As much a Cleveland dive bar as a dive bar could be.
During one of Cleveland’s many rebirths in the 1990s, the “Flats” became a hotbed of activity, a developed stretch of restaurants and bars along the east bank of the Cuyahoga River. During the early 1990s, the Flats held the highest concentration of bars in the Midwest, a short-lived distinction that faded as the area subsided in popularity in the 2000s before seeing a resurgence today.
But Harbor Inn, the real king of the region sits right across the river, unaffected by the whims of the east bank, holding court over the west bank of the Cuyahoga River since 1895. And for those who speak dive bar, knowing that Harbor Inn is the oldest continuously operating pub in the city is an alluring draw. Because of the bar’s location, its history is a history of third-shift patrons, factory workers from a now defunct powerhouse nearby and dock workers, again the foundation of a transcendent dive like Harbor Inn.
Indeed, Harbor Inn looks exactly as you think Cleveland’s oldest bar may. A few feet away from the riverfront, the building is profoundly brick, the type of brick that makes it clear that someone once saw a window, a door, any kind of opportunity for light in the building and thought, “better brick that up.” The building’s corner features one of the great dive bar signs in America, Harbor Inn inscribed over a predictable but glorious image of an anchor.
The front door, for some reason, features a small wooden overhang, funneling visitors inside. Built into the side of that wooden overhang is a fisheye-style window atop a painted, nondescript, sea-faring character of some kind. If those small wooden walls could only recount the number of drunken fish-eye selfies taken there.
Inside, the design motif is, naturally, nautical in nature. And it is nautical in the sense that if such a thing existed as a dive bar boat, it may look something like Harbor Inn’s interior. The space is long and slightly narrow, like a barge floating on the Cuyahoga. The lighting is dim, as it should be, predominantly coming from strands of Christmas lights that drape the walls.
The bathrooms in the back of the space feature somewhat cramped entry hallways before opening into exactly the bathroom you’re picturing in your mind. Arcade and bar games dot the space, including bar bowling, the unsung hero of all dive bar games. Wall art is intense and impressive, ranging from Browns gear to framed high school sports trophies.
And then there’s the beer wall, a towering pantheon of potential offerings that range from the hipster to the deeply un-hipster (Stroh’s hasn’t been tainted yet, right?). Ordering one each of the few dozen offerings might only set you back about $20, but then there’s the liver failure to consider, so choose wisely.
Deep history, weird bathrooms, dim lighting, Harbor Inn has it all. And maybe most importantly, Harbor Inn feels like the neighborhood and hard-working city that surrounds it. To drink at Harbor Inn is to drink in Cleveland. Even better if that drink is a Stroh’s on a giant brick-laden barge along the Cuyahoga River.