Down on North Hotel Street in Chinatown, where the old red-light-district joints have mostly been replaced by trendy spots where bearded hipsters sling craft cocktails, Smith’s Union Bar is a defiant holdout: an old-school Navy dive known for serious drinkers, cheap beer and raucous karaoke.
It’s a tradition that goes back to the 1940s, when Smith’s Union was the favored watering hole for the sailors of the USS Arizona.
“This place is living history,” said John Pfeiffer, an aviation chief with the Navy stationed in Honolulu, who was drinking at the bar on Thursday night. “For us it’s where our brothers in arms would come down and throw back a few.”
“Sailors come in here,” said Cory Weiss, a fellow Navy chief, “and they’ve been doing it forever.”
But all that soon may change. Earlier this month, the bar’s owner, a former Navy submarine hunter named Dwight Lockwood, got some bad news. His lease had expired. And his landlord was increasing his rent, from about $2,800 a month to $5,144, starting Monday.
Lockwood fears it’s a prelude to getting kicked out and replaced by a trendy new spot like the ones across the street. His landlord, Allen Stack Jr., hasn’t been willing to renegotiate a new lease, Lockwood said. Stack declined to comment.
On a recent morning, as Hotel Street was waking up around 10 a.m., young professionals were hunkered over laptops drinking lattes and cold-brewed iced coffee at Manifest, a cafe and whisky bar that’s part of Hotel Street’s new wave of businesses. USA Today recently tapped Manifest as one of the 10 best whisky bars in the U.S. thanks to an array of single malt Scotches, ryes and small-batch bourbons. And for the morning crowd, there’s coffee locally sourced from a farm on Oahu’s North Shore.
Manifest’s morning clientele was a striking contrast to the early birds across the street at Smith’s Union. At 10 a.m. a half dozen regulars were lined up at the bar where Lockwood was sipping a Pabst Blue Ribbon in a bottle and the jukebox was belting out oldies. The morning customers are decidedly blue collar, Lockwood said, and he wonders if they’ll fit in at the new neighborhood establishments if Smith’s Union shuts down.
“This is not a hipster bar,” he says. “This is real people having real drinks, making really bad decisions. It’s what we do.”
That sort of branding combined with the bar’s unique history has attracted a wide range of fans. The bar is featured on the Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau’s website and has gotten raves from publications like the Huffington Post. Smith’s Union is prominently included in a walking tour of Chinatown’s historic red light district. The Los Angeles Times featured the bar in a moving profile of Lauren Bruner, one of the last living survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona and the bar’s most revered long-time patron.
In Bruner’s days, each battleship had a bar where its sailors drank; Smith’s Union was the bar of the Arizona.
“Lauren would say it’s exactly like it was in 1940,” said Ed McGrath, another long-time fan who wrote a biography of Bruner.
“It’s not Iolani Palace or the Queen Emma’s Summer Palace,” said Carter Lee Churchfield, who runs the WWII Red Light Walking Tour. “But it’s still important.”
Opened in 1935, Smith’s Union is believed to be the oldest operating bar in Honolulu. Its first owner was Leroy Holley, a former merchant marine who leveraged his position as a Chinatown bar impresario to work as a political lobbyist.
“This is not a hipster bar. This is real people having real drinks, making really bad decisions. It’s what we do.” — Dwight Lockwood, Smith’s Union Bar owner.
After Holley died in 2003, the bar changed hands and along the way, the name was changed to Smitty’s Smith Union. When Lockwood had the chance to buy the bar in 2017, one of the first things he did was restore the name to Smith’s Union Bar.
Whether the bar will live on isn’t clear. After being contacted by Civil Beat, the bar’s landlord finally reached out to the bar’s attorney, Lockwood said. But the barman still doesn’t know if they’ll be able to work out a deal.
“I always wanted to own a bar,” Lockwood said. “And it seemed like a sure thing.”
Now he’s not so sure.
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