Shaffer: So long to Pantana Bob's, Raleigh's bar of true grit

jshaffer@newsobserver.comNovember 3, 2013 

— When you step inside Pantana Bob’s, a squat brick hovel on Hillsborough Street with $1 beer and spiders in the bathroom, a sign offers this critical piece of advice: Shower Before Entry.

But a good scrub-up on the way out wouldn’t hurt, either.

The place is gritty enough to be described as 50,000 termites holding hands.

There’s a tree growing out of the bar on the back patio, right next to the beer pong table. You hear patrons singing the praises of a concoction called a fuzzy alligator. The floors are unpainted concrete: easy to clean with a hose.

“Don’t expect any pretension, class or whatever you associate with ‘nice’ places,” warns a reviewer on “PB’s is all about becoming the lowest common denominator and loving it.”

So I sadly report that Pantana Bob’s delivered its last headache on Saturday night, dished out its final sour stomach, handed patrons their last case of sincere Sunday-morning regret. The wrecking ball arrives soon for Raleigh’s last true dive bar, making way for a shinier, more respectable and thoroughly boring future.

It joins the rubbly remains of Bourbon Street or the Brewery, flea traps that didn’t serve anything Belgian or bother with anything so sophisticated as a menu or a urinal cake. Gone are the PB’s penny drafts and its invitation to “Come get weird.” On Saturday night, I swear I saw a woman arrive in an evening gown, and I overheard three guys arguing in French while they waited in line.

“Just look around,” said Jeff Green, the general manager, gesturing to the roomful of sots holding plastic cups. “That’s my greatest memory. I thought about it all day. Everybody having a good time. That’s my favorite memory.”

Green started at Pantana Bob’s 15 years ago, working as a bouncer. You don’t have a door attendant at Pantana Bob’s. You have a bouncer. No euphemisms need apply. After a knife attack at the bar in 2010, a patron offered this frank assessment on Twitter:

“Pantana Bob’s customers are so poor they can’t tip ... or afford guns.”

Plans call for the bar to reopen somewhere in Raleigh, but for me, that happy bit of news doesn’t really satisfy. Giving this bar a new roof feels like dressing a pig in a sportscoat. Improvement or not, it’s just a different pig.

No doubt, many will cheer the bar’s departure. The west end of Hillsborough Street is looking spiffier all the time, and plans for new student apartments, shops and retail are chugging along. But I think every city needs a scruffy corner, a smudge spot on its kitchen floor, an uncle who burps during Thanksgiving dinner. When people rhapsodize about Franklin Street in Chapel Hill – well, OK, people my age – their memories are all set at Linda’s or He’s Not Here, venues nobody chooses for the decor.

“This end of the street needs to be cleaned up,” Green said, back on Hillsborough Street, “but that adds to the allure.”

When dinosaurs roamed the Earth and I went to college, our rural campus offered one bar choice: the Green Door. It had a bear’s posterior mounted over the bar, a wood stove in the middle of the room and a floor that had soaked up so much spilled National Bohemian that you could squeeze a case of out each plank. The bathroom offered this choice graffito: Lou Menchen smokes hair.

You never took your parents there. They wouldn’t want to know. But spending time inside added visceral experience to your résumé, not unlike visiting Tijuana or getting punched in the face.

For that reason, I salute Pantana Bob’s and lament its passing. It made us tougher. It made us dirty. It made us real.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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