Favorite Lil' Dive Bar: Lou's Pub

Words by Brent Rosen

Photos by Taylor Campbell

 

Lou’s Pub and Package Store in Birmingham, Alabama, should be illegal. Not in a hokey, “This place is so great it should be illegal!” way, but actually against the law. Lou’s has one of Alabama’s only grandfathered licenses allowing for both package sales and bar service in the same location. Almost everywhere else in these United States, it is against the law to order a drink at the bar, then sip it while perusing shelves stocked with spirits for sale. But you can do just that at Lou’s.

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Although the liquor selection is excellent—better than most state stores—it’s the bar that hooks first-time visitors, transforming them into regulars. Guests at Lou’s will recognize the physical space for what it is: a bar. A bar that looks how bars have looked for hundreds of years. The years when bars were snug, intimate places, more clannish and less territorial. When bartenders practiced a trade no different than barbers or hostlers or druggists. Before third spaces, cocktail lounges, sports bars, and speakeasies.

If it sounds like Lou’s is an industry hangout, you’re picking up what Lou’s is putting down. Spirits professionals from well beyond Alabama came to Lou’s to attend Church Night, a Wednesday night event for those who needed the excuse of “church” to go out during the week. Church night is no more, but monthly industry nights that run until 6 a.m. keep Lou’s in the hearts and minds of partiers—professional and otherwise.

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The cocktail program is unfussy to the point of homey, but rigorous. Classic cocktails predominate. Customers order frigid martinis, whiskey highballs, half-and-half daiquiris, and efficient vodka-sodas. There is no sense of playing “bar,” no hint of dropper culture. The bar pours shots liberally and stocks domestic beer at icebox temperature. You may want to think about ordering a Tom Collins.

In the time it takes to smoke a cigarette at an iron table out front, you may see: the head of security for a Fortune 500 company, an international saffron dealer, a janitor, some lawyers who broke the Klan with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group of hairdressers blowing off steam, and the guy who allocates Pappy Van Winkle to restaurants and bars across Alabama. Lou’s clientele skews democratic with a small “d.” Here, well-poured well cocktails cross impossible chasms of age, race, and sex.

With friends, Lou’s takes on the feel of your parents’ basement—the drinking somehow illicit, but without danger. If you’re alone, Lou’s becomes introspective, your internal call-and-response prompted by overheard conversation, faces in the mirror, the glint of neon on the bottles. Lou’s inhales your present concerns and nostalgia for the past, then exhales in return a profound sense of belonging: unique, simultaneous, and overlapping.

Time and space do not matter at Lou’s. No unidirectional flow—the moment only—no time but the present. Off-street parking is ample. They do not serve food.