Dive bars are more a feeling than a theme; it’s not something you can order online and add to a building. It feels best when the collected specter of thousands of poured drinks and long nights welcomes you into the bar like an old friend.
Many people who buy older bars do what they can to exorcise these vibes to make way for their new vision—but a select few appreciate the energy of a building and do what they can to breathe new life into old bones. The proprietors of The Jesse hotel and its Estella restaurant—Piper Stremmel and her husband, Chris Reilly—along with Nicky and Dash Gopinath, are the new owners of Abby’s Highway 40 on Fourth Street, and they are doing everything they can to preserve the feeling, but give it a new groove.
When you enter Abby’s, you can’t help but feel transported to a time before smoked cocktails and cold-pressed juices. The original neon on the walls and vinyl bar stools make you feel like you are sitting with an old friend. A select few changes were made to the inside of the bar to preserve the sentiment; they have gotten rid of the stage to make room for a dedicated pool room, giving the space a roomier feel. They also cleaned and renovated the bathrooms to provide the bar with a more comfortable feel. As we all know, most dive bar bathrooms are less than welcoming.
“We intended to keep this feeling, make little tweaks, so it is more comfortable, but it was an exciting challenge for us to try to preserve the original space as much as possible,” Stremmel said. “There’s an opportunity to have much more fun in this space.”
“Fun” in a dive bar can be a subjective concept; historically, many dive bars are hives for misogyny, racism and homophobia, making the fun there only enjoyed by a few. But bar manager Kristin Harris-Inman has a plan to avoid this dive-bar stereotype.
“It comes down to the training of our staff,” she said. “Yes, it’s a dive bar, but some things are allowed in certain dive bars that won’t be allowed here. I will not tolerate it.”
Reilly elaborated on the new ownership’s goal to do everything in their power to change the perception of the bar.
“It’s something we are particularly excited about—that feeling that everyone is welcome, and we have something for everyone here, and we are going all in on it,” he said.
One of the most ambitious changes to the space is the back patio, which features two large fire pits, shade structures, the original historic oak trees, and Dumpling Queen, a renovated airstream stationary food truck. This new food concept helps fill a hole—dim sum—in Reno’s culinary scene.
“For us, it’s about continuing the energy on the street,” Reilly said when I asked him about adding food to the concept. “It’s ensuring the street has a place for all kinds of people in Reno.”
The new cocktail menu also features something for everyone: callbacks to classic dive bar drinks like dirty Tuacas, turbo Coronas and otter pop shots, which will all use better ingredients than the last time you had them at 2 a.m.
“We have a cocktail menu, but we are not taking ourselves too seriously,” Harris-Inman said. “It’s going to have that great dive-bar feel without all the dive-bar stink.”
A great bar, dive or not, is about comfort and intention. Great bar owners strive to give customers the comfort of great cocktails, a welcoming atmosphere, and the intention to treat people well and deliver thoughtful products. Few bar owners are as steadfast in bringing the folks on Fourth Street this level of intelligent joy as Stremmel and Reilly.
Stremmel put their vision in context for me: “It’s about a love of this street, and I love the work that everyone did before us that made it possible for this to happen. The buildings on this street are the best in town; they are old and beautiful and full of nothing but potential.”
I could not agree more that the new Abby’s Highway 40 is old, beautiful and full of nothing but potential.
Abby’s Highway 40 can be found at 424 E. Fourth St. in Reno. For more information, visit www.abbyshighway40.com.