If it looks like a dive, smells like a dive, and feels sticky like a dive, is it really a dive bar? Not always. An increasing number of regular bars around the country—I’m looking your way, Brooklyn—are masquerading as dive bars to attract young people craving a touch of seediness without any risk of Tetanus. It’s a reasonable niche, but it comes at a price. The explosion of imposters serving $8.00 Narragansett and employing bartenders too young to have firsthand opinions about the Gulf War has diluted the term “dive bar” to little more than a Yelp category. A true dive would never be highly rated on the internet—in fact, a true dive would scarcely appear on the web at all.
What Makes a Dive Bar a Dive Bar?
A friend once defined a dive bar as a place you’d never take a date. With all due respect to him, he’s unforgivably wrong. The real list of bona fides is more complicated.
For one, a dive bar can be a suitable place to take a date so long as you and said date are looking for the same thing: a refuge. If nothing else, dive bars are havens for people looking to deaden their thoughts or to numb their feelings. They’re places for folks who’ve had enough of the outside world and want to unwind. If that’s what you and your date are looking for, then hop to it.
Drinking at a dive bar can be either a communal experience or a solitary one. When you first enter, for example, the bartender should introduce his or herself by name. Then they should fill your order and not speak to you again unless you’ve indicated that you’re looking for conversation. The same goes for the other patrons. The key here is balance and delicacy: knowing when to be social and when to shut up. Respect is paramount at a dive bar. Don’t hassle and you won’t be hassled.
For this reason, you should feel like you’re interrupting something when you walk into a dive bar. If you enter during the day—say, 2:30 PM on a weekday, the hour of a dive’s purest expression—then you’ll need to shut the door quickly because sunlight is never welcome in a real dive bar. If it’s your first time, you’ll be met with strange glances as the patrons size you up, waiting for you to embarrass yourself by ordering a frozen drink. The longer you stick around, the more amenable the clientele will become. This game rewards endurance. If you stick around all night, you’ll have a new family.
Lest all this sound like ruin porn to you, or nostalgia tourism, just remember: the glue holding many dive bars together is honesty—honesty of feeling (either good or bad) and honesty of intent. You’re here to drink or you’re here to escape. You’re here to celebrate or you’re here to rue. Be true and you’ll be rewarded; come in expecting entertainment and fodder for Instagram, and you’ll look like a jerk.
If the Bar Has These Things, It’s Not a Dive Bar
Bars these days have become bloated entertainment centers, carrying all sorts of amenities like flat screen TVs, arcade systems, and board games. It’s as though the art of casual drinking in and of itself is no longer enough to keep us occupied.
Not so at a dive bar, which should have almost none of these things. The reason you’re here is to order a drink and to drink that drink; that’s it. A true dive bar should not have more than one television. It shouldn’t have a pinball machine. The most recent item on its jukebox should be at least five years old. Asking for a cocktail menu should draw a snort. In most of the country, dive bars shouldn’t serve food, but I’m told that some cities—such as Portland—require that all bars do; in these cases, the bartender at a true dive bar should dissuade you from ordering any.
Names are also important. The best dive bars tend to bear just one person’s name. Perhaps the words “Inn,” “Lounge,” or “Tavern” have been appended. The point is that a true dive bar should never be named anything clever. (And the place better not sell t-shirts.) That kind of forethought or marketing savvy is anathema to the almost accidental way most dive bars come to be.
Here's How to Not Act a Fool in a Dive Bar
The quickest way to expose yourself as a novice is to struggle with your drink order. An order at a dive bar should never change—a shot and a beer, for example—and you should be able to order with confidence. My go-to pairing is Jim Beam and a bottle of Bud, but feel free to incorporate tequila or vodka as well. Ordering rum at a dive bar is a universal red flag, and ordering gin shots anywhere is psychotic. For the beer component, you should never stray from the cheapest varietals. Go elsewhere for that Lagunitas, pal; instead, acquaint yourself with such hard-to-find, I-can’t-believe-they-still-make-these cans as Genesee, Stroh's, or Hamm’s.
Here Are Five Suggestions for True Dives Across the Country
By now you might be wondering: what places fit such an extensive bill? While the nineteen places listed on this website in 2013 are each fine places, few of them totally comply with my rubric. So if you’ve read this far and are still interested in experiencing a real dive in person, give these five spots a try:
Bar, Baltimore, MD
Remember what I said about how dive bars shouldn’t pay too much attention to their names? Voilà. Entering this east Baltimore gem takes you back to the days of sneaking into your high school friend’s garage to crush beers before their parents got home.
Pappy’s, Ft. Pierce, FL
You have to respect a place that earns a one-star Yelp review from the kind of person who’d write this: “Tha happy hour lures em in but, it's whack on so many levelz....frum tha lack of non smokin' women in there 2 tha PMS-ey b1tchy bartender who's turnin' ppls selection off of tha jukebox if she don't like tha song. I'd givit half a star if I knew how....I'm Applebee's is not 2 far away :D”
O’Rourke’s, Lincoln, NE
The bartenders here relish any opportunity to skip your songs on the jukebox, and that’s a good thing, because nobody wants to hear whatever stupid thing you were about to play.
Snake & Jake’s, New Orleans, LA
The secret is out about this place, and it violates my rule about having a website and favorable internet ratings, but even all that considered, this is still one of the truest dive bars in the country. (Chalk the rating up, perhaps, to the fact that New Orleans is a city that can appreciate a good dive.) Last Mardi Gras, a bartender here gave me a free shot of Booker’s because I told someone to put their phone away.
Bikini Lounge, Phoenix, AZ
This place serves Mai Tais (not dive-y) but they’re served out of a bucket (very dive-y). Also the bartenders have been known to leave so they can run to Jack In the Box, leaving only a bar-back and one lucky(?) patron in charge.
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