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What We Talk About When We Talk About Dive Bars

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A working definition for exactly what a dive bar is. A proposal for what makes one dive bar better than another. And a theory on why it is so tempting and sometimes difficult to keep from getting all theoretical and wordy about the most basic of all places to grab a drink.

Best Dive Bar?

Something about those three words never looks quite right. Like Best Prison. Or Best RMV. Yet in a strictly literal sense these things must be possible. There are prisons that are better at being prisons than other prisons. Certainly there are better prisons to be in than other prisons. And there simply have to be RMVs that are better at being RMVs than every single one I have ever been in or heard of. And so there must be dive bars that are better at being dive bars.

But what does that even mean? In order to answer this, you first have to know what exactly makes a bar a dive. And a quick glance around the internet for "Dive Bar" defined, yields the following results:

"A well-worn, unglamorous bar, often serving a cheap, simple selection of drinks to a regular clientele. The term can describe anything from a comfortable-but-basic neighborhood pub to the nastiest swill-slinging hole." – Urban Dictionary

"A dive bar is an informal bar or pub. Such bars are sometimes referred to as neighborhood bars, where local residents gather to drink and socialize. Individual bars may be considered to be disreputable, sinister, or even a detriment to the community." – Wikipedia

"A shabby and disreputable establishment (as a bar or nightclub)." – Merriam-Webster

There are lots more. In fact the sheer number of articles and message boards and forums trying to define the dive bar only underlines the difficulty of the challenge. Almost all of them, along with being pretty general with their terminology, point in the same direction. Namely, down. Broadly defining a dive bar as basically the lowest rung of quality in the drinking universe. Which is why the very idea of "Best Shabby and Disreputable Establishment" is problematic. If a dive is always shabby, then is it possible to be better by being shabbier? Can a place be better than another by being less-reputable? And if so, wouldn’t the award for Best Dive Bar actually go to the worst dive bar? And then wouldn’t the defined Worst Dive Bar be in other more familiar ways, the best? It’s all very confusing.

I submit that the problem stems from the way we define a dive bar to begin with. And I further submit (as humbly as is possible when making such a statement) that all of the above definitions and just about every other definition I’ve ever come by are fundamentally wrong and almost entirely miss the point of what a dive bar actually is.

Here’s my case for why:

There are dives with and without music. Dives with and without food. There are old falling-down dives, and there are brand new dives. There are dark, silent dives, and there are bright loud dives (mostly by the ocean).

To start with, what makes a dive bar so difficult to define is that it is mostly about feel. (Like irony and Americana, we know it when we see it but have trouble putting that recognition into words.) This gets tricky because most definitions of dive bars set themselves up as a kind of physical inventory or checklist. A bar is a dive if it has a jukebox (or no music); if it doesn’t have food (or does); if it is hard to find (or not) and so on. Something that is easy enough to do with, say, an oyster bar, but doesn’t really work when it comes to dives. Because there are bars we recognize as unquestionably dive-ish that manage to contradict all of these parameters. There are dives with and without music. Dives with and without food. There are old falling-down dives, and there are brand new dives. There are dark, silent dives, and there are bright loud dives (mostly by the ocean). There are tiny hole-in-the-wall five-seat dives, and there are sprawling three-bar dives. Dr. Seuss, after a few pops, could have done much with the subject.

It would be much easier if this were not the case. As it is the lack of tangible, irrefutably defining traits is exactly what both makes the dive bar debate so interesting and also allows it to get kind of philosophical in a hurry, and can lead (especially if one is having this debate in a dive bar) to all sorts of navel-gazing vaguely socio-economic theories that themselves require further definition and therefore only lead one further away from any kind of definite answer.

All of which seems, to my mind, unnecessary. When the real answer is far simpler. It is single concept, based on a single word. And that word is:


You see, your true dive bar is not really making one. Or much of one. Or, perhaps a bit more generously, is not making much of an effort beyond the minimum required to service its guests with drinks. And that is it. That is the single, all-purpose litmus test definition for whether or not a bar is a dive. In practice it works something like this:

  • The dive bar employs exactly as many employees as necessary, and no more. Their style of service (if you will) may be brusque, it may be jovial, it may be anything in between, but it will be honest. It will basically be who they are, as people. To act otherwise takes effort. For most people drinking in a dive this is not a problem, and you take service how it comes. But you can be sure the dive bar is not going to be bothered much by a nasty little Yelp review disparaging its service. Mostly because they will never see it. Following and dissecting and fretting over Yelp reviews taking a particularly unproductive brand of effort.
  • The dive bar stocks the drinks it can most easily serve. This means that if their Irish whiskey is Jameson, their Irish whiskey will always be Jameson. Repeat orders require less effort than new products. And you will not see the bartender of a dive sitting down with a liquor rep tasting through Japanese scotches. (Way too much effort.)
  • The dive bar invests exactly as much money as required to keep the door open and to keep paid drinks full. If something is broken (say, a hand dryer) but does not immediately impede one’s ability to come in pay for a drink and leave, it will not be fixed any time soon. This includes but is not limited to: lights, clocks, door handles, door locks, pretty much anything at all to do with the Men’s, and most characteristically, signage. It doesn’t mean a bar has to have things falling apart to be a dive, or that things are not broken without being fixed in non-dive bars. It does mean that things in a dive that happen to be broken, look to have been broken for some time.

All of which goes a long way towards explaining why it is so difficult to define a dive bar by the method of inventorying various elements. If their bar did not have music to begin with, it won’t have it now. And if it does, it probably means it either came with the place or the owner got a deal on a used jukebox (installation included). Maybe there’s a cousin who distributes video poker? Alright, it’ll have video poker. If they have a small kitchen and can hire someone cheap to cook, there’ll be food. But one can be assured that the prep-time will be extremely minimal. Ditto the plating. There may be televisions, but they will likely either be some off-brand model or very old, and the channel and volume will be more or less set for the decade. Small dive bars started small and will always be small (expansion takes massive effort). Large dive bars were almost always something other than a dive bar before they were sold and left pretty much as is until they reached the identifiable state of disinterested stasis that defines their dive-ness. Newer dive bars are built with the least amount of the cheapest materials required to facilitate seated drinking, will be decorated with chalkboards and mirrors and clocks that scream I-came-free-with-a-ten-case-drop-of-Budweiser (non-dive bars are often above taking free stuff from reps in exchange for an order; the true dive bar, less so), and will stay that way with the minimal repair and maintenance required by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts until they either go out of business, or become old dive bars.

Perhaps an example will illustrate the point.

It attracts its few clients here and there but mostly it stays open by never spending a dollar it doesn’t have to.

Say there’s some shiny new place opening up in the "it" neighborhood of the moment. Big name chef, bold-faced bartenders, gastro-whatever-fusion, and hip-to-the-minute décor. It has a great sound system, a flight of high-end flat screens, the latest technology in ordering and payment and whatever. You get the idea. The point is they start with everything you need to not be a dive bar. Namely a big effort to get noticed and drive business. Now fast forward ten years. Neither the place nor the neighborhood are still hip; it is hemorrhaging staff and money; and the owners have decidedly moved on from their restaurateur phase (to produce films or whatever). So they sell. And they sell cheap. The last few years have been particularly difficult so there hasn’t been a lot in the way of repairs. Or cleaning. And so the new owner (singular) does exactly what it takes to open up; going with one bartender instead of four, cutting out everything but the basics of the bar, and serving a limited all-day menu. The televisions still work, mind you. The tech, a generation behind, still exists. The place still looks new-ish though now a bit retro. It opens. It attracts its few clients here and there but mostly it stays open by never spending a dollar it doesn’t have to. Not to attract guests. Not to make itself more appealing. And certainly not to re-brand itself as anything other than a place that serves drink. This—by definition—is now a dive bar.

Now, to say something or someone is not really making an effort comes off, in our culture and certainly in our country, as pretty strong criticism if not an outright condemnation. But in this context, it is meant to be a respectful compliment.

To explain why is going to tread precariously close to the kind of theoretical moralizing I warned about above, but it is worth the risk and here’s why:

Because we are pretty much all set with the update. Because we are not wanting for the new version. Because we no longer have to wait more than a few months (or weeks) for the proverbial next big thing. They come hurtling at us in a feverish attempt to gain our attention and subsequent admiration, both of which have become entirely spoiled by all sorts of very smart people spending all kinds of time and money trying to repeatedly get our increasingly short attention and increasingly fickle admiration. And it is all just straining with effort. And it all has to keep straining because there is going to be something on the other side of town or other channel straining with even more effort to block out all those other efforts.

Not so the dive bar.

The dive bar is one of the very few businesses not really making an effort to get your attention.

The dive bar is one of the very few businesses not really making an effort to get your attention. And if we’re really getting down to it, the dive bar—in the nicest possible way—simply does not give a shit about your admiration. Respect, yes. Admiration, no.

Which brings us all the way back to why Best Dive Bar is a problem. Because the dive bar may be the only bar out there not even remotely interested in winning such honors. It’s just not in its makeup. (Don’t believe me? Next time a real neighborhood dive picks up some Best Dive Bar award try going in and congratulating the bartender on their victory—preferably Elf-style—and let me know how that works out.) The dive bar is not, by nature, competitive.

(Think about that statement for just a moment, in the context of the entire rest of the restaurant and bar universe. Starting to understand why the lack-of-effort bit is in a way complimentary?)

And yet still, having begun by stating that the idea of Best Dive Bar still exists for us, as patrons, we are brought back to the question of how to evaluate which dive bars are better at being dive bars. Even if they are not interested in the question themselves. So then what make the Best Dive Bar? How can a bar be the best at making the least effort?

Because the best dive bars are the dive bars you can count on. The ones that are there when you need a drink, and nothing else.

By doing what it does consistently and reliably. Not for months, but for years. Because the best dive bars are the dive bars you can count on. The ones that are there when you need a drink, and nothing else. And that you can count on to be there in more or less the same way whether it was last May or this morning or ten years from Tuesday. The whole lack of effort is tied into a basic business model that is so simple and so efficient that the best dive bars remain open for generations, never needing to flip the menu or hire new staff or even remove the now illegal circa-1982 cigarette machine gathering dust in the corner. They simply do what they do. They open and serve drinks. Which is why the best dive bars are the ones that have been consistently there for people when they need a drink for the longest amount of time. It’s that simple.

And this is why we offer our definition with total respect for the dive bar. Because in a world of incessant strain to be something newer and better, of continual movement and transition and keeping up, in a world saturated with the effort of constantly becoming, the dive bar—like it or not, take it or leave—simply is. It is what it is. It is what it was. It is what it always will be, as long as the door is still open and there’s a place to set a drink.

Honestly and yes, effortlessly.

Image: Shutterstock/S_Photo

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