Another Dive Goes Down as Hot Rod's Runs Out of Gas

[Via Fred Melo's Twitter.]
This is a bit old news by now, but Hot Rod's, one of the dives in the famed "Midway dive district", has closed and lost their license. The building is currently for sale.

When I was working on my Noteworthy Dive Bars of the Midway guide booklet, I mentioned the place to my barber, an old-time Saint Paulite who remembers nearly every bar in the city going back 60 years.

"Oh Hot Rods," he said, excitedly. "They used to have the front half of a 1961 Oldsmobile in the window that would rotate around."

Wait, what?

Well it was a long decline for this old place, that had a very Happy Days vibe to me. Only like if the show had been cancelled, but all the actors had had to stick around on set for another decade, trapped in syndication limbo.

Anyway, RIP Hot Rods. I hope someone buys this place and opens up another bar there. It'd be nice to keep the fragile Midway booze reef intact.

[Below are my notes on Hot Rods from the rapidly-going-out-of-date Noteworthy Dive Bars of the Midway guide booklet.]

Hot Rod’s

Not every dive bar is worthy of laud. In fact, many are plain bores, and a select few downright depress. This is the case at Hot Rod’s, much of the time, a bland half-empty relic of a 1980s remodel that, today, sits in the midst of Saint Paul’s Midway dive row like a hyphen. I’m sure it wasn’t always this way. Dives wax and wane, pulled by currents of taste and grubby twenties.

Hot Rod’s seem temporally disjointed. It offers the uncanny feeling of escape and capture, like watching Back to the Future II for the first time in 2015.

The room opens up wide as a White Castle drive-thru. Pool tables and booths bracket a central bar area while a rudimentary stage lingers near the entrance. The walls, lighting, and thematic decor mirror the vacancy and longing. The automobile theme, 60’s hot rods and NASCAR, feel dubious as a used PT Cruiser. There was once the entire front end of a 60s Oldsmobile placed in the large front window, and I am told that it rotated for all to see.

This name “Hot Rod’s” is at least 20 years old, and it’s had the same owner the whole time. There’s sometimes an inverse relationship between desolation and welcome. Just as nobody is happier to see you than a man on a desert island, and the same holds for Hot Rod’s, where you can make fast friends with the lonely.

University Avenue during the heyday of car culture was something else. Down the street about a mile to the West was Porky’s, a classic 50s drive-in diner with greasy pork sandwiches, chrome drool, and servers in skirts and roller skates. The place beat with the pulse of hot rod culture, a cruising Omega whose parking lot had more hoods raised than not. When the light rail was built, the old owner, a former waitress herself, decided to sell out to the old folks home next door, and a sea change took hold of the street. Out with the chrome cars, the parked cruisers, the lawn chairs and coolers and men in hats watching traffic from parking lots. Hot Rod’s seems the last hold out, though you’ll find no parking lot here.

There’s a sense of self-loathing that pervades some dives on certain days and nights, where both patrons and employees seem to hate their plight, despite the responsible fun to be had. At this point, the social life of a dive dons an almost Sartrean aura, the certitude and meaninglessness of existence coming together like a cocktail of human being. It’s difficult to make sense of this feeling, the deep paradox of independence and dependency, and many dives must come to terms. How to thrive and survive in the despair of the everyday? How to reconcile the joy and depression that together mark the cure of alcohol? How to relive one’s past? Into this breach the dive must tread. There is no elegant escape.

Kitschy, utilitarian, inelegant, almost nothing about Hot Rod’s is artful, which makes it as good a place as any to start.