Dirty Oars Tavern was dead at 11 p.m. on a recent Saturday. It wasn't just slow; there were no patrons in the new Riverside bar.
Some bartenders might have used the downtime to pack the bar up early or to fiddle on their smartphone. But not Larry, the middle-aged owner sporting a Cal Ripken Jr. jersey behind the bar. He warmly engaged our group from the moment we entered the former home of Lime, a tequila bar that closed a couple years ago.
Retaining the same layout as Lime, Dirty Oars is quaint without feeling cramped. The maximum capacity is 55, which makes it an ideal size for a small neighborhood bar. The interior plays up its nautical theme with maps and oars on white and blue walls.
The long bar is black, as are the four high-top tables in the dining room. The result is a pleasing color scheme that doesn't distract. As we sipped Natty Boh drafts (on happy hour special for $2.50 the entire night), the Orioles were on the flat screen TV behind the bar, on their way to their 55th win of the season.
Soon, we were playing a game of our own. Dirty Oars features Ring the Bull, a pub game at the front of the house where a player lines up a silver ring, attached to a string, and attempts to swing it onto a hook on the wall. It is wonderfully simple and, of course, frustrating. Larry challenged two guys to a game of 21. Players get five points for hooking the ring, two points for double contact ("You'll hear it ping twice," he said) and one point for hitting the hook once. My friends got the hang of it quickly, or at least thought they did until it was Larry's turn. He took half the attempts they did and still managed to beat them convincingly.
The game ended but Larry kept the party going. Before we knew it, he was facilitating a second match between the four of us, with a round of beers on the house for the winning duo. In between tosses, we talked with Larry about being newly retired (Dirty Oars is a passion project), his golf game and spontaneous 4 a.m. trips to Atlantic City for poker with his buddies. He was an amiable, easy-to-talk-to host who made us forget we were in an empty bar.
Before we arrived, I worried the bar might play up its tongue-in-cheek name in a gross way. I was relieved to find no traces of male chauvinism — just a bar decorated with actual oars. That said, Dirty Oars Tavern is an eye-roller of a name. I don't find it offensive, but I understand if women are turned off by it. Larry said one woman from the neighborhood came in to complain but "most of the neighborhood" finds the name funny. For better or worse, it's hard to forget.
After a couple rounds of ring toss, it seemed like a natural time to keep our night moving. Larry had another suggestion: "Shots?" He pulled out a long oar with multiple holes, filled four O's shot glasses to the brim with Fireball ($4 each) and wished us luck. As we tilted the oar back to take the shots together, Larry filmed it with his smartphone. He said to look for it later on the bar's Facebook page.
There's no formula to creating the ideal neighborhood bar, but Dirty Oars gets many things right. It has entertainment, a clean design and a cordial owner who seems genuinely interested in providing Riverside residents a comfortable place for a beer. Based on our recent trip, he seemed very much on the right track.
Dirty Oars Tavern
Back story: Formerly the tequila bar Lime, Dirty Oars Tavern opened in June. It's a nautical-themed neighborhood bar that has fun options (Ring the Bull, an oar that fits six shot glasses at once) to pass the time.
Parking: Free on the street
Signature drink: This is a place for beers, despite there only being four taps (Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, Fat Tire, Loose Cannon and Natty Boh were offered on our trip). On a recent Saturday visit, a Natty Boh draft was on special for $2.50.
Where: 801 E. Fort Ave., Riverside
Open: 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, closed Sunday