There are a few simple guidelines all great dive bars must have in common, things that makes them truly exceptional establishments. I went to the Tartan of Redlands recently to investigate if it was the classic dive bar it appeared to be from its outer façade—and I can now declare that, yes, this is indeed Dive Bar Nirvana. The Tartan sublimely rocks the five categories essential to making any normal bar/restaurant appropriately divey:
The Lighting. A great dive bar should be dark—and the Tartan is like eating and drinking in a mine. Even the overhead lights, gold and abrasively dim, look like something out of either the old West or a casino based on the old West. I strolled in on a bright day in early June, and felt blinded by the lack of light. But nobody wants a well-lit dive bar. A place like this, by its very nature, should be a locale to drink away a hangover or start on a new one, not pour over financial reports. A place like this also needs . . .
A Patio to Smoke on When One is Drunk. The Tartan, bless its soul, has one—a damn fine one, in fact. I fled to the patio to eat my lunch because, while I like to drink in the dark, eating in such a void can get a tad messy. The patio at the Tartan has an open-air, groovy feel, which you don’t find at the more pre-fab spots, and it’s not a total stretch to say there’s almost a relaxed Mediterranean ambiance outside, with drunks, families, and oddballs who look like they were extras in a ‘60s Bond film, all relaxing together in the nicotine haze. And everyone is relaxed because of . . .
Strong Drinks. I couldn’t drink the day I showed up, but the people all seemed very mellow and sufficiently liquored. I imagine their Bloody Marys are both spicy and strong. There’s also the . . .
Tasty Bar Food. My waitress recommended the cheeseburger and seemed mildly shocked when I mentioned I had never had a Tartan cheeseburgers before. Turns out I should have—plenty of ‘em. From the slightly peppery and super-juicy burger meat itself, to the grilled onions, melted cheddar, beefsteak tomato, pickles and raw hunks of iceberg lettuce, it’s a concoction that somehow slipped the Weekly’s Best IE Burgers edition back in March (this make-up review will just have to do). The Tartan also throws out the traditional collection of steaks, cuts of fish like salmon, and shrimp plates, along with familiar appetizers like loaded potato skins and shrimp cocktails (you can’t have a real dive bar without a shrimp cocktail). After the first martini, the menu looks appetizing—but by the third, it begins to look downright epic. Which leads to . . .
Owls and Misunderstandings. All true dive bars should have at least one ceramic bust of an animal, preferably one with no thematic or architectural connection to anything else in the joint. Score, Tartan! They have not one but two ceramic owls out on the patio, both of which stared right at me as I ate my cheeseburger, as if they were alive and ready to pounce. The true test of a dive bar, though, is if at least 50 percent of its clientele believe they’re in a snazzy establishment, including very often the owners. For a dive bar that everyone looks at as a dive bar is well on its way to becoming a club, a hipster hangout, an expensive restaurant, or a lap dance emporium. But it appears the Tartan will continue as one of the IE’s little gems—a dive bar’s dive bar.
The Tartan of Redlands, 24 E. Redlands Blvd., Redlands, (909) 792-9919. Closed Sundays.