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Deep Dives: Feeling (Almost) at Home at the Last Stop Sports Bar in Winooski

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Kitty Kitty - RYAN MILLER
  • Ryan Miller
  • Kitty Kitty

"You're not from around here, are ya?" My interrogator, sporting a sterling silver grill and a cluster of stick-and-poke face tattoos, wasn't entirely wrong. I mean, technically, my house was only four miles away, which should qualify as "here." But perhaps spiritually he was onto something?

This was my third solo dive bar mission in as many days, and I was just easing in, my otherness apparently palpable. This adventure began when I stumbled into a humble Colchester bar for lunch earlier in the week and immediately was taken with the atmosphere — convivial, accessible and disarmingly regular. Despite my being a relentless explorer of many things Vermont, the neighborhood bar scene wasn't my beat. But after 20 minutes of easy bullshitting with my new tatted buddy, the path forward was clear: Green Mountain dive bar crawl, here we come.

Thus was born a new series, "Deep Dives." The goal: to explore weird and wonderful local watering holes throughout the Green Mountains, meet the folks who populate both sides of the bar and, just maybe, figure out what the hell makes a dive bar a dive bar anyway.

Hoping to go beyond the Burlington-area standbys with which I was already passingly familiar (Esox, the Other Place, the Old Post, the Olde Northender Pub, T. Rugg's Tavern), I called my pal Johnny, a noted man of the people, and asked where I could track down an authentic, weird-ass dive bar.

"Oh man, the Last Stop in Winooski," he replied. "They have a cat that lives on the bar."

Yup, seemed about right.

The Last Stop Sports Bar has had many lives as a local pub, beginning in the 1950s in only half the space it currently occupies. It eventually morphed into the Trackside Tavern, which took over the building next door and garnered a reputation as a good place to procure substances less than legal. New ownership in 2011 begat CK's Sports Bar, and while the name above the door may have changed, the regulars have served as ballast.

That brings us to the current incarnation, established in 2017 by Shannon Garrett and Shayla Ruland, whose brother-in-law was a previous owner of CK's. Garrett and Ruland both worked at CK's when an opportunity arose to buy the place.

"I immediately called her and was like, 'Well, why don't we do it? Like, we've already been kind of doing it,'" Ruland recalled. They renamed the bar after a Dave Matthews song, pulled up the carpets (!) and gave the place what Ruland called "a woman's touch."

Daily specials board - RYAN MILLER
  • Ryan Miller
  • Daily specials board

Located blocks from the commercial center of the Winooski speedway — aka the traffic circle — the Last Stop is tucked unassumingly in the middle of a residential neighborhood, "a sus bar on the other side of the tracks," one regular explained. In many ways, it presents like something directly out of Dive Bar Monthly: pool table, popcorn machine, patrons' photos on the walls, phone booth-size bathrooms oozing funk and graffiti scars.

Things get slightly more bespoke with drink combos like the Dew Bomb (Mountain Dew and Absolut Pears, obviously) and a giant Connect Four game. But the bar's most notable feature may be the ubiquitous presence of the aforementioned bar cat, Kitty Kitty.

"She usually picks one lap a night, and it looks like you're it," quipped the bartender, Andy James Scafidi, as the cat settled onto my companion's lap. Eyes were closed (the cat's, not my pal's) and, just like that, a friendship made. Magic.

Kitty Kitty "came with the bar," according to Ruland, and justifiably has the run of the place.

"When the bar changed hands, I got more emails, texts, phone calls about Kitty Kitty than about the bar," Ruland said. "'Is Kitty Kitty OK? Is she staying? Does she need a home?' And I'm like, 'No, she's staying.'"

The cat is a sweet and welcoming touch — a fuzzy animal sauntering through a sea of half-empty pint glasses and beer bottles in search of the perfect human to claim for the evening. I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere.

Andy James Scafidi - RYAN MILLER
  • Ryan Miller
  • Andy James Scafidi

Scafidi, too, is a trip. He's instantly likable and obviously in flow with his role as unofficial cruise director. I have a theory that the vibe of a dive bar emanates from the energy of its bartenders, and this particular power source is bright, hospitable, and wrapped in a layer of gentle snark and street smarts.

He swore off all motorized vehicles for nine years (minus two trips in cop cars) and lived a thousand lives in Maui, Hawaii; New Orleans; Marfa, Texas; New Jersey; Oregon and probably a dozen other places. His CV is similarly wackadoodle: painter, cook, sailing instructor, afterschool teacher and, wait for it, "tickle porn actor" — a different article for a different time, I suppose.

I was a little nervous to drop the word "dive" when speaking with Ruland, but she embraces the association.

"I actually love the term 'dive bar,'" she said. "I think it's great. I think there's something, like, nostalgic about it."

"It's like the rec center in fucking college or something," Scafidi added. "A home base, somewhere you go when you have nowhere to go. And a lot of people, you know, don't have somewhere to go. That's what a dive bar is."

When I press Scafidi and Ruland to define what makes the Last Stop different from other dives, two words keep surfacing: family and community.

"It's not a bar to me; it's more like a family situation," Ruland said. "We all kind of look out for each other."

Pull-tab tickets - RYAN MILLER
  • Ryan Miller
  • Pull-tab tickets

Over the years, the Last Stop has opened its doors for Thanksgiving dinners for the unhoused and Angel Tree benefits at Christmas. It's hosted dog adoption events and organized a charity golf tournament, donates annually to Pride Week, and sponsors the men's and women's Burlington Rugby Football Club, whose scrum I seem to find there more often than not.

"It wasn't 'Let's open a bar and run a bar'; it was like, 'Let's do something for the people we've met here; let's give back to the community,'" Ruland explained. "And this is a great thing, a great venue to do it."

The best dive bars function as social anchors. They are living rooms, therapists' offices, pool halls and safe spaces. This is what sociologist Ray Oldenburg deems a "third place," a location where people spend most of their time after home (first place) and work (second place).

Third places often are critical components of a neighborhood and are as important as a person's house or job. The creation and curation of these spaces aren't accidental. Similar to other major public-facing institutions, they're the result of careful consideration and respect for their customers.

Popcorn and a cocktail - RYAN MILLER
  • Ryan Miller
  • Popcorn and a cocktail

Not to say the Last Stop is all Marcel Proust and Noam Chomsky — it is a dive bar, after all. There are occasional scuffles and a dozen or so ne'er-do-wells who have been permanently eighty-sixed. But, ultimately, the Last Stop is a home away from home, a playful, nonhierarchical joint you roll into for a $3.50 pint of Bud Light and an easy conversation with the dude sitting next to you.

When asked if he had any secret tips to controlling a room, Scafidi offered this wisdom: "If there's a fight about to happen, I'm not gonna play the Rocky theme song. But when people start dancing, put on 'Regulate' by Warren G. That's the song. Pump it up a little, put on 'Regulate' and bingo bango, you got a fucking dance party!"

I mentioned to Ruland that in my half dozen visits in the last week or so, I've come to truly appreciate her spot and started to almost feel at home.

"I'm glad that you feel welcome," she replied. "And, you know, maybe you could be part of the Last Stop family."

And just like that, a friendship made. Bingo bango.

"Deep Dives" is a series exploring Vermont dive bars and the communities around them. Got a dive bar we should know about? Email culture@sevendaysvt.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Gang's All Here"

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