman who filled every seat back when there were jobs to be had. For over four decades, owner Wally Pisorn has been catering to the thirsty, the unemployed, the tired, the drunk, and everyone in between. Every spilled whiskey, every long-forgotten bottle in the expansive cascade of liquor offerings, every sticky spot on the worn floor gives the Harbor Inn its unparalleled character — a place that's been there forever, isn't going anywhere, and feels like home. And, hey, what other bar has a pick-a-prize machine and bar bowling? Wally knows best.
3908 Denison Ave., Cleveland
This dingy spot of barstool perfection would have been overrun by hipsters by now, basking in the no-frills atmosphere, if hipsters ever wandered into this neighborhood. Fortunately they don't, which is just how the locals like it. Shiloh the dog holds down the fort, alternately scampering between patrons and finding a good place to nap by the pool table. Like all good and true American bars, the Ugly Broad opens early in the morning, which is our favorite time to enjoy this untouched bit of purity.
Mitzi Jerman's Café
3840 St. Clair Ave., Cleveland
Esquire once called Mitzi's one of the best bars in America. We don't need a national magazine to tell us what we already know. Mitzi, the fabulous Tribe-loving owner and operator, passed away not too long ago. But the bar remains unchanged, carrying her ethos in every bottle of Schlitz opened and shot of bourbon poured. A cash-only operation with a long wooden bar that still looks like it did in every picture from decades ago, Mitzi's is the ideal place to dump a pack of peanuts out next to a cold one and waste away an hour or five.
Ontario Street Café
2053 Ontario St., Cleveland
Bartenders in white shirts and black pants man the bar in this downtown dive across from the casino, but don't let that fool you — this ain't no fancy joint. Only one brew is on tap (Gennessee, naturally), though a full range of dive-esque beers are available in bottles. A shot-and-a-beer special typically runs less than $5. Glorious piles of corned beef between slices of rye await if you get hungry. You'll find everyone from businessmen stopping in for a post-work pop to gamblers enjoying a pre-casino sip to folks with nothing better to do than kill an afternoon. In other words, you'll fit right in.
Flyers Bar and Grill
6298 Pearl Rd., Parma Heights
A notorious but friendly crossroads of the south side, the kind of joint where you're as likely to run into Parma judges and other politicos (Bill Mason used to stop by) as you are local drunks falling off barstools or slipping out into the parking lot for a couple lines or a toke. Boisterous crowds gather for Browns and Cavs games, and if the guy next to you isn't buying your second drink, you don't have a heartbeat. A note of caution: The good folks at Flyer's don't care how falling-down drunk you get, but the Parma Heights cops, who like to wait across the street at night, definitely do.
13399 Lorain Ave., Cleveland
Separated from the hubbub of West Park's main drag, the Normandy is home to the early morning crowd, happy hour guzzlers, and late-night revelers alike. Huge burgers, piles of greasy bar food, and rock-bottom booze are what you'll find alongside your neighbors, all happy to chat, or not. Either way is fine with us.
5415 Mayfield Rd., Lyndhurst
It's hard to find a decent bar on the east side that's not pushing $10 drinks in crowded rooms filled with college kids or young professionals carrying on about young professional kinds of things. You have to get out of University Circle and head farther up Mayfield, which is littered with dozens of fine options, to find a peaceful barstool. Ava's Alley is the finest option out that way, run by Ava herself, a gregarious and kind soul who cooks up homemade meals and pours a fine drink. If you need a spot for a nip and some darts, some decent jukebox options, and a smile, Ava's waiting.
Lakewood Village Tavern
13437 Madison Ave., Lakewood
Lakewood is the city of bars and churches, but some of those bars have gone, or changed — to pubs or gastropubs or restaurants with menus reflecting the city's changing tastes and demographics. Hole-in-the-wall joints are under assault, and some are having a hard time surviving. The Lakewood Village Tavern is still there, though, looking like any other little bar in any little town. Nothing fancy, just a bar like they used to make 'em.