Some things are timeless. Wingtip shoes, oak desks, little black dresses and the dive bar. Those proverbial havens may come and go with time but seem to always be lurking on dusty corners. If hip craft beer bars are the youngsters on the blockeager and brimming with new ideas, dive bars are their sage uncle where they go for advice; they are timeless, full of grit and character. Like the aged man, often found sitting in the corner booth sagging with time, smelling of stale beer and full of knowledge, it makes me wonder what the eyes of this bar have seen throughout the years.
In Grand Rapids it is easy to get caught up in the new and popular bars downtown. Breweries and beer bars like Founders, Grand Rapids Brewery and Hopcat keep robust and unique flavors flowing from their taps, while places like Mojo’s, McFadden’s and The B.O.B. let people bump and grind the calories and stress of the day away. Those places are always on the tips of peoples’ tongues. Not as many people talk or know about the “other” bars that fill the streets. The bars that have been around since the living can remember, the bars whose stools know the feel of true regulars.
The Pickwick Tavern is located near the Corner of Cherry Street and Diamond Avenue in Grand Rapid’s East Hills neighborhood. The bar opened in 1935 and provided a sturdy raft of empty beer kegs to ride the torrent of bourbon flowing across the Grand River in the immediate wake of Prohibition. Pickwick watched from its concrete stool as the area around it grew from an old quarter into one of the hip neighborhoods in GR. Like a metal statue it has remained standing erect, with layers of tarnish to give away its age.
The sign overhanging the door shows a graying gentleman in a fedora and glasses, confidently sipping a beer and staring into the deep pool of wisdom and understanding located behind every proper bar. If nothing else it gives credence to the clientele that graces the sparse interior and small bar top. Pickwick or “The Pick,” as it’s referred to is truly a place for regulars.
I struck up a chat with the bartender about the rich history of the tavern, while sipping a Guinness Draught and soaking in the musty beer laden atmosphere. In the background a group of men laughed heartily as they enjoyed their pints of Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon. The bar has changed hands once over the years and has been in the current owners’ possession for the last fifty of those. Technically a tavern, Pickwick served only beer and wine until the early eighties and is considered the first tavern in Grand Rapids proper (The Cottage Bar holds the title as the oldest bar in the city).
According to my new bartender friend the Pick is considered to be a conversation bar. I nodded in agreement as the table behind me let out a fresh burst of laughter as they ordered another round. She paused in our conversation and addressed each of them by name. After she poured them fresh glasses of beer, she returned to our conversation. She told me that Pickwick draws people from all walks of life. At any given night there could be a punk rocker sitting next to an elementary school teacher and a lawyer. It is even rumored that President Ford used to grace the stools in his college years. Apparently the mayor of GR has also made an appearance from time to time.
Pickwick embodies a simple, no frills philosophy without really trying. The tavern is what it is and is very unlikely to change. In Grand Rapids it is a staple watering hole where people go to have a drink and chat, nothing more. Those who frequent it have probably done so for years with similar drink orders and similar complaints. The Pick is a sort of vortex, where time outside may race on, but for those inside its walls everything remains the same. As I finished my last sip of beer and paid my tab, I asked an elderly gentleman sitting a few stools down from me why he liked coming to Pickwick. He smirked, lifted his glass, pointed and said, “Beer”.