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In Scandinavia, where winter days are short and the sun sets before 3 p.m., some people resort to light therapy to combat mood disorders brought on by the relentless darkness.
Needless to say, we don’t have that problem in Phoenix. On the contrary, summers in the Sonoran Desert flip the script, bringing long days filled with intense sunshine, and compelling us locals to stay indoors or adopt vampirish schedules.
For me, one of the best ways to escape Phoenix’s summer heat is to retreat inside a dark bar for a chilled beverage and some friendly conversation.
I’m talking about the kind of bar where your eyes need a few seconds to adjust before you can make out the booths. Where the thermostat is set so low, the place feels like the ice cream aisle at the grocery store. Where there are no windows. Where you can hear the crackle of ice in your drink. Where happy hour starts at 3 o’clock.
And if it’s is kind of hard to find, well, that’s even better.
I am not alone in this. So fond are Phoenicians of dark bars that when one bites the dust, the lamentations can last for years. Friends still reverently mourn the Chez Nous, where the barely navigable darkness was said to be a function of the owner’s desire to protect regulars who were having affairs.
I recently consulted a few of my favorite Phoenix barflies to find out where they kick back during the dog days of summer. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start. So put away the sunscreen and belly up to the bar … assuming you can find it.
At Char’s Has the Blues, bartenders use penlights to read labels on the bottles they pour. Char’s is frequented by a fabulously diverse clientele and features weekly performances by Soul Power and Laydee Jai—both of whom used to grace the shadowy stage at Chez Nous.
Open since 1996, MercBar is an outpost of the original Soho New York cocktail lounge. Its Camelback location and classic décor—wood-paneling, subdued lighting, heavy glassware—is decidedly sexy and attracts a lot of suits and high-heeled gals.
Darts, foosball and skeeball are part of the mix at The Little Woody, whose owl motif is a metaphor for the nocturnal atmosphere. Its sister bar, the Linger Longer Lounge, is likewise lighthearted and lounge-y. There’s just enough light to play a game of tabletop Jenga or jot down answers on trivia nights.
The downstairs lounge at Rokerij—the name means “smokehouse” in Dutch—features cool stone, dark wood, a copper-topped bar and lighting so dim you can’t always make out what you’re eating.
Located near the Arcadia district, Shady’s is the quintessential neighborhood bar. Popular with off-duty bartenders and wait staff, the interiors are retro and unpretentious, with pool tables, a jukebox, and an old TV that silently loops classic and cultish movies.
The Lost Leaf, in downtown’s Roosevelt Row neighborhood, is housed in a 1922 building with original hardwood floors and exposed-brick walls. I’m sure the Lost Leaf actually has electricity, but you might not realize it. An artist friend took me here, and we literally watched folks stumble in and out of the door.
The Bikini Lounge, which sits at the crossroads of two arty downtown districts—Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue—is a dive bar with a history: It opened in 1946, making it Phoenix’s oldest watering hole. Its ’40s tiki décor is illuminated mostly by the ambient glow of neon. If you’re drinking here, bring cash and don’t expect fancy cocktails.
Another downtown dark spot is Valley Bar, which is difficult to find even in broad daylight. It doesn’t have exterior signage or even a front door; you enter via an alley behind a nondescript brick building. The brightest part of this candlelit basement lounge is the bar, which is illuminated by a backlit mobile that tells the story—abstractly, in slowly spinning and slightly sinister silhouettes—of a murdering secretary who packed her victims’ dismembered bodies into steamer trunks.
If the solitary red bulb outside Melinda’s Alley is lit—which occurs only on Friday and Saturday nights—then this basement speakeasy is open. Located in the concrete bowels of the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, Melinda’s Alley does a fine job of recreating the secretive feel of a Prohibition-era bar in the red-light district: The cocktail list is short, the barkeeps are few, and the furnishings are ancient. Bring cash—your credit cards are no good here.
Out in the East Valley, The Ostrich, in downtown Chandler, is a basement cocktail lounge hidden in the historic San Marcos Hotel and gently illuminated by Edison bulbs. In Mesa, a cozy basement (accessed through a liquor store), is the setting for the family-owned Sun Devils Liquor and Cellar Pub.
Phoenix’s newest dark bar, Honor Amongst Thieves, bucks the basement trend: It’s an upstairs lounge accessed via a set of fire-escape-like stairs. Its U-shaped bar and the velvety couches that surrounded it are bathed in sulfurous light and accented by lots of dark wood and black vinyl.
These watering holes are fine places to undergo “dark therapy” on a bright, sunny day in Phoenix. I recommend them all. Unless, of course, you’re visiting from Scandinavia—in which case, I suggest a bar with a patio.
About the author: Suzanne Wright
Suzanne Wright first stepped into the Sonoran Desert some 30 years ago and was immediately smitten. She has written for national publications such as National Geographic Traveler, USA Today and American Way, but she’s happiest exploring and writing about Arizona for regional outlets like AAA Arizona Highroads, Arizona Highways and the Official Travel Guide to Greater Phoenix.