Bring a Sharpie and good luck finding a spot.
The confluence of 1880s-era horse-drawn fire station and college dive bar is a rare one, but Dana Gardens tallies as one of the few of that rare breed, a hole-in-the-wall just off of Xavier University’s main campus just north of downtown Cincinnati. Outside, fresh siding and a new roof hide a bit of the history, but one look at the dive bar’s vintage sign, now relocated to just off the parking lot, provides a glimpse into the history held within Dana Gardens’ walls.
Dana Gardens opened in 1935 under the same name, a reference to its location on Dana Avenue. From 1935 forward, the campus dive bar was operated continuously and under not only the same name but same ownership until the bar’s liquor license was revoked in 1994. The Delany family, original owners of Dana Gardens, decided to close up shop at that point before a trio of Xavier graduates pooled their resources to purchase the building and reopen. One of the new owners ponied up his portion by repurposing funds his family had earmarked for a Xavier MBA, instead going in on the purchase.
All told, 21 months elapsed between Dana Gardens’ 1994 closing and 1995 rebirth, the only blip during the over 80 years of the Cincinnati’s dive bar’s existence. Outside, not all of that history can be seen today, the structure refreshed over the years, understandably, including an extensive patio that now includes a freshly constructed, standalone beer hall-style second patio. What can be seen, from almost any altitude, is the dive bar’s affiliation with nearby Xavier University, a love affair etched into the design of the bar’s roof. A special shingle design spells out Let’s Go X, a design that required special waterproofing to product a more school-official looking ‘X.’
To be sure, the continuous replenishment of thirsty undergrads at nearby Xavier is one reason for Dana Gardens’ enduring success, a fact clearly seen in the carved signatures along the bar’s wood surfaces and the slow creep of those signatures to the ceiling, scrawled in chalk-style marker. Xavier memorabilia can of course be found throughout the space, and the bar’s short set of available menu items bears more than one homage to Xavier coaches through the years. Gillen’s Goetta Bites, a Cincinnati area specialty, take their name from former Xavier college basketball coach Pete Gillen, for example.
A discussion of Dana Gardens would be incomplete without mention of bartending legend Hershel Ware, a staple behind the bar who came on board shortly after the bar’s reopening. Born in 1928, Ware not only works regularly behind the bar but also loans his first name to the bar’s signature drink, the Herschel Special, a dangerous-sounding and proprietary concoction made from cranberry, orange juice and grenadine. As if to ensure his presence is felt whether Hershel is working that day or not, a HERSHEL license plate hangs over the cash register behind the bar. Similar Xavier-themed license plates line the slight ridge in the roof just over the bar to extend the theme.
Inside, every bit of the dive bar’s history can be seen in the signatures and signage and original-looking fixtures that surround the space. Behind the bar, ancient looking wooden shelving holds the bar’s liquor selection, classic domestic cans perched above the register to display the available options. Built on American can beers for decades, the selection now includes draft craft beer to complement low-cost options like ultra-affordable $2 Natty Light.
Fresh beer signs mingle with framed photos of past Xavier teams, programs and player jerseys, a wood panel-lined Xavier museum. Over one door, a sign reads “Drink Like A Champion Today. UC Sucks” in reference to cross-town rival, University of Cincinnati. In fact UC Sucks can be seen in faint lettering along the roof over the bar, accentuating the point. Every conceivable surface is covered in names of students, including an impressive display of signature-based graffiti in the dive bar’s bathrooms.
While it is common for college bars to have a little bit of history thanks to the longevity that comes with a endless supply of fresh-faced drinkers, Dana Gardens ups the historical ante considerably. With a history that dates back to 1935 that can be felt within the dive bar’s interior walls, the combination of school pride and authentic, history-soaked drinking is a unique and attractive combination. And yet, that college & history combination is probably still a touch less potent than a Hershel Special, word to the wise.