Multiple cars through the front door couldn't keep it down.
Any dive bar with a public name for the Google Map listing and a nickname used exclusively by locals demonstrates the right kinds of prerequisites to offer a quality experience. Louisville’s Magnolia Bar & Grill, affectionately referred to by locals and the bar itself as Mag Bar, lays claim as the best dive bar in the city despite and maybe partly because of near destruction at the hands of an SUV that crashed through the front door in 2013, one of two times such an incident has happened during a Mag Bar history that stretches back to its 1962 opening.
To get a piece of housekeeping out of the way, though the official listing for dive bar includes the words ‘bar’ and ‘grill,’ there is no food to be found here. That trait does come with the advantage of a weekly special that includes a free pizza-by-the-slice coupon for next door Pizza Donisi with the purchase of a first beer. This is an old school, classic corner neighborhood dive bar, the kind that used to dot about every other street corner across most of the United States before becoming a bit of a rare breed today. The signage fits the bill well, red neon above the front door inscribed with the “official” name of the dive bar and a faded red sign above that with the unofficial “Mag Bar” moniker.
The repair location of the SUV-induced hole in the wall can be seen in the mixed brick colors to the left of the front door that break up the otherwise faded yellow brick exterior. Opaque glass cubes, as old school as any other building feature, make up the majority of the surprisingly prolific windows that let in an uncharacteristically large amount of light by dive bar standards. Where breaks in the window cubes exist for traditional glass, those spots are largely occupied by neon beer signs and a handful of posted community flyers.
Inside, there are no bells and whistles when it comes to layout, an L-shaped bar in the center of an L-shaped space befitting the corner location. An electric dart board can be found in this front room positioned next to the wall of merchandise available including shirts, hats and zip-up sweatshirts. Aside from a few stools at the bar, this arm of the “L” feels a bit sparse compared to its more densely packed partner across the bar. Here, a series of built-in booths run against the longer side of the Louisville dive bar, narrowing the space a bit with enough room for another line of stools at the bar.
The unquestioned king of Mag Bar’s décor can be found along this stretch of bar, a framed picture of FDR perched above the bar back with a pair of mannequin legs complete with fishnets extending from its base. The usual dive bar selection of old liquor bottles and assorted stickers can be found nearby, a small collection of carved birds perched along the same ledge. Small local art pieces dot this area and the dive bar at large, little bursts of paintings mingling among the beer signs and liquor bottles.
Beyond the bar, a classic jukebox can be found down the lone hallway, not necessarily vintage vinyl but CD-based and a far cry from the digital varieties more common today. The end of the hallway opens up into a large performance space cleared out entirely for the purposes of live music that rotates through Mag Bar. The sticker game is strong back here, a few of the surfaces and one bench in particular covered with sticker-based odes to all manner of causes. The adjacent bathrooms feature a common sink visible to the bar patrons, meaning there is mercifully no hiding from washing hands at Mag Bar.
Despite a couple of cars attempting to do in the Mag Bar entryway (and some of its patrons in the process), the vintage appeal of a space open since 1962 is readily apparent from the signage outside and the dive bar décor inside. The absence of a grill does little to affect the quality of the experience and instead focuses the purpose all are drawn inside to accomplish, grabbing a couple of unassuming beers at one the purest Louisville dive bars.