Nowadays any place that isn’t a fancy-pants lounge gets pegged as a dive, usually by a slumming bohemian or a slumming office drone. Attention assorted goofballs posting on Yelp: just because a place has the ballgame on and some old dudes are nursing Coors Lights doesn’t mean it’s a dive. That is an “old man bar,” not a dive.
Just because a place offers 2 dollar PBR cans doesn’t make it a dive, either. Oddly enough, many dive bars aren’t cheap at all. Just because the owner hasn’t changed the wood paneling since 1973 doesn’t mean he hasn’t changed the prices.
The dive bar phenomena may well be at its peak now. Dive Bar Guides are being written for every major city in the US (and often include any place that has a Big Buck Hunter machine and serves domestic bottles). Faux dives that are more like frat house rec rooms are opening up all over the place (Beer pong, dude?). In truth, the era of the dive is long over. I can think of more closed dive bars than open ones. With high real estate prices in prime downtown areas driving out long time businesses and the old-time drinkers dying out, drying out, or moving to Florida, your classic dives are closing. If you want to find a place where you can drink boilermakers and pretend you’re Robert Mitchum, good luck. Even if you find some seedy shithole to scratch that itch, it probably now has an Internet jukebox.
I realize getting persnickety about what makes a real dive bar or a fake poseur dive bar is really immature and juvenile, but at a certain point one needs to draw a line in the sand, if not strictly for semantics sake. I am writing this as someone who has spent almost all of his life in the North East. So, people from other parts of the country, I have no idea about your roadhouses, honky-tonks, or juke-joints. Please take these rules of thumb and apply them to your particular environment.
To me, a real dive bar has to have most of the following:
Daytime drinkers. They are the foundation of any dive bar. Later arrivals are just additions. Your daytime newspaper readers and scratch ticket junkies provide a base upon on which all dive bar customers stand. If a place is a real shithole, they’ll open up at 8am to accommodate the hard luck cases. (Note: if a bar opens up at 8am to show a soccer game, that does NOT make it a dive; Irish and English people always drink during the day).
City Workers. In this day and age, as the traditional black and white working class graduates to menial cubical work and gets replaced by Mexicans (who have their own bar culture, thank you (often involving bars with ladies one pays to dance with)), city workers are one of the last remnants of traditional American working class drinking culture. Which is to say: cops, firefighters, mailmen, and Dept of Public Works guys still drink like fish and, yes, often during the day (being shift workers, drinking can occur anytime).
Cocaine. All these bridge workers and drywall hangers that are hanging out in any decent dive bar are fucking tired. They’ve been up since 4:30 AM and working since 6 AM and it’s 9 PM and they’ve been drinking for 5 hours and they’re starting to drag. They’d like to play some more pool and they don’t want to pass out in the middle of the Yankee game either. OK, time for some blow. Another round over here please!
Bad Lighting. Simply put, dive bars are either dark as a dungeon or as bright as an operating room. A dark bar needs no explanation, it exists to block out the outside world and serve as a timeless cave. The type of place where 3:30 in the afternoon could be 2 in the morning. However, there is the dive bar flipside: the place where the lights are always on. Usually due to a past history of violence and general troublemaking, a joint like this leaves the lights on in order to keep watch on the clientele (I miss the Cambridgeport).
Shitty Food. Many real dives have food (in some cities, bars are required to serve food). But, a real dive can’t have great food. And certainly not fancy food: no chipotle mayonnaise, no herb encrusted anything, no Emmental or Brie. And no weird fusion bullshit: no pulled pork nachos, no chicken parm sliders, no short rib tacos. Quite frankly, I don’t even want to see a Cajun chicken sandwich. Basically, we’re talking hamburgers, hot wings, nachos with Velveeta, and anything that goes into a deep fryer.
If they do food well, then it has to be one thing. Like, a place can be a dive and have a great hamburger (RIP, Tim’s), but you’d be a fool to order a shrimp salad or some such.
OK, quick last few rules of thumb… Dive Bars can have karaoke, but not trivia night. You don’t order a mixed drink with more than 2 ingredients at a dive (note: this rule does not apply to predominately African-American dive bars). You wouldn’t take your girlfriend’s father to a dive (whoops!). At least 50% of the clientele must have lived their whole lives within 2 miles of the bar (note: does not apply to bars in busy downtown areas or near bus stations).
I realize one can go to far with these pointless rules and be too stringent about what is or isn’t a dive. I have a friend like that and he won’t drink anywhere that biker gangs don’t hang out at. He’s also been stabbed twice, so go figure. I think that flirting with danger is part of the appeal of seeking out different dive bars. There is nothing so authentic as getting a bottle broken over your head because an unemployed stevedore does not like your face. And what a story to tell the grandkids about that scar! Truth be told, many dives are very unfriendly to outsiders, especially if you don’t act, look, talk, or dress like the rest of the clientele. Again, seeing if you “pass the test” (bartender serves you promptly, no one smashes your head into the sink when you use the bathroom, etc) is part of the fun.
I think that about covers it. These days I prefer to have a few beers at home rather than go out and have a moldy pitcher of Bud from some dump that hasn’t cleaned the tap lines since the Reagan era, but I just wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page with this one…