This essay primarily deals with what a dive bar IS. I’ve also written a companion piece on what a dive bar DOES.
A quick google will reveal many opinions on, and lengthy articles built around, what actually constitutes a dive bar. I’ve probably read most of them. None (at least in my opinion) have properly nailed it. As a veteran of umpteen dives, and the long-standing custodian of a quintessential dive, I feel well placed to put this mule out to pasture.
Most attempts to define the phenomenon make a big deal about adhering to certain specific attributes: “A dive must have this and should have these, but cannot under any circumstances have one of those.” Yada yada yada. It’s largely nonsense. Right from the outset, let’s put paid the common misconception that a dive is a rundown bar full of low life. Nope, the correct term to describe that sort of establishment is “a dump”. A dive on the other hand is: “a bar that anyone can enter and expect not to be openly judged, no matter what they get up to… provided that they largely mind their own business.” Everyone in a dive bar has one thing in common – once inside they are all equal. If a well behaved bum would feel out of place in a certain establishment, then clearly that place isn’t a dive bar. Therefore, a dive isn’t so much defined by the fixtures & fittings, as by its awareness of, and approach to, this egalitarian ethos.
Such an environment necessitates certain material considerations, such as darkness and hard wearing fixtures and fittings, which hint at the all important diveyness that permeates the experience. It is these traits that the uninitiated mistake for clues as to the taxonomy. To get a feel for this, it’s easier to approach the archetypal dive bar, then discuss how various real world features may diverge from that blueprint without impinging on the divey status.
The archetypal dive bar might be called something like The Riptide Tavern. The name will typically conjure up a vague element of danger, the sort of subtle discouragement that assholes intuitively pick up on… and then think better than to chance entry. There is one thing that a true dive bar can never be named, and that is “Dive Bar”. The eponymous “Dive Bar” is a farby faux facsimile at best, somewhere for for scenesters to live out the fantasy of being inherently cool as opposed to the store-bought variety of coolness. The stubborn denial of any discernible distinction between the two, is apparently fundamental to the whole phenomenon of being “scene”. Word play, such as “Hi-Dive” is absolutely acceptable though, and even somewhat desirable. There is no rule stating that a dive must retain the same name forever. Some dives have been renamed several times over the years, and not necessarily coinciding with a change of ownership. The name itself is largely incidental, and there even exist dives that neglect to feature any obvious external signage.
Ideally a dive would be located somewhere close to the city’s epicentre, but ever so slightly off the beaten track… however it could just as easily be a neighbourhood bar located in a suburb, or a roadside tavern in the middle of nowhere. The only place that a dive conceivably could not be sited, would be inside a modern shopping mall, or as part of a chain hotel. If a dive bar is encountered next to a scene bar, or in the midst of a gentrified area, then one can be assured that the dive predates its neighbours by at least a few decades.
A dive will usually look either slightly run down, or not quite in keeping with it’s surroundings. This might mean anything from faded or peeling paintwork, to a gaudy frontage, or just a flat roofed carbuncle that strikes one as plain architecturally incongruous.
The archetypal dive would either feature minimal windows, opaque windows, or a total lack of windows altogether. However there are no actual rules pertaining to windows. The issue around windows has more to do with ambient lighting requirements, and the privacy of those within. Windows are also prone to vandalism, expensive to replace, necessitate regular cleaning, and present a security risk. For those reasons the proprietors may have opted to minimise their vistas. Boarded up windows are more likely to be indicative of a dump than a dive. Just to recap… in a dump, aside from being openly judged, there’s a very real risk of being openly stabbed. A dump =/= a dive. Oh fuck no!
Dives often take in the appearance of a place that time forgot. If a nuclear warhead detonated within the immediate vicinity, then a dive would be the only building to appear significantly unaffected by the blast. A good dive may also feature outmoded, and often elaborate or ornate, yet timeless, vestiges of popular culture, such as an external neon sign, gaudy murals, or a tacky plastic sculpture of a grizzly bear anchored to the roof.
Most dives are dark. Daylight is usually discouraged, although on particularly nice days the doors may be propped open, mostly either to change the air, or to show how nice and dark it is inside. Lighting is often provided as a side effect of neon signage. These signs are actually pretty durable items, they never fade, and there’s even one which has reputedly remained lit for over 75 years. Lightbulbs on the other hand are notoriously fickle devices. Some dive bar custodians can become obsessive about lighting, others only notice a malfunction when the darkness becomes absolute. Coloured lighting is commonplace and, more to the point, desirable because it makes everyone better looking, and mitigates the need for redecorating. Not all dives feature coloured lighting, but very few are harshly lit. Furthermore, nobody necessarily forgot to take down the Christmas lights, perhaps they simply afforded an easy and cost effective means of implementing coloured lighting. Again, there are no hard and fast rules, just a broad church of norms.
There’s usually a scent. It’s a welcoming mixture of booze and smoke… even if smoking isn’t permitted. It’s the reassuring after-stench of a party that’s spanned several decades, and which will gradually permeate the clothing of all who chance entry.
The interior will be hard wearing. Everything is there to endure heavy and unrelenting usage over a lengthy timespan. Dives are rarely precious about their fixtures, and seldom fret about their integrity. Some subscribe to the false economy of doing the place over in the cheapest way possible, others play the long game. The only difference is in how quickly the much vaunted patina develops, and how long before the fittings are rendered unserviceable. The best dives are fabricated from inherently tough materials such as leather, hardwood, steel, and linoleum, but that’s purely a pragmatic decision. Most budgets only extend to softwood, vinyl, and formica. Should a seat cover tear, then its either left torn, or more likely duct taped shut. Some dives duct tape everything from new, others sneer at such practices, deeming them to be ‘farby’ (fake and contrived).
Somewhat counterintuitively, there’s a high degree of bespokeness present in dive bar interiors. In an age increasingly dominated by a national and global chains, dive bars generally hark back to a time where imagination was still considered a virtue, and few types are more imaginative that the oft bored shitless dive bar custodian. The interesting thing with these individuals is that they seldom leave their own gin joints. Their mind, such as it is, remains untarnished by developments elsewhere, or even the dawn of a new millennium. They are left with nothing to copy, and so their imagination is free to run riot.
Strangely, where such types are concentrated into a local neighbourhood, they all know one another. It might be forty years since they last clapped eyes on each other, or communicated in person, but communicate they do via Chinese whisper. Therefore there often remains an imperative to “out do” their peers in an arms race of style veering from sublime to extreme. Hence one may enter a dive bar to encounter such aesthetic rarities as tap handles moulded out of butt plugs, or a ceiling clad in assorted issues of 2000AD. Whatever you can possibly imagine, some bored dive bar curator has most likely exceeded it.
Most dive bars feature exceedingly long counters, often spanning the entire length or width of the barroom. Drinking is a big part of the dive bar mystique, so customers expect easy access to the counter at all times. While a 25 yard counter may seem ‘optimistic’ with one person stood there, it makes far more sense on a busy night when a crowd is lined up three deep. No one visiting a dive bar expects to be kept waiting for booze.
It’s also not uncommon for dive bar counters to be quite tall, the reason for this being that replacement counters have been layered one on top of another over the decades, raising the bar height an inch or two each time. This may seem silly, but the cost of rebuilding a 25 yard bar is far from trivial, and anyway the extra wood serves to add rigidity to what might otherwise be a rickety old structure.
Seating typically takes two forms, barstool and booth, although some dives advocate seating that is free to roam around, this is generally eschewed due to the inherent potential for weaponisation. Booths or benches are also preferable because they force communal seating arrangements when the place gets busy, and that of course is the whole point. People don’t go to dives to be alone, they go to dives to pretend they want to be alone, whilst secretly hoping to be co-opted into making new friendships, whose longevity may vary form a few minutes to a lifetime. Barstools, booths, and benches all work unobtrusively to service this need.
Television is optional. Some dives shun it altogether, whilst others wallow in it. Tube televisions are preferred, and it’s not uncommon for the sound to be turned down. News, music channels, or sports may be shown, but what is uncommon to the point of being verboten, is for dives to advertise televised sporting events as a means of attracting custom. Nobody actually frequents a dive to watch the television. At most it offers a distraction or a means of opening a conversation, but that’s about as deep as it goes. Usually it’s just another form of cheap ass indestructible dim flickery lighting.
Video games and pinballs are somewhat common place, as are pool tables, dart boards, and even air hockey. Fruit machines tend to be scarcer due to their users propensity for being permanently strapped, and to militate against them tapping on other customers. Some dives may even boast old-tech electronic poker machines. While the typical dive may feature one or more such facilities, it’s unlikely to be a veritable emporium of entertainment systems. Big screen video gaming and tournament plays are almost certainly out, as are various themed nights, with the notable exception of the occasional pub quiz, and regular karaoke. Almost every dive will stock a selection of lower tech offerings, particularly a chess board, usually chequers, dominos, jenga, other childhood favourites (usually donated from someone’s childhood), and of course playing cards. For the more physically adept there’s always arm wrestling, or bottle walking… but never a ball pond, a hot tub, or anything involving foam.
The majority of dives will feature a jukebox. Internet jukeboxes are still treated with suspicion: it’s not good to give the customers access to all the worlds music, since an element of discretion is needed to maintain loose control over the ambience. Any other type are considered fair play, although most of the vinyl ones are now verging on unserviceable. The contents are important. Dives are not generally purveyors or up to date popular music, the best dives are however very eclectic in their provision, with various obscure gems mixed in. Piped background music is uncommon unless the jukebox is broken. A radio is not unheard of. MTV etc. are often present on any televisions, but seldom with the sound turned up. Some dives shun music altogether, but that’s relatively uncommon.
Pay phones remain abundant, because there are occasions where a person doesn’t want to use their cellphone or to have it switched on, yet they may still wish to make calls, or be reached by those who know where to find them. They may also seek to make calls that cannot be traced back to them. ATM machines are bizarrely commonplace, but for a pragmatic reason: in some places it takes too long to pay by card, and cheques are of course out of the question, as are bar tabs, so every customer needs ready access to cash – no excuses.
This is where it becomes contentious. There are those who believe that it is essential, if not plain de rigour, for dive bars to feature dilapidated toilets that have crossed the border into being a health hazard. The sort of toilets that positively discourage a person from taking a shit, at least in that part of the premises. The sort of toilets that a passers by, no matter how desperate to urinate, would risk walking that extra mile, public indecency, or perhaps even an unhappy accident, to avoid. Not so. While it’s true that some dive bars do feature minging toilets, it’s more the case that the shock value of these outliers have unfairly tainted the entire genre. Dive bar restrooms may be outdated, but they are just as often clean and well maintained as not. There’s also a countercurrent to this, with a few dives going out of their way to provision more welcoming surroundings in which to pass waste products, particularly where female patrons are concerned. To be fair though the gents do frequently appear in the guise of a piss dungeon. There’s arguably more scope for variety among restroom facilities than elsewhere within this class of establishment. Where the restrooms do differ from that of a more conventional bar, is that the materials will tend to be verging on the indestructible as opposed to just plain hard wearing.
If dive bar toilets are to be famed for one thing, then it’s their doubling as cheap (ostensibly free) motel rooms, where one or more consenting adults can indulge in a number of private, and highly personal, activities.
Some dive bars present as mini discotheques, or live music venues. The technical term is “lounge bar” in the intentionally recognised sense (this is where terms like “lounge singer” and “lounge lizard” originate). Such places typically feature a stage and/or a dance floor, usually situated at the far end of the room, and in the case of a stage likely shuttered off to prevent unauthorised access.
Those with stages that regularly host live music are often referred to as “honky tonks” or “toilets”, and these form the backbone of the grassroots music scene, without which there would most likely be no wider music scene. Such an establishment will likely be clad in posters, stickers, flyers, and perhaps a fair smattering of low level graffiti. Many will lay claim to a famous act that once played there, or was perhaps even ‘discovered’ there. The most famous toilet venue of all, was the late great CBGB, the birthplace of punk rock.
The dance floor in a lounge is a far cry from the civility of a dance hall or nightclub. The space is usually somewhat confined, and the dancers may verge on the over exuberant. Sturdy shoes afford a degree of protection for those unaccustomed to contact sports. The place may also be quite lax about separating dancers from their drinks, so it can all get a bit messy. Music tends to vary from the eclectic all the way to ripe stilton, and veers from one genre to another with scant regard for social convention. Expect moshing one minute and a conga the next. Patrons are fully aware that anyone is unlikely to recall any of this the following morning, and those that do will be too ashamed to admit to being present in the first instance. These are places where people can dance to the stuff they really want to dance to, as opposed to the stuff they feel they should be seen dancing to.
Contrary to popular misconception, most dive bars offer a sublime drinking experience. Like the unassuming barbers shop that all the other barbers visit for a haircut, a dive bar is where off duty bartenders go to drink.
Prior to the craft beer revolution, the dive bar was the last bastion of cask ale and lesser seen brands. At the outset of the revolution they became the early adopters of the output of local microbreweries who were unable to place their products into chain establishments.
Long before the mixology of cocktail culture became trendy, dive bars had the classics hooked up to life support. It may have been all attitude and no flair, but nobody can argue that the drinks necessarily tasted any different. Astonishingly more than half of all the bona fide dive bars I’ve studied have featured a cocktail menu of some description. There are even sub-genres of dive bar, such as tiki dive, and speakeasy, which specialise in particular forms of mixology, albeit in their own downmarket way. Intriguingly around half of all tiki bars openly flaunt their dive bar credentials, something that can be readily discerned from the lack of bamboo, and the predominance of darkness and coloured lighting in these fine establishments. Whether it was once a fashion thing, a yearning for warmer climes, or purely down to the flamboyance of tiki drinks, there’s been a long been a close association between tiki and dive bars.
Spirits of course, also play a major role in the dive bar mystique. The shelves will generally be covered in dozens, or perhaps hundreds of bottles of all sorts of weird and wonderful brands, perhaps even with some under the counter specials that were smuggled in from an exotic vacation and bequeathed to the bar.
Having said all this, there are also dives that feature very little in the way of selection, and there are of course dives where the beer is stale and the other drinks taste like shit. These though are a distinct and unhappy minority, possibly close to closure, and unable to justify the cost of beer line cleaner, or the expense of outlaying cash upfront for premium brands.
Some dives bars offer little in the way substance beyond that of beer, peanuts, and the odd maraschino cherry. Those that do, absolutely never offer what could, by any stretch of the imagination, be classed as a fine dining experience… however there are many that offer a particular speciality that may be considered on par, at least taste wise, with the best food around. It might be the only dish on the menu, and the delivery might be somewhat lacking in charm, but there’s absolutely no reason to expect bad food.
If one word must be employed to sum up the culinary delights on offer, then that word would be “quirky”. Dives are generally tight on space, and few have given over the floor area necessary to fit a well equipped kitchen. Even fewer are prepared to splash out on hiring a highly skilled chef, so the cooking tends to be of the homemade variety, dishes often literally made at home and brought in to be reheated. Now most people are adept at cooking that one ‘special’ dish so, when it comes to ‘gastro-dives’, that’s the dish that gets served, day in, day out, with a consistent quality that seldom varies unless the chef simply can’t be fucked. The kitchens, or more correctly kitchenettes, tend to be structured around the prep of this extremely limited menu, be that a burger, chilli, bolognese, pizza, oysters, shrimps, or fried chicken. It may even be vegan, since that cuts down on both cost and compliance with food regs.
Junk AKA ‘Antiques & Heirlooms’
Dive bars are for the most part full of crap. Not every dive bar, but junk is fairly ubiquitous. Crap often litters every shelf that isn’t given over to booze. Patrons are adept at uncovering some piece of useless, tasteless, but artful crap that they wouldn’t put in their home, but which would be perfect for monitoring rates of dust precipitation within a dimly lit room. Hence once might expect to encounter pieces of such style and integrity as “Jesus in a Jar”, interspaced with the odd marooned paper airplane that’s deviated from its scheduled flight plan, and surrounded by various fading polaroids adhered to any bare vertical surfaces, the relevance of such snaps gradually becoming lost in the mists of time.
One of main distinguishing features of a dive is a reliance on signage, often with a view to mitigating idiocy. When a bar has existed for umpteen decades, it’s reasonable to assume that every possibly permutation of stupidity will have been executed at least once.
Instructions to the feckless are often distributed at key points around the premises, in an effort to govern behaviour, whilst providing a limitless supply to humour to everyone who knows better. Some provide basic operating instructions, like how to insert coins in the jukebox, whilst others deal with oft overlooked aspects of parenting, such as toilet training.
Signage may also be deployed to discourage people from antisocial behaviour. Alarmingly the presence of such information may also serve to document past incidents. Occasionally these reference levels of depravity that call into question the true extent of the human condition.
Thankfully many signs deal with lesser sins such as laziness and a lack of consideration for the environment.
In some bars the signage is so ubiquitous that it amounts to a detailed framework for maintaining social cohesion.
A dive bar isn’t “staffed”, it’s crewed. These establishments appear to be modelled more on the ethos of a pirate ship rather than bearing semblance to conventional hierarchy.
While employment in the wider hospitality trade could politely be described as ‘transient’, dive bars tend to engender a loyalty, camaraderie, and longevity beyond any rational comprehension. Visit most bars and enquire as to the profession of the bartender and, one will either be met with a puzzled expression, or they’ll likely be some flavour of undergraduate. Not so in a dive bar. Lawyer, accountant, architect, historian, database engineer, heiress, graphic designer, Doctor of Fish Immunology… the trade appears jam packed with eccentrics and down-shifters. Working in a dive bar is a calling, a vocation, a lifestyle, a way of life. Most of us wouldn’t change it for the world, most of the time… Few of us arrive as ready made bartenders; that would just be too obvious.
One thing the crew are unlikely to have in common is a uniform. There may exist a uniform, but in so many variations as not to be recognisably cohesive. Some crew members will have concocted their own uniform, others will be wearing the uniform of the place they worked at before they commenced working in the bar, be that earlier in the day, or a decade prior. Over the years I’ve been served by people wearing everything from their birthday suit to hi-vis vests. There’s not even necessarily any guarantee that the person on the other side of the counter actually works there, occasionally it will transpire that they are just a regular ‘standing in’.
Neither is there likely to be much conformity in terms of age, gender, size, race, or sexual orientation (if indeed it’s even oriented at all). Some bartenders will be ultra engaging and helpful, to the point of coming off as a sycophant, others will exhibit all the charm of an executioner. The stereotypes undoubtedly exist, the sharp of tongue and the quick of wit, the pathologically insulting, the totally silent, the semi-deranged…
Anyone working alone, will either be the custodian/curator, or what’s known as a ‘duty manager’. This person’s job isn’t just to pour drinks, but also to entertain the customers and lead them in philosophical debate, anything from world history to the merits of squirting. No subject matter is ever off-limits, and even the most puerile of conversations will produce meaningful insights.
The custodian will inevitably sport one distinguishing feature than easily identifies them to all asunder: the force field, or defensive shield. While this is not visible using conventional means, everyone is able to sense it. It’s the force field extended by one who has been asked for credit or a free drink on a billion occasions. It’s the last ditch defence of an ego that’s been stroked for various nefarious agendas and concessions, to the point that it’s in mortal danger of being rubbed out altogether. Sure, it usually presents as abject rudeness, but commands a degree of respect and caution nonetheless.
All sorts of people, from all ages and walks of life, frequent dive bars, at all different times of the day and night. From dentists to dominatrices, real estate agents to the homeless, they all gather here. One thing such people tend to have in common, and they have it in spades, is a unique sense of their own individuality.
We all have friends from our formative years, who have gone on to lead very different lives, and who might be uncomfortable mixing in each other’s social circles. This brings us back to the original concept, that of the lowest common denominator. A dive bar is a place where everyone (who isn’t an asshole) can feel at ease, perhaps even comfortable, and quite often they feel that it’s the only place they can be true to themselves, hence the almost total absence of scenesters.
A person doesn’t have to dress up or dress down to go to a dive – you can dress anyway you want, and nobody, absolutely nobody who belongs there, will so much as bat an eyelid.
Frequenting a dive bar is not like belonging to some sort of esoteric order though. Everyone knows that “what occurs in the bar, stays in the bar”. Just because your best drinking buddy is a high court judge, doesn’t mean he’s going to go easy on you next time you get busted. More likely you’ll both make like you’ve never clapped eyes on each other before, and justice shall be summarily dispensed without reciprocating any hard feelings . More usually, the people that hang out in dives, are reticent about revealing what they do for a living. They visit the dive as an escape from the real world. Work is left at the door, even if the work’s uniform is worn without the wearer feeling at all self conscious. A dive is in essence, an antidote to real life.
There’s also a very strict, oft spoken but unwritten, and tightly enforced code of conduct. It is not considered good social etiquette to intrude on strangers. Those that roam drunkenly from table to table will quickly be ejected. That said, one is likely to get to know other people once the inevitable probation period has passed, and the length of this will vary on a case by case basis. Those of an asshole demeanour are quickly weeded out and excluded. Most dives consider any form of violence or aggression an absolute no-no. That’s not to say that it can’t happen, but it almost certainly happens far less frequently than it does in more mainstream establishments.
In a true dive bar, the same people are not likely to be present on each and every visit, and especially not at different times of the day or week. Such an establishment does not, in philosophical terms, belong to any one person or group of people, and the custodians and curators are acutely aware of the importance of updating the gene pool.
A dive is a place where everyone quickly learns your first name, but nobody knows, or even enquires as to, your last name. Actually that’s not entirely true, many patrons quickly earn nicknames. Prefixes are also an easy substitution for surnames, “John X” becomes “Wanger Johnny”, thus providing an easy and memorable means of discriminating between multiple Johns.
Hopefully this essay will have imparted upon the reader, a truer flavour of what constitutes a dive bar. As you can see, it’s a far more flexible definition that most people realise, leaving scope for may different permutations, and lines of evolution. Please feel free to quibble with any points, or to suggest any additional content.
Walk in the Dark 🙂