The classic dive bar along a dusty road.
Sacramento is a big city with a neighborhood feel that comes from its quick transition from the city’s downtown core into a series of small districts, each with their own set of dive bars. And then there’s Happy Bar, a dive bar outpost a few miles past even the outskirts of those Sacramento neighborhoods, a bar that sits right at the transition between city sprawl and rural California.
Visiting Happy Bar was a lucky accident, the route between two planned stops running right by this dive bar outpost on the side of a dusty road. What prompted the visit was Happy Bar’s signature feature, the classic sign over the front door inscribed “Happy Bar Cocktails” with a pair of beer mug & drink depictions. Not content to stop at one drive-stopping sign, a second sign closer to the road reads “Happy Bar Cocktails” as well but in the most basic font possible. Black letters, white background, the kind of simplicity that heightens the anticipation of a great dive bar.
Given the semi-rural location, there is plenty of room here, Happy Bar sitting in the middle of a parking lot for patrons. Even better, a third, yes third sign can be found directly over the front door, though this one does include the name of the bar but adds the all-important word “Karaoke” to the mix. Walking in, it’s easy to envision weekend karaoke here, Happy Bar’s wood paneling alone creating the best kind of dive bar karaoke vibe. Word to the wise, Happy Bar is cash only and includes an on-site ATM for anyone ill-prepared.
The front room, surprisingly bright given the lack of separation between the low building and the Sacramento sun, features a long bar and two pool tables given ample space along the opposite wall. Seating here is at a premium, most of the space kept clear to preserve the integrity of the pool games that frequent both tables. Stools sit along the bar that looks pleasantly untouched in parts and revamped in others. And while this isn’t a typical decorations-on-every-possible-square-inch dive bar, the area behind the bar is well covered with signage, from classic drinking sayings to framed photos and an M&M’s clock.
A blue aquarium-looking light bar over Happy Bar’s liquor collection reads Bradsons, presumably a holdover from a previous incarnation of this same space. Atop the bright blue pop of color sits a continuation of the M&M memorabilia collection comprised of what look to be home candy vending machines. More prominently, four framed photos of John Wayne cover the wall above the beer cooler’s doors, complemented by another circle photo of The Duke under a mounted bell. Given the location of Happy Bar on Sacramento’s outskirts, the homage feels appropriate to the space.
Further dive bar decorations are a bit sparse at Happy Bar, the occasional beer sign interspersed with the TVs that surround the front room. A handful of trophies in a display case can be found at the end of the long front room, a tribute to the steady stream of locals that visited during my stay. Given its location, it may not necessarily make sense to call Happy Bar a neighborhood meeting spot, but that’s the vibe inside, a collection point for those that live or work in the near vicinity. Karaoke night is no doubt a beneficiary of that same feeling, multiple reviews online citing a set of A-grade locals as regular singing staples.
Though Happy Bar isn’t necessarily out in the middle of nowhere, its position just a bit outside of the more densely populated portion of Sacramento gives it a unique feeling. The side of the road spot, the vintage sign, the open field next door, all of Happy Bar’s elements combine outside to build anticipation that is paid off inside by a wood paneled, John Wayne-infused atmosphere. In the best possible way, Happy Bar is a halting dive bar outpost that lives up to its car-stopping curb appeal.