Aug 4, 2015

A commoner drinks at Curly’s Sports Bar & Grill, Decatur, Ill.

There are dive bars, and then there are local institutions.  After one visit to Curly’s Sports Bar & Grill on Decatur’s north end earlier this spring, I think I can safely say Curly’s is both.  

How could you miss it, right?

Like most dive bars, the exterior of Curly’s appears somewhat worn down and unimpressive from the road.  In fact, if you’re not familiar with Curly’s you might easily miss it as you drive north on Water Street from downtown Decatur (the old U.S. Highway 51).  But if you’re drawn to dive bars like I am, you will notice it on the left side of the northbound one-way street, and it will call to you, for Curly’s has a dive bar pedigree few other bars in Central Illinois can match. 

The April, happy with a Stag and good conversation
For instance, the atmosphere inside – at least during the day – is classic dive bar style, complete with dark, dingy lighting, a comfortable long bar that dominates the main barroom and low ceiling to keep everything a little more cozy. 

All signs on the walls point to good, cheap drink specials. Clearly, the customers who come there during the day are there to drink and unwind, and that’s just about it.  And at a good dive bar, that’s all you really want.

As we got to bend the bartender’s ear a little more over a Stag and an Old Style, we began to learn more about Curly’s dive bar pedigree.  The April is pretty good at getting bartenders to talk, and he seemed to appreciate our interest in the place. 

It seems the history of Curly’s is just as much a part of the history of Decatur.  As shown in a picture displayed by the bar, the original building that’s part of Curly’s today was bought by the business’ namesake in 1933.  After obtaining what stands as the second oldest liquor license in the county, he turned a meat market and lunch counter that stood there before into a popular tavern.  Since a few months have passed, my memory of the conversation is a little fleeting, but this article from Curly’s granddaughter sums it all up. 

Today’s Curly’s is a little larger than the tiny building you see in the old photograph, though.  Off to the side of the main bar room is an additional room with more clubby lounge-like seating.  I presume this is the party room they mention on the website for Curly’s

It does have a fireplace, which is uncommon for most dive bars I’ve been to, anyway.  I thought it was a nice touch.

And if you need to use the facilities while at Curly’s, look no further than toward the narrow hallway at the rear of the building to find the restrooms.  As you might expect in a building this old, it’s a tight fit.

One other thing that I believe defines Curly’s as a great dive bar is what I consider the irony of being called a “sports bar.”  I guess calling yourself a dive bar outright could be considered a turn-off to some, though.  But Curly’s is probably as much a sports bar as another favorite dive “sports” of mine – Chuck’s in New Orleans.

I do get the feeling from Curly’s website, however, that the place is a favorite hangout among the folks who follow local high school sports passionately. However, aside from the University of Illinois-themed entrance and colors, as well as the typical signage recognizing all of the area’s major sports teams, Curly’s doesn’t appear to be somewhere you go to looking for a dozen big-screen TVs each showing a different ballgame.  In fact, the only sports being played at Curly’s while I was there was video gaming and the classic one-armed brown bottle lifts.  And I’m totally cool with that.   

And that brings me to one last reason why I consider Curly’s a classic dive bar – the lack of a strong social media presence.  You won’t find many Facebook or website updates.  And I bet they don’t care, either.  Good for them!
The daylight from the outside was blinding.
Even though it’s been a few months since The April and I visited Curly’s, I guess you could say it left a good, positive impression.  I also made sure to grab a souvenir for the home bar.  Those coasters come in handy, after all.  Hopefully, with the city’s annual Decatur Celebration around the corner (a can’t-miss event for The April, who considers Decatur her home town), we’ll find our way back to Curly’s very soon.

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