What Makes A Dive Bar…Dive-y?


“Can I borrow your lighter?” You’ll hear if you stand outside for more than a minute. A distinct smell of cigarettes hangs in the air outside the place and never seems to leave. You probably can’t see the inside from the outside. Curtains covers 80% of the windows, or they are stuffed with signs from crappy domestic beer brands, or some form or Irish alcohol product.

Wandering in and out are the lost souls of your neighborhood: the tortured souls, those in pain, those always seeming to want to run away from something. There is no karaoke, no chicks in tight dresses doing shots at the bar for girl’s night. No, this is a place of refuge from the modern world. A place full of your new best friends.

I think a Dive Bar is a distinctly American thing. A place with a name like “O’Connor’s” or “Rose’s” or something. Inexpensive drinks, a building verging on disrepair, filled with locals, and many times cash-only. In my research, I learned that this concept exists in parts of Europe where they are known as brown pubs. In looking into why it’s called a brown pub, the story is not too interesting but makes total sense if you have spent time in one, the interior is typically made of dark brown wood and has low lighting. But as mentioned, the American Dive Bar is a distinct thing.

But what makes a good dive bar?

What makes a good dive bar?

To some, drinking in a dive bar is a sign that things aren’t going too well in your life. You have a problem. Why would a person such as you be in a place where the carpet sticks to your feet as you walk? It’s filled with the alleged dredges of society. But a dive bar can be fun, and if you are a habitual drinker, the most cost-effective way to get a couple pops without bleeding your wallet dry. So, what makes a good dive bar?

1. The Regulars

I’ve met old plumbers who micro-dose acid and sit in there playing Keno like it is a sport. Guys who fabricate marijuana bowls out of stainless steel pilfered from their dairy conveyor factory job that look straight out of science fiction novels.

As you get to know them, they become almost a new set of friends that yell your name when you walk through the door. And as you sit there, you wonder where one of them is if they aren’t there on a typical Tuesday night.

You can be in a standard bar and never encounter the same face again. It’s sort of sad, makes drinking feel like a lonely activity. Maybe it should be. But in a dive, that place is a family of support.

2. The Bartender

The bartender is the listener of sorrows. The bastion of wisdom. The one you can ask for a horror movie recommendation or if they know a good roofing guy (who is probably a customer himself).

More importantly, the bartender isn’t some person who is dismissive of you as you become a regular yourself. They put the effort into remembering what you order and have it at the ready. There is an old thought that the bartender should be salty, angry, dismissive and even rude to patrons. To this end I’ll say, fuck your dive bar.

3. Activities


You can’t exactly shoot pool in your typical bar and grill. But you can at the dive. You can bet money on the game, or win a couple drinks if you wager. A good dive should have, at minimum, a pool table or a dart board. Hopefully both, since I am a monster at darts. I’ve seen giant digital golf games, you don’t need to go that far. Just something simple to do. We don’t need cornhole and shuffle board, leave that to your local microbreweries.

4. The Crappy Food Menu (Or Lack Thereof)


The menu where the pages a somewhat stuck together. You won’t be seeing QR code menus. The food on the menu will be basically this: cheese steak eggrolls, mozzarella sticks, fries, chicken wings, burgers with speckled blue mold on the bun, maybe chili.

Maybe there is no food menu, and there is only standard chips and pickled eggs available. Ah, the Polish-American club.

Even though the food sounds terrible and you have no interest in eating any of it, due to either disinterest or simply thinking it will make you feel like shit (it will), you will eventually relent and order something. At some point, a basket of curly fries or honey barbeque wings pumped full of water will sit before you to take you to a world of intestinal discomfort and wondering why you torture yourself when you wake up in the morning.

5. Cheap Drinks

One of the major reasons people even go to a dive bar is that the beers are dirt cheap. You can go to a brewery and get a beer for $6-8. A bar can charge you $7-11 bucks. But a dive bar? You can get a draft beer for $6 or less. A bottled beer for $2-4 bucks. A mixed drink for $7. Good luck getting a “craft cocktail” at the newest noodle bar where you get a 4 ounce drink for $16.

But a note on draft beer. Typically these places will be rather lackadaisical with cleaning their draft lines. You’ll get off tasting lagers, flat IPAs, and beer that bloats you and makes your stomach hurt. If you are going to a dive, stick with a bottle, tallboy, or a cheap whiskey sour or vodka soda with a splash of cranberry juice. It’ll go great with a bag of sour cream and onion chips.

6. Darkness


If it’s a nice day out, and you walk in a dive only for your eyes to somewhat struggle to adjust to seeing what’s inside, that’s a true dive bar. It should be dark, dingy, and paneled with dark wood. The place should be lit with televisions and neon beer signs.

When you walk outside for fresh air, the sunlight should sting your eyes. Or the moon should be bright enough that you think to yourself “damn, the moon is bright tonight”. It’s not. You were just in a basement.

7. Dated Décor


You should see dark paneled wainscoting, warped floors, duct tape on the bathroom door. Fake antiques, picture frames drilled into the wall in multiple spots straight through the frame into the wall. Sticky table that rock back and forth. If there is an outside, there should be an umbrella that is tattered, with mildew or a hole forming in it.

There might be fake plants, a weird statue of Charlie Chaplin, a picture of fake relatives purchased at a thrift store.

8. Bathrooms That Resemble Crime Scenes


The bathroom should be an experience to remember. It might involve three confusing turns through a door labeled “bathroom” as you wonder who the hell designed the space, or what the place was before that this is the most logical way to set up the bathroom. The door probably does’nt lock. The toilet stall, if it has one, dosen’t have a door. The toilet is stained with piss, and a shotgun blast of shit in the back of the bowl. Zebra stripes spiraling down the bowl at the very least. The floor is perpetually wet, and you pretend it isn’t piss. There is graffiti-like symbology all over the stall doors with sharpie markers. Crusted boogers dug between the tilework. There is likely no toilet paper, and if there is, the dispenser is marked with scratches from a pocket knife. And the toilet paper leaves something to be desired. Less than half ply, that disintegrates immediately upon hitting any form moisture.

The sink is a porcelain sink that you’d see in an older home from the 70’s. You don’t want to touch the handle. You’ll use the back of your wrist or a paper towel, because come on – it’s not like it is motion activated. Good luck getting soap out of the dispenser.

Conclusion

Dive bars are for the sophisticated. And by sophisticated, I mean fucked up. It’s the last stop of your alcoholism journey before you hopefully wake up and realize that you need to change your life. Because if you spend too much time here, you become the eternal local. The one that gets the ceremonial barstool dedicated to them when they die. You guy who walks in looking like he’s 20+ years older than he actually is and thinks duct taping his shoes together is perfectly normal.

Spending a lot of time in dive bars is an eye opening experience. Or at least it should be. For many drunks, this is their last stop. The one where they eventually wake up and realize that they need to stop drinking or become a part of a culture that can be downright sad. Maybe they take it a step further and begin to drink by themselves in their garage.

But to others, it’s a fraternal organization or a family that supports themselves where they have nowhere else to turn. Those that you befriend here tend to be kindhearted deep down, and willing to help, or at the very least, listen. And sometimes that’s all someone needs. Someone to listen to their problems or at the very least to be heard. A dive bar can be a good thing, but do so in moderation, just like drinking. The spiral down can be sad, and your mornings can be filled with hurting bowels, headaches, and regret.

Oh, they also can be good places to get laid, did I mention that?

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