Raising The Bar—Van’s Dive Bar That Is
By Robert Foran III
Looking beyond the boundaries of Girdwood’s fine music venues, there’s a big noise coming out of a little bar offering great opportunities for patrons and Alaska’s music scene—it’s Van’s Dive Bar.
The timing of Van’s start was perfect. In 2017, well-known music venue TapRoot endured faulty business decisions and imploded. Then one of TapRoot’s owners rebranded the place as ‘Route 33,’ which had a short run, closing its doors before 2017 ended. With that favorable stage for musicians gone as the home for quality gear and the best local sound person, Jay Bell, Van’s Dive Bar quickly filled that void and built a name for itself as the next big music venue in Anchorage.
Van’s Dive Bar started in 2016 when Van Hale, co-owner of the award-winning restaurant Marx Bros. Cafe, purchased King’s X Lounge with his wife Nicki Hale. The couple was searching for a place to invest in so that they could retire, relax and watch NFL games with friends. King’s X Lounge, which was more of a low-key dive bar than Van’s is, was looking to sell and soon was discussing negotiations with Van and Nicki.
“King’s X was the dive bar we were looking for at the price we wanted to pay,” said Nicki.
Now, the interior feels like an old basement that’s been decorated with vintage beer signs, pop culture artifacts from various decades, a pool table, a mounted buffalo head, a corner stage, and an oversized head cut out of ole’ Van himself smiling upon the stage as if he were admiring all that is happening on the stage there. However, others may say the head looks like Jerry Garcia or even Charles Manson—but rest assured it’s Van.
Van and Nicki had plans to make the location a music venue with their children assisting with that idea. But that collaboration never took off when the family members found other opportunities to pursue out of state. Then longtime local musician Justin Boot came along, requesting that the owners start bringing in live acts with him organizing the shows.
Once the owners knew what direction the bar was destined to go, Nicki invested in quality gear and a stage to make the whole experience of coming to Van’s Dive Bar the favorable place to be in town for watching sports and live music.
“I think Nicki recognized that there was an opportunity here and they really went for it.” said musician Orion Donicht. “They’ve been super supportive of the arts and local music in a way that a small bar should—it’s exactly what Anchorage needed.”
Then Donicht smiled and described the impact of Van’s in another way, “They were like Batman for the music scene—the signal was out when we needed it most and they responded to the call.”
Van’s was bringing in bands by the spring of 2016 not long after it’s opening, and Boot was kicking things off with a positive start and building a reputation for the place during that summer.
Soon Boot found his schedule conflicting with the responsibilities that were necessary to sustain that momentum and the baton was passed to Jay Straw, another musician in the scene from The Jephries and other music projects who had years of prior experience as a sound person locally and abroad.
Straw now wears many hats at the bar overseeing the booking, promotion, sound, tending bar occasionally and other aspects of management. He says he used to call himself a “Vanager.”
Although Straw built a quick reputation in being a great organizer and bringing in a growing number of clientele for the bar, he remains modest and feels he’s just doing his job. Straw says the best compliments he can get are simply acquired respect or people who approach him with ideas and ways to make them happen. “That means a lot,” he said.
Sometimes Straw even pulls off the unthinkable. For example, On ‘Vaniversary’ an April 2017 celebration of one year of putting events on the stage at Van’s, Straw proved many wrong who thought the idea of hosting twelve full bands and sixteen acoustic acts on two stages was absurd.
Even Donicht had his doubts in being a part when asked. Straw said his response was, “I’d love to play, but enjoy your shit show.” But eventually Donicht had to eat his own words when he realized Straw’s capabilities were a success. He said, “Jay’s a golden ray of light in this music scene. Positivity oozes out of him—it’s disgusting.”
“I don’t think there was anyone who could think that would work,” Straw admitted, “but the show worked on time, perfectly the entire day.”
Straw actually did it again similarly during the recent daylight saving time extravaganza event at Van’s where nine bands were scheduled to play. The night was packed with a great energy since there were two 2 a.m.s that night, so the party rolled on heavily into the night of November 3rd/4th at Van’s with no trouble.
“It—was—awesome.” is how night bartender “Paddy” Mosher reflected on the extravaganza. Mosher has a history of pouring drinks in various local bars prior to Van’s and serves a great Irish Coffee. He found the position over a year ago through a friend and has been enjoying every minute of it.
Straw and Mosher communicate about the entertainment at Van’s and whether or not they always coincide with bar sales. That said, however, Van’s will always be there to support the arts and cater to every crowd despite drink sales, Mosher says. Not every night expects large profits—it is part of the business.
Mosher spoke about the customers who regularly visit Van’s on any given day. He said, “The majority of our patrons are diverse.” The day crowd will find locals from the neighborhood, with some survivors from the days of King’s X Lounge. There are also regular billiard players who come play at Van’s. The night crowd is usually diverse as well with some regulars coming in regardless of what’s happening that night. The rest are one’s who come out based upon their personal tastes in music—and Van’s is known to host a lot of flavors.
Van’s brings in rock, metal, hip-hop, jam bands, experimental, blues, psychedelic, comedy and all kinds of weird stuff—there’s no limit.
“This place caters to the weird,” says patron and mandolin player in the Goddamn Ranch Hand Band, Donnie Wiggins. “This is about the only place in town where you can guarantee to see good local music every night of the week.”
One of the most popular events going on there is ‘Grateful Jams Tuesdays’ a self-promoted event led by the core band members who start things off and then allow people to join the open jam. Many also come to listen and dance, and the crowd is always happy and welcoming to all comers.
“It’s the best thing going on in town on a Tuesday night,” declared Mosher. “We do very well on Tuesdays.”
Other performers to discover and frequently bring great crowds to Van’s are Sundog, the Jephries, Wash Your Hands, Hope Social Club, Todd Grebe & Cold Country, Live from the North, The High Pets, Broad Squad, Heratic Foundation, Fiona Rose & friends, and Harper’s Farce—just to mention a few.
And on first Friday’s you’ll find Anchorage’s best example of a one-man band, Orion Donicht.
Donicht is no stranger to the scene and is also a popular bartender at Spenard Roadhouse, where he often invites his customers over to Van’s to check it out.
He says, “I tell them, ‘You can come down to Van’s Dive Bar on first Friday’s. It’s a nice place, there’s never a cover, and I play mellow music for the first hour.’” Donicht continued, “If they end up staying for the first hour then it becomes a little more rockin’. You boil’em like a lobster, then you turn up the heat a bit. Over time, they’re out on the dance floor at 1 a.m.—it’s a good time.”
Van’s is not just about music, being associated with Marx Bros. Cafe, it also offers complimentary, high quality food during NFL games and other sporting events to go with a Bloody Mary. The bar also has no problem with you buying from neighboring diner ‘Lucky Wishbone’ and bringing it back to Van’s to enjoy at a table. It’s a very open minded establishment with a sense of humor that is evident from their ever changing outside marquee sayings, and more important, it’s a bar where they will make sure everyone is comfortable and feels safe.
The core players that keep Van’s Dive Bar gaining their good notoriety are Nicki, Straw, Mosher and bar manager Emily Green.
Straw described Green as being, “Tenaciously outspoken, a beautiful human being with a brain as sharp as an icepick.” She is known to be passionate about making classic cocktails and a mean margarita that is heavy on the lime and tequila. Green is certainly part of the success at Van’s and is prepared with the rest of the staff to keep it on top of its game.
Van’s is an ideal spot to meet new people, young and old, and connect with other music circles. You might even find a friendly mate to snuggle up and go home with on a cold winter night.
As the 2018 Press Picks winner for ‘Best Dive Bar’ and the amount of new events planned in the future at Van’s, “It’s only going to get better.” says Wiggins.
Robert’s work can be followed through Foran Brand Journalism.