What do you do in Boca after all the frozen-yogurt shops have closed? And more specifically, where do you go if you just want to kick back, have a good time, and not be judged by the supermanicured elite? Well, I embarked upon a quest to find a couple of unassuming Boca's dive bars (yes, Boca has dive bars!), and great adventures ensued.
Turn 3 Sports Bar: "I'm sorry to follow you out to the parking lot," I said apologetically to the blond woman I'd practically chased from Turn 3 Sports Bar. "But why are you dressed like Fred Flintstone?"
Her name was Karil; she wore a large orange tunic with a jagged lower hem. Black spots of fabric had been cut out and glued on to the tunic.
"Well, I was going to be Pebbles, but I couldn't get my hair up quite right," she offered. "See, she's Bam-Bam!" Karil pointed across the parking lot to a shorter woman, dressed similarly, who was brandishing a thick plastic club.
"What?" I asked.
"I can't really explain... I'm kind of drunk," Karil smiled apologetically. "Some of the other women from the bar and I have themed ladies' nights. We all get together, dress in themed outfits, and have a sleepover. You should see my dining room table right now. It's covered in rocks and dinosaurs."
From the outside, Turn 3 seems tame enough. Through the door, I could barely even hear the live band, Vicious Red, expertly covering Blondie's "Call Me." But inside, the bar was abuzz. Guitars floated overhead, suspended over the jam-packed bar. To the left, pink floodlights bathed the rock band and dartboards lined the walls. Sports pictures and neon beer signs decorated the rest of the red-walled interior. Behind the bar, the tight jeans- and cowboy-hat-clad bartender whirled like a Texas twister, serving shots and no fewer than three Heinekens to the guy next to me in a 15-minute time span. His name was Derek.
"So, pretty much all your patrons have crushes on you, right?" I asked, taking a seat by the Jäger shot machine. "Cowboy hats do that to women, as I'm sure you're aware."
"I wear the hat because I'm from Sugarland, Texas," he said. He smiled. His eyes were very blue. "I rode in the rodeo for several years before working here."
"Wow!" I said. "How was that?"
"It hurt," he said.
When he moseyed off, I ordered myself a beer and drained the first half instantly. Michelle's raucous voice (whether singing to the music or bantering with Derek) carried throughout the establishment, so I decided to pay her side of the bar a visit.
"This place has one of the best happy hours," Michelle said. "And we know happy hour." Her husband nodded in silent assent. "It's called Wacky Wednesdays; drink prices are great, and they give stuff away for free."
"And not just like key chains — like Publix gift cards. Stuff you can use!"
"How long have you been coming here?" I asked.
"Years," she said. "First, it's a smoking bar. And it's like Cheers. We know everyone, and the owners are awesome."
Back on my side of the bar, Derek was glowering at Pablo, a Chilean man sitting next to me. The band had gone on a break, and Pablo was smiling and bobbing along to Pitbull's "Hotel Room Service."
"He hates this music," Pablo said.
"Me too," I agreed.
"Derek wants to hear country music," Pablo said.
"I just wanna hear English," Derek joked.
"Next," Pablo promised.
Sure enough, Garth Brooks came over the speakers next.
"Better?" Pablo asked.
"Getting there," said Derek, smiling.
"I'll pay for her drink," Pablo said, jabbing a thumb in my direction.
"Sorry, buddy," Derek said. "We don't take pesos." Then the two men laughed and bumped fists.
And that's the way it is at Turn 3. No fights, just fun. Who knew you could meet so many nice people in Boca Raton?
TJ Murphy's: "It's been a crazy night," the raven-haired bartender, Maray, was telling me. "I've had to kick a few people out." She looked proud of herself. "Must be almost a full moon."
TJ Murphy's is rundown dive — charming in its local appeal and spacious enough to pack a good crowd. The bar itself is black, long, and snakelike, complete with chipping paint and worn-out stools. It was late, and many restaurant employees had gotten off work and were now playing pool under Budweiser beer lamps and feeding bills into the jukebox. Trophies, beer signs, and a cigarette machine made the place complete. I grabbed a spot not far from two men playing a virtual bowling game on an arcade machine in the corner.
Maray wore shorts and sported a tattoo right above her breast (I couldn't make out what it was without staring too much at her rack, which I respectfully tried to avoid). She addressed everyone who came in as "Sweetie" and jokingly lamented the seven years she'd spent tending the dive: "I'll probably end up getting married in this bar, I've spent so much time here." Genially, she told me about the usual 3-to-7 p.m. happy hours, pool nights, and buy-one, get-one frees. She was quick to serve cold beer and maintained caring conversations with the regulars — even when their speech descended into sad ramblings.
"I'd be winning if there were money involved," said Randy, a regular with a flaming-skull tattoo and a beer paunch. He was referring to the arcade bowling game.
A rail-thin dude with a shaved head and slight lisp (Randy teased him for saying "testicle" when really he said "technical") was methodically cleaning up via strikes and spares.
"You know, I'm the best at pool," Randy said. "I dominate that league."
"I believe you," I said, and then turned to the man with the shaved head. "What's your story?"
"No story," he said. "All I know is this: I have a 7-year-old son with autism. He is my life. I'd never let a woman come between us." I thought to ask where his son was at this hour but decided against it. He seemed sweet.
"They're not going to tell you about the dark side of this bar," said a young, dark-haired man who had slipped into the seat next to mine.
"There is no dark side of the bar," Maray rolled her eyes at him as if he were a child trying to command attention. His name was Joel. He was remarkably glib for a late-night barhopper and good-looking to boot. He also had a way of singling me out and making eye contact with me while other people were talking, as if to say, "What this drunk-ass motherfucker is saying is ridiculous." I prize that trait in a person above all else.
"What brings you in?" I asked him.
"I live nearby," he said. "That's the only reason I come here. I can walk."
"He's been here since happy hour," Maray cut in.
"I left and came back," Joel admitted. "Anyway, I moved down here from Maine."
"Wow, Maine?" I asked. "That's quite some distance."
"I was sick of shoveling snow," he said. "You know that snow that's too powdery to make into snow balls but coats everything and sticks? That's what we get up there. That's why I'm down here. It was either here, California, or Texas."
"The first day I was here, I realized that there were hookers in the street right outside my motel room," he continued. "My dad was with me and told me first, but I didn't believe him. Then I saw them myself."
"Welcome to South Florida," I said.
Truth is, seedy bars are superfun. Even if you find them in Boca.