Set against the rhythm and rituals of closing time at a café in Spain, Ernest Hemingway’s 1933 short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” features an older unnamed waiter in a losing battle to stave off his existential struggle of loneliness and despair. It isn’t difficult to reimagine a modern take on this theme —maybe “A Dank, Dirty Dive”? — taking place night after night in dive bars across America.
I was too familiar with that constant state of exhaustion and melancholy while working on my 2019 book “Last Call,” which required intensive road trips and late-night excursions to bars around the country. The manifestation of this state of being hit a surreal level on a hot summer midnight on day 12 of a 12-city road trip. I was by myself upstairs at Earnestine & Hazel’s, a historic Memphis dive that’s also known to be alive with paranormal activity, when I encountered the ghost of Russell George, the former bar owner who had taken his own life in his office above the bar a few years prior. I know you might blame this on “one too many,” but when I later mentioned this to the bartender she wasn’t at all surprised.
After “Last Call” I spent two and a half years working on a book about dive bars, but quickly learned that most dives don’t give a shit about talking to writers, let alone being featured in a book. Trying to identify, let alone actually contact, the right person to interview at these disparate dives was a Sisyphean task. There are no PR agents or websites with email contact information. Social media pages are woefully out of date and direct messages went unanswered. And when they did answer their phone (most had unlisted numbers or if they had a phone didn’t actually plug it into the wall) nothing came of my pursuit. I had to earn my bones by actually going to each of these bars, and even then it would take several visits before I introduced myself and made my intentions known. While I could take on this endeavor where I live, here in New York, this approach wasn’t feasible for cross-country research trips where I would have limited time at each destination. Time moves around a dive bar, but I had a deadline and was running out of time.
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THE TAXONOMY OF A DIVE BAR
But a more philosophical concern I wrestled with was what exactly makes a dive bar a dive bar. I spent countless hours in late-night debates with bartenders and fellow writers arguing this query with impassioned pronouncements in defense for specific venues. Everybody had an opinion of their favorite dive but rarely agreed on whether specific bars were actually dives. Take Sunny’s, the beloved Red Hook bar on the Brooklyn waterfront. It’s certainly dive-like in many aspects, but most consider it a neighborhood bar or even an art bar. I had one friend get worked up when I called Jimmy’s Corner, a long and narrow Times Square bar once owned by the late Jimmy Glenn, a famed boxing cutman and trainer, a dive. He said Jimmy’s Corner was a sports bar or, more specifically, a boxing bar. On one of several visits, the bartender who popped the cap off my Rolling Rock tall neck bottle confirmed, “Yeah, we’re a dive bar,” but only after clarifying that it was more about the history and neighborhood community and not for being dirty, dank, and dangerous.
“A dive bar is different from a neighborhood bar as a neighborhood bar is drawn from the people in the neighborhood; and what your neighborhood is, is how the bar is,” says drinks writer, historian, and dive bar aficionado David Wondrich. “A dive bar sets its own rules and draws tourists and people from all over town and all over the area that know this is a special place set aside from the world. You think of the great dive bars in New York and they were always attractions. They draw people from all over.”
For Toby Cecchni, co-owner of The Long Island Bar in Brooklyn, mistaking corner bars and taverns for dives is all too common, especially where he hails from in Madison, Wis. “Coming from where I do, you have a lot of taverns that I think people not conversant in that culture would walk into and go, oh, this is a dive bar,” he says. “There’s knotty pine on the wall and it looks kind of grotty. But to me, a dive bar is more that there’s a total lack of affectation in so far as what they’re making and what they’re purveying.”
Fellow Wisconsite and Brooklyn writer Robert Simonson, who chronicles bar culture in his Substack newsletter, “The Mix,” takes the Supreme Court’s “you know it when you see it” definition of pornography when it comes to what constitutes a proper dive. “It really is indefinable but you can rule things out,” he says. “Some of them feel downright dangerous. Others are welcoming, like a dingy old rec room.”
And while there are a lot of faux-dives out there with all the vintage trappings and none of the soul, there are plenty of bars that hit all the hallmarks of a dive but don’t consider themselves a dive. After multiple emails, texts, and unanswered phone calls, I finally introduced myself to a Brooklyn bar owner who refused to shake my hand as he was offended that I referred to his business as a dive (despite it being a perennial Top Five contender in every Best Dive Bars of NYC roundup). I explained that to me a dive was about the history, community, and years of well-earned patinia but he was still insulted. “I think if you own a dive bar you better fess up,” says Cecchni. “If you have some preconception that you have a lovely bar and you have a dive, somebody better tell you and set you straight.”
WHAT’LL YOU HAVE?
While dives are popular post-shift haunts of the hospitality industry, most bartenders aren’t hanging out there for cocktails. Beer is the law of the land, often paired with a shot. If you’re drinking cocktails they usually don’t stray from the simple spirit-plus-soda highball family and it’s perfectly acceptable, and even expected, to be served in a plastic cup. “You know you’re in a dive bar when you ask for a Negroni and the bartender tells you they’re all out of Yukon Jack,” says Matt Russell, the chef and proprietor of the Horse Inn in Lancaster, Pa. Brendan Finnerty, co-owner of the Idle Hour, a beloved Baltimore corner bar that just happens to be one of the top-selling accounts of Chartreuse on the East Coast, has a long list of tells that confirm when he’s stepped into a local dive bar, among them “an impossibly cheap beer and shot combo” along with “an unlicensed old man selling seafood out of a cooler in the corner.”
Cecchini stresses that you won’t find a well-made cocktail at a dive bar. “You cannot be a dive bar and make a beautiful Old Fashioned. You can make one but it’ll be the lowest common denominator of what they purvey,” he says. “God forbid you walk in and ask for a Corpse Reviver. They’re going to give you a total fuck you look and then you’ll need an actual corpse reviver because their version will make you want to die.”
Author Noah Rothbaum, who co-edited “The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails” with David Wondrich and is head of cocktails and spirits at Flaviar, sees the dive bar as a Venn diagram that serves as the intersection of multiple genres of local bars, whether it’s a tavern, pub, sports bar, American Legion hall, or bowling alley. “Every dive bar is quintessentially unique but the thing that joins all dive bars is that there’s always something odd about them, but it’s very hard to put your finger on what exactly is odd,” says Rothbaum. “It’s less about what makes so many dive bars similar but what separates dive bars from every other kind of bar in existence.”
Despite the surly reputation of many dive bars, Wondrich says that it’s all about leaving your ego and humility at the door. “Every great dive bar is all about if you know how to behave. If you don’t know how to behave, they can be very inhospitable.”
YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN A DIVE BAR IF….
But impassioned theorizing and spirited debate will only get you so far. In the matter of what makes a dive bar a dive bar there is irrefutable hard evidence to consider. Here, like the iconic beer and shot combo, I present a cold bottle of David Letterman-inspired “Top Ten Signs You’re in a Dive Bar” with a shot of Jeff Foxworthy “You Might Be a Dive Bar If…” folk wisdom for telltale signs that you are indeed drinking in a dive bar.
They Open Early and Stay Open Late
Even better if they never close. Or just for an hour or two between shifts to reset and run a broom through the place. True, there are professional drunks at work on the early a.m. shift, but it also caters to the flipped schedules of the neighborhood night shift, whose happy hour just happens to coincide with sunrise.
Cash Is King
Bring cash. You’ll usually find an ATM in the back of the bar (near the non-working payphone) that will save the day, but also likely ding you with a higher-than-usual withdrawal fee (and potential risk of identity theft). Most dives are a pay-as-you-drink situation, but if that’s not the case, some people are a little shocked when it’s time to settle their tab and the bar doesn’t take cards. Also read the room on whether it’s the kind of place where the bartender will keep pulling from the pile of bills on the bar near your drink or else any money on the bar after a transaction might be considered a tip and hoovered up.
There’s a Cast of Regulars
The tragedies and triumphs of the community of regulars who occupy their favorite stools are the daily ebb and flow of a favorite dive. Even at the most intimidating bars I quickly find myself in conversation with the person next to me who is eager to serve as an impromptu docent, share a bit of history about the bar, who’s who and their nicknames, and tips on navigating the law of the land. The bartenders know their favorite seats, have their drinks ready when they walk in, and when they’ve had too much to drink and need to wrap things up. One of the select privileges of regular status is if you’re short on cash, you can often settle up the next time you’re in (as long as you don’t make a habit of it).
You’re Not Ordering Anything “Fancy”
One of the undeniable charms of a dive bar is that everything is pretty cheap. A $20 bill at a cocktail bar will barely cover one drink plus a modest tip, but that same $20 will get you more bang for your buck with change to spare. While beer, shots, and simple mixed drinks are the norm, there are some bars that have carved a reputation for a speciality house cocktail. At Cafe Van Kleef in Oakland, the bowl of fresh grapefruits stacked on on the bar is used in its famous Greyhound (it sells 90 percent Greyhounds to 10 percent beer) and the Liar’s Saloon on the tip of Montauk cranks out countless Frozen Mudslides. But unless that’s the case, stick to the basics.
There Are Limited Food Options (or None Whatsoever)
One shouldn’t go to a dive bar hungry. At best, you’ll find a metal chip rack display with little bags of assorted salty snacks. There’s usually an unwritten rule that if they’re not serving food it’s OK to bring your own and that’s when a pizzeria across the street acts as a commissary to the bar. Ordering in food is often encouraged and some joints have a binder of greasy laminated menus of local restaurants behind the bar. Of course there are exceptions and a dive becomes known for a signature dish. Like hot dogs at Rudy’s Bar & Grill (free with drink purchase) in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen or the tater tot nachos at the Recovery Room Tavern in Charleston, S.C. Even regional dishes like the coddies (potato-and-crab croquettes) served at Baltimore’s Venice Tavern and the selection of pierogies at Gooski’s in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood. Two destination-worthy personal favorites are the Soul Burger at Earnestine & Hazel’s in Memphis, Tenn. and the made-to-order fried chicken and jojo potatoes at the Reel M Inn in Portland, Ore.
There’s a Jukebox
While a jukebox filled with vinyl 45s, or even CDs, is to be cherished, the more common digital jukebox is still a jukebox. If there’s an artfully curated streaming playlist on the speakers, it’s not a dive bar. The collection of records or CDs in old-school jukeboxes also reveals the musical tastes of the owner and enhances the mood of the bar like a movie soundtrack. But ultimately the dive bar jukebox is democratic. Let the people in the bar choose the music they want to listen to.
People Are Smoking
Even if it’s illegal to smoke indoors, people can’t help but reach for a pack of cigarettes when they’re in or around a dive bar. Some have grandfathered-in clauses where smoking is legal and if you’re not a smoker you will smell like one for days after. You might even find a working cigarette machine in select bars, or at least someone will ask to bum a smoke or ask for a light. And like a band of pigeons pacing over the same patch of ground, there will be a constant cluster of smokers out front. And legal or not, the distinctive smell of weed, the unofficial fragrance of most cities these days, will be present.
There Are Games of Chance
Most great dives have a well-worn green, red, or blue felt-topped pool table, ideally with a lamp branded with the local beer hanging over the table. Throughout the day and into the night it will serve as a social hub attracting couples on dates, regulars, and hustlers alike. Dart boards and the ring and hook game (Tiki Toss) are common and, if there’s room, maybe a shuffleboard set up. And if there’s a pinball machine, even better. For more off-the-record pursuits there’s dice, cards, March Madness bracket challenges and Super Bowl pools and, if they’re legal where you live, pull-tabs.
Something Unusual, Or Bad, Could Occur at a Moment’s Notice
Fights, arguments, disagreements are expected over the course of the day in many dives. Thankfully most escalations are quickly deflated and resolved with a laugh and a round of shots, though lifelong feuds and, worst case scenario, getting banned from the bar are nuclear options. As for the wild and wacky, most are unfit to print or dishonor the What Happens in the Dive Bar, Stays in the Dive Bar code, but tamer examples include “dogs running wild” and a drunken, spur-of-the- moment marriage proposal using a beer can pull-tab as an engagement ring.
It’s Sticky in Some Places and the Decor Hasn’t Changed in 30 Years
We’re not talking filthy here, though there are exceptions. Most will pass a Health Department inspection with a few minor dings. But a regular deep cleaning would certainly help. The furniture has always been there and the stools are likely in various states of patched-up disrepair. Natural light is at a minimum and the bathrooms are to be used as quickly as possible. Cheap promotional mirrors from liquor and beer brands adorn the walls along with bursts of neon here and there. And you can count on a few strings of off-season Christmas lights haphazardly draped around the bar. But that lived-in charm is all part of the experience and the enduring allure of the dive. Among all the nautical memorabilia that occupies every square inch of wall space at the historic Montero Bar & Grill in Brooklyn Heights (a former haunt of the longshoremen and visiting sailors working and docking at the Brooklyn waterfront), my favorite organic touch is that, for some reason, the unassuming wall calendar tacked up behind the bar remains turned to November 2000.