My hometown of Niagara Falls, Ontario is a city designed for people who don’t live there. There are roughly as many wax museums as libraries. We don’t have adequate public transportation, but we do have Super Mario themed go-kart racing. The oppositions play into the city’s character. It is home to one of the world’s greatest natural wonders—every second, 3,160 tons of water cascades over the falls for a truly breathtaking view—but amongst the organic beauty are two casinos, countless kiddy arcades, and an animatronic statue of Brendan Fraser. If you spend too much time in the city it feels disorienting.
The success of Niagara ebbs and flows with the influx of tourists. Like a mini version of Las Vegas, the 2008 financial crisis ravaged the town. With the economy in shambles, it felt Niagara’s criminal underbelly began creeping into everyday life. Businesses burned down. My former hockey coach was found strung out in a cheap hotel. A family friend—a man who practised law with my dad—was convicted of laundering cocaine money. But between the boarded up buildings were hints of Mad Men-era romance. Niagara Falls had been the honeymoon capital of the world. Residents were quick to remind you about the Marilyn Monroe film. My whole life people reminisced about the city’s former glory. It had been great once. Maybe it could be great again.
I moved away from Niagara directly after high school. With tourist money dwindling I wasn’t sure I could make a life at home. Over time that idea turned to resentment. My antipathy for the city’s neon lights and carnival attractions festered beyond typical teenage bitterness. I started to criticize Niagara any chance I could. As an adult, my trips back have been infrequent, weekend jaunts far from the tourist district, to visit with my mom and walk our family dog.
Knowing my relationship with Niagara, my editor pitched me an article. VICE has a series where we try to find a city's worst bar. The rules are simple: get a drink at what you consider the worst bar in town. Ask the patrons at that establishment what they consider to be the town’s worst bar, then go drink there. Continue the process until you can't take it anymore. I accepted the assignment but put off the trip to Niagara for months. I don’t like going back, and worried about the old ghosts and tourist traps that shaped me. Eventually—after a lot of mental preparation and a few false starts—I spent a night drunkenly wandering the streets looking for meaning amongst the tourists, fast food, and heart shaped jacuzzis. Here is what happened when I tried to find Niagara's worst bar.
Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville
Niagara Falls is home to some truly spectacular restaurants highlighting wines from the region’s 88 vineyards. There are also a lot of chains. Rather than risk a unique dining concept, owners rely on the familiarity of brands to court tourists. Margaritaville is a chain restaurant owned by Jimmy Buffett, a singer-songwriter who became a multi-millionaire businessman making island music palatable for a demographic afraid of seasoning their food.
At the Niagara location every hour, on the hour, the restaurant plays the Buffet banger “Margaritaville”. As the track begins an oversized bottle of tequila lowers from the ceiling, emptying its contents into a giant novelty blender. The neon green liquid of the blender spins into a fury. An air raid siren sounds. A video of a waterfall plays on television sets across the restaurant. As the siren dims and the song breaks into the chorus, the waterfall crossfades to a concert performance by Buffett.
This fever-dream spectacle is the reason I chose Margaritaville as Niagara's worst bar. Tourists—it’s estimated about 13 million visit the region each year—travel to Canada but flock to a location selling a parody version of Key West. Margaritaville is a 10 minute stroll from the manicured greenery of Niagara’s parkway and the falls themselves.
When I arrived at 9 p.m. the massive restaurant was mostly empty. An older couple in matching Hawaiian shirts sat at the high chairs. A few families huddled at tables close to the kitchen. I passed a sign that promised karaoke from a pirate emcee, but the man hidden behind the DJ booth—presumably the host—was clad in civilian garb. Occasionally he’d tap at his microphone and ask if there were any singers in the house. The restaurant was silent. There were not any singers in the house. I positioned myself at the bar rail and a waitress approached with a huge smile.
“There are no clocks in this restaurant because it’s always five o’clock somewhere! Now what can I get you?”
Sticking with the theme I ordered a large frozen margarita, but turned down the option for the ten dollar souvenir cup. Making small talk with the staff, everyone was impossibly friendly. They casually threw Jimmy Buffett references into conversation. Briefly I considered that maybe I had gotten it all wrong. The parrotheads—an affectionate term used for Jimmy Buffett fans— genuinely enjoyed the kitschy fun. Sure, the bar was mostly empty. Sure, Margaritaville could be in any city across North America. But who cares? Why not drink my daiquiri and live a little? Wouldn’t that be better? As I was pondering this the Margarita siren started up again. I got the cheque.
Clearing up I asked the bartender what she thought was Niagara's worst bar. She considered it for a second then went to the back to confer with the cooks. The bartender returned with a handwritten list. She had drawn a smiley face beside the first name: The R Bar.
"Supposedly it's owned by Hell's Angels," said the waitress. I suspect that's not true, but it certainly was a type of endorsement.
The R Bar
One of the unique things about Niagara is all the different flavours of misery. It is a Baskin Robbins for despair. There are the tourist traps sucking hard earned dollars from unsuspecting visitors. There are the money laundering fronts who show active disdain for their customers. There are the aging family restaurants just holding on for another season. Amongst all this are local bars like R Bar. The R Bar is located beside a payday loan spot. Across the street are two strip clubs, a pawn shop, and a funeral home.
As I entered the establishment two people were chain smoking. They discussed whether or not postpartum depression is real. The walls were coated in a faded red paint. Def Leppard's "Love Bites" hummed from the speakers. I didn't see any staff, or any customers, until one of the chain smokers followed me inside. She asked if I wanted a drink.
I had been in R Bar on two other occasions. Once during a fundraiser for my grade school soccer team. Once after the funeral service for my pops. A few doors down from R Bar was an apartment where a childhood friend died by suicide. The location had ghosts I wasn’t willing to sit with, even without the looming association of biker gangs. R Bar was indicative of Niagara’s larger truth: a stone’s throw from any tourist trap is an establishment with a Bukowski-esque back story.
I called an audible and headed towards Clifton Hill. Clifton Hill is the main tourist promenade —a prepubescent version of the Vegas Strip — and doubles as the dark beating heart of Niagara. It is home to souvenir stands, several haunted houses, mini-putt courses, and a ferris wheel. Aside from the city’s two casinos, it’s the most visited location in Niagara.
On the way to Clifton Hill I swung by the parkway and sat by the falls. Facts I’d memorized during my stint as a hotel busboy came rushing back. Niagara has eroded seven miles in the last 12,000 years. The falls have only stopped once—in 1848—when ice jammed the flow of the river from Lake Erie. At the edge of the safety gate I stood and listened to the hum of the water.
Clifton Hill Beer Garden
The first job I ever had was street sweeper. For nine hours at a time I would wonder Clifton Hill sweeping trash with my undersized broom and dustpan. Once I had to locate a human shit in an attraction called The Mystery Maze. I scrubbed the shit clean with a broom and a bucket of water.
The center of my sweeping territory was the Clifton Hill Beer Garden. The Clifton Hill Beer Garden is a karaoke patio attached to the Thriftlodge motel, a relic of Niagara’s past. Before the city built a skyline of massive hotels places like the Thirftlodge could charge top dollar for their shabby charm. In recent years a few motels have rebranded as vintage. Others have fallen into disrepair or closed shop entirely.
During my street sweeping days the Beer Garden had a slew of regulars: stage moms and daughters belting out Mariah Carey, a middle-aged man who told me he invented the light up shirt, and a duo of bros who rearranged the lyrics of "Sweet Caroline" to sing about their genitals ( Sweet Caroline! LICK MY BALLS!). Cleaning up after the Beer Garden drunks is where I developed my early disdain for Niagara.
In the decade since I’d attended the Beer Garden not much had changed. The vibe of the place was still wallet-chain chic. Light up shirt guy was still around. But the most interesting thing about the Beer Garden was the host. Song after song he encouraged the drunken tourists while they butchered radio hits. After a truly uncomfortable rendition of “Gold Digger” from a white guy, the host belted out a tune of his own as a palate cleanser. He had a great voice and stage presence. Watching him I realised this is what you can do with true musical talent in Niagara. You can host karaoke.
The kitsch of Margaritaville and the inherent sadness of R Bar had left me melancholic. I drank two shots of tequila and decided to sing Billy Joel. My talk-sing version of “Piano Man” went over like a lead balloon. Apparently the sad meandering of Mr. Long Island wasn’t what the Affliction—clad crowd desired. Slumping from the stage I asked the karaoke host to send me to Niagara’s worst bar. Without missing a beat he smiled and gave me the finger guns.
“Bro! You gotta go to Big Tex.”
Big Texas is on Ferry Street, about a five minute drive from the Falls. Big Texas looked like a high school production of Coyote Ugly costumed from a church basement donation bin. The waitresses wore daisy duke cut offs, cheap cowboy hats, and flannel. Entering the bar that night, the place smelled like a community pool and weed. Towards the back was an out of service mechanical bull. Unlike the rest of the establishments that night, Big Texas was packed. Two separate bachelorette parties owned the dance floor, shaking ass to a bar band playing country covers. Periodically the audience would send up a round of whiskey shots for the band. The band slammed the shots. Everyone screamed, ‘woo! ’
From the corner of the room I watched the dingy bar wriggle with life. Big Texas was trashy with dirty walls and disgusting bathrooms. A true dive, in the bad sense. But as I judged my surroundings I couldn’t help but notice I was the only one at the bar not having fun. Thinking back that was a motif in general. My hometown was filled with places people genuinely adored, even if I thought they were stupid. There were people hustling hard to make Niagara work… I ordered a drink and thought about it. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. Unlike my teens, I could leave Niagara when I was done. Maybe I could try a bit harder to have a good time.
Wandering the floor was a bouncer in a polo shirt. The guy was shaped like a bullet, pushing 300 pounds, with a long nu-metal beard. Even with my new attempts at optimism the bouncer put me on edge. He kept pacing, like a high schooler looking for a fight. During an up-tempo country jam the bouncer made his way to the dance floor. But instead of punching someone he grabbed a bachelorette by the hand, leading her through some rudimentary dance moves, a cowboy hustle. By the end of the song the two were making out.
Knowing that Big Texas would not get better than that, I settled up and asked for one last worst bar suggestion. The bullet bouncer sent me to The Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is located in a strip-mall beside a discount haircutters. The bar is far from the tourist district, about a 10 minute drive from the main strip. It is a place that family members, friends, and co-workers have told me to avoid. Aside from the numerous health code violations, the bar is a hangout for boxers, and has developed a bit of a bad reputation. Entering The Blue Lagoon I noticed the walls were adorned in blacklight posters of killer whales. Strobes flashed over an unoccupied dancefloor. A DJ in the corner looked simultaneously 15 and 65. That Saturday night there were six people in the bar, including the staff. The vibe of the room was...sketchy.
As I sat the bartender stopped grinding her teeth just long enough to smile. She told me the special that night was $3.50 drinks. I ordered a vodka soda. The bartender pulled a visibly scuffed glass from under the counter. She free poured a triple, tossed a lemon wedge in the glass, and began to stir with a long spoon. The stirring—a step I’ve never encountered while ordering a vodka soda— continued for a solid fifteen seconds. When the bartender was finished she placed the drink in front of me then retreated back of house. She returned speaking at a lightning pace. Didn’t the DJ look like a young Emilio Estevez? Don’t you love music? Isn’t drinking great?
I nodded slowly. Earlier in the night I had questioned whether or not my judgement of Niagara’s bar scene was too harsh. I had contemplated a newfound appreciation for my hometown and considered if my antipathy was rooted in personal baggage rather than actual problems with the city. But standing in The Blue Lagoon at least one thing was clear. This was Niagara’s worst bar.
Closing out the night I made my way to the Flying Saucer. The Flying Saucer is a diner shaped like a spaceship. It is truly a Niagara Falls institution. Drunkenly eating my all-day breakfast I wondered whether or not I had learned anything new about Niagara. I thought about karaoke, cowboy hats, and the giant mechanical blender. I thought about all the tourists having fun and the beauty of the falls themselves. Finishing my food I came to a conclusion based, more than anything, on my gut. Having your roots in a transitory city is weird, and I still couldn’t wait to get out of Niagara Falls.
Graham Isador is a writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter.