Most bars have stories behind them — brand-new and multi-decade alike. The Dirty Drummer is both. For people interested in time travel through the entrance of a neighborhood bar, something exciting is happening at 44th and Oak streets in Phoenix. It’s the reopening of this 40-plus-year-old strip mall lunch counter, honky tonk, and sports tavern.
The Dirty Drummer closed in late 2018, but reopened this month thanks to the efforts of Andrew Smith, Tom Bernard, and Dana Armstrong. There’s also Jeff White, who formerly spent 22 years as the Dirty Drummer’s manager, returning as a consultant. But it’s Armstrong we’re going to focus on for a minute.
Frank "Drummer" Armstrong and his partner "Dirty Dave" Werner started the Dirty Drummer in 1975. Yep, the Drummer is Dana’s dad, though he’d stepped away from the bar toward the late '90s and died in 2012.
So when she heard the bar was closing, it changed the path under her feet.
Armstrong was already working on opening a bar of her own, one in Tempe with Smith and some people from Yucca Tap Room. But then they bought out Werner, and with Bernard, a mission to revitalize the Dirty Drummer became a reality.
"A lot of my childhood was immersed in all things Dirty Drummer, it shaped a lot of my sensibilities as I grew up, and it felt like taking over the bar was the natural thing to do,” Armstrong says in an email. “My family connection to the bar put some added pressure on the project, but it’s the fuel we used to really do it right — honoring the original spirit that they had in their best years while moving forward with our collective vision.”
One thing’s for certain: The atmosphere in the bar has returned to its roots.
The space definitely got an update while shuttered — it's less bright, less white — but many relics from those "best years" Armstrong mentioned remain. There's the original wooden bar under your elbows and the epoxy. There are also the old wooden walls, amber glass lamps, and many of the favorite menu items.
But there are a couple of new features. There's a stage, a pool table, a jukebox full of country and classic rock, and parquet flooring donated by friends of the bar and the country band Pick & Holler for the new dance floor.
“A lot of the musicians in our local country scene moonlight as skilled laborers, and their work can be pointed out throughout the bar,” Armstrong says.
Though there are new owners and staff, the menu still offers the same burgers and fries — staples of the Dirty Drummer lunch rush. There are also sandwiches, salads, starters, and wings. Most everything is cooked or deep-fried just behind the bar, right there on the grill in plain sight.
As for the crowd, Armstrong says they expect to greet a diverse mix of old and new friends, family, long-time regulars, sports fiends, and live music fans — of all generations and backgrounds.
She says it best — The Dirty Drummer is a place that welcomes everyone.
Armstrong describes the Drummer as serving as a kind of clubhouse over the years, which they hope continues. It was also the quintessential sports bar, with multitudes of TVs and even bus trips to football games. But the Drummer is equally a country bar, and this second wave of the bar will be the new home base of Armstrong’s own project, Valley Fever Country Music Night.
We're “trying not to overthink it, but we hope that in this crazy day and age and political climate, customers here will find common ground through positivity, community, friendship, and beer,” she says.
Speaking of, the house beer is Miller Light, but there are also 10 new beer taps, cocktails, and a terrific house margarita.
So, to recap, that’s live country music and dancing, a sports-minded atmosphere, and a jukebox for in between. It’s part of the effort the new team is putting in to revitalize not only the space, but the atmosphere to boot.
“We hope to revive the nightlife part of the Drummer that used to be very popular with locals but dwindled in the past decades," Armstrong says.
The grand opening party is Friday, May 24, and it looks like it's going to be a good one. Think drinks, people, and live music. Promised to perform are local band Flathead, the Roscoe Taylor Band featuring Jimmie McElroy, and country musician Tony Martinez.
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“This is meaningful to me,” Armstrong says of Martinez making an appearance. “Not only because he’s my favorite musician in the Valley, but because this band set up in the corner and played my dad’s celebration of life at this location in 2012.”
With a soft opening last weekend, and a party coming up, things seem off to a good start.
“We knew there would be a lot of work to do, and some emotional landmines here and there, but ultimately it feels like exploring the past and reconnecting with it has provided us with a solid foundation,” Armstrong says. “We are all Arizona natives, and for us it was also an opportunity to keep a long-time local business alive. Too many have closed their doors for good.”
For hours and more information, see The Dirty Drummer website.