As uniquely egalitarian haunts, dives pretty much cater for anyone willing to chance entry. They are devoid of competition in the classical sense, although together they serve as an offbeat alternative to the more commercially minded boozemongers. While this non-judgemental philosophy underpins the experience of visiting a dive bar, it falls short of pinpointing what the essential attraction is. After all, there have always been trendier, plusher, and busier, alternatives out there. Now, in an age dominated by corporate giants, whereby a strange logic has seen quality become synonymous with cheapness, there are many places that can undercut the dives on price. There are even establishments which qualify as trendier, plusher, busier, and less expensive all rolled into one.
Bars and clubs with little transient trade, which are struggling to maintain regular custom, may eventually be forced to close as their customer base dwindles away. The ability to attract new blood is necessary for survival. Are the few remaining dive bars merely museums of bartending, trading on drunken nostalgia, or do they occupy a commercially viable niche? In order to answer this question, we need to cast a jaded eye over the landscape of early 21st Century nightlife.
The current mass market offerings can be categorised as: value, insipid, mainstream, student, scene, exclusive, trendy, and gimmicky.
CHEAP IS THE NEW QUALITY
The road to hell was paved one slab at a time, so lets begin this journey on the stretch signposted “value”. Budget offerings appear to have but one purpose, which is to funnel as much ethanol down as many throats as possible. Ironically termed “vertical drinking establishments”, such outlets negotiate substantial trade discounts by virtue of their prodigious throughput, then proceed to undercut the competition, which constitutes pretty much anywhere else that sells booze. Marketing is based solely on price, and up-selling is the order of the day. Affordable salted food is offered, possibly as a means of pushing the customer’s constitution to the limits of human endurance. Health, family, career, the future… anything beyond the margin, doesn’t appear to factor much in the equation. So what if someone covers the cab fare home with a blowjob? Great – tomorrow they’ll be back to wash the taste away. The logical next step is a Matrix type scenario, where human beings are hooked up intravenously, their bank balances drained, and their blood replaced with hard liquor.
INSIPID IS THE SAFE OPTION
Staggering on down the street we stumble into the epitome of insipidness. This is easily ascertained due to the entire place being furnished out of a trade catalogue. The colour scheme is matching shades of inoffensive brown, while the lighting is an innocuous subdued yellow, enhanced by the hypnotic flickering of fruit machines. The piped music is so quiet, that customers are left wondering whether they’re hearing disembodied voices or not.
These places model themselves on a mix of Ye Olde Worlde Pub and the most boring flashbacks to the mid 90s. They are plagued by children, and smell of BO, farts, and stale food. Portions are huge, and everything comes with fries, coleslaw, onion rings, and perhaps a tired slice of tomato (just to even the score). Anything green is best interpreted as decorative rather than edible garnish. The beer offering will most likely consist of mass market brands, brewed under license conveniently close to a major transport route. These places are reminiscent of M.Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense; the customers are [brain] dead, but they don’t know they are [brain] dead. Lets roll the fuck out before the mediocrity assimilates our souls.
MAINSTREAM APPROXIMATES WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE OLD
Next stop is the self proclaimed mainstream. Expect sofas so deep that you’ll struggle to extract yourself. Drinks will rest on the edge of a low coffee table in front of said sofa, and about three feet away from your outstretched arm.
The music will be loud enough to render conversation impossible, and all you can contribute is to smile, nod, feel thirsty, and long for the bathroom. The experience, is deeply sleep inducing and ever so slightly bewildering. This is a fair approximation of what it must feel like to be confined to a nursing home. Why the fuck anyone would want to be subjected to this is beyond me, but hey – each to their own.
Student bars are simply a combination of value and mainstream redux for attention deficient kids equipped with discount cards. This accurately replicates an episode of being drunk at school, except with fewer clothes on.
Everyone present thinks that they’re an adult, but really this is all just play acting. It would be far more honest of these joints to simply ban everyone aged over 20 . There’s also an unnerving subliminal corporate mantra echoing throughout these immature hell holes: YOU ARE FREE (to do what we tell you).
SCENE: WHERE SEX SELLS STORE BOUGHT COOL
Some bright spark realised that by combining sex with the vague concept of a student bar, that it would be possible to pack a place full of scantily clad young people and ply spectacular volumes of booze into their relatively robust bodies. Combine this with a pseudo alternative dress code, heavier music, and a smattering of attention seeking tattoos, and you have the delight that is known to all asunder as “scene”. Such places offer charms akin to:
//WHITE GIRL WED//VODKA + MIX $1//JD + MIX $1//ÜBERBOMB $1-50//Z-LIST CELEB DJ SET//HOT TUB//BEER PONG//TEXT 4 GUEST LIST//
Okay, perhaps I used a little artistic license there… but anyone attending is certain to be professionally ‘shot’ clutching a round of //ÜBERBOMBs// with a gaggle of ‘hot chicks’ (who are on the payroll). This proof of imbued sex appeal later uploaded by the PR team as part of its campaign to carpet bomb social media with airbrushed examples of lame ass mysoginy. Scene is populated almost entirely by people trading in store bought coolness, supplemented by desperate losers foolish enough to be taken in by it all. Today’s scene is tomorrow’s cringe, whereas authentic cool has no shelf life; it’s forever.
EXCLUSIVE WET WIPES
If one is flush enough to venture over to the affluent side of town, then //GRATUITOUS CAPITALISATION// quickly gives way to $GRATUITOUS CAPITAL. This is the realm of super premium spirits, Cristal on draught, VIP rooms for the smart set, and a zaney eunuch handing out wet wipes and splashes of eau de toilette in the restrooms. Such places are often located a short cab ride away, and the doormen may refuse entry to anyone who rocks up on foot and isn’t sporting a jaunty scarf. Store bought cool accedes to material displays of wealth. Social status is measured in currency, so being a jerkoff is easily offset by the promise of a looming inheritance.
Rubbing shoulders with the rich & shameless are those naive enough to believe that cash is contagious. It’s not what you know, it’s who you suck up to. Everything is more expensive here. It’s much the same shit all the mainstream places deal in, but twice the price and four times as glitzy. This additional outlay functions as a tax on ‘exclusivity’; it costs more to hang out in the presence of rich folks. Fuck them and the yachts they sailed in on.
Moving slightly off the beaten track we come to the recently gentrified Hipsterville. The keyword of Hipsterdom is ‘discerning’, and there are numerous craft beer taprooms and trendy mixology [read cocktail] bars to choose from. Staff are kitted out in tattoos, braces, and bow ties. Step carefully, and one may be at liberty to vape from one’s specially modded e-pipe in a space heated beer garden, whilst quaffing from a branded glass of Bushaltestelle Dunklewichsen.
Other than the booze, everyone here subsists on latte and tapas, which is to 2018 what Kenco and quiche were to 1978. Thirsting after a cocktail garnished with dessicated rhino horn? Step right on up, cos there’s plenty more overpriced contrived shit where that came from!
THERE’S ALWAYS THE GIMMICK
If none of that floats your boat, then perhaps a clever gimmick will get those juices flowing. An undersea club located in a working submarine? A Transylvanian themed bar, where all the drinks are the colour of blood, and the tables are replica caskets? A taproom constructed from surgical steel, heated red hot to 300C, where patrons are issued with an asbestos suit and the beers are inhaled as steam?
It’s all already out there, but soon to be replaced with the next big innovations in amazeballs.
Bearing all this diversity in mind, what differentiator do dive bars bring to such a crowded market place? Picture someone who doesn’t trade BJs for cab rides, is neither brain dead nor ADD, doesn’t wish to serve as an online poster child for misogyny, prefers to wipe their own ass, has sufficient grasp of Deutch to discern Bushaltestelle Dunklewichsen translates roughly as “night-time bus stop masturbation”, and isn’t in the mood for third degree burns. Such an individual may find themselves at something of a loss when it comes to a experiencing a fulfilling night life. Unfortunately the options at their disposal, mostly vary anywhere from bland generic mediocrity, to the short lived shtick (“yeah it’s true – they really do serve cocktails in reconditioned Heinz Beans cans lolz”).
DIVES ARE THE ANTIDOTE TO COMMERCIAL BULLSHIT
Keep walking until the pedestrian traffic thins to sporadic, and the street lamps switch from white to the narrow orange spectrum of sodium. Encountering a contented pair coming the other way, who smile and shoot a shy but knowing look, is a sure sign that you’re on the right track. Scan the horizon for some flickering neon script imbedded in the fascia of a rundown block located on the edge of darkness, then make a beeline for it.
Dive bars don’t have a gimmick, they merely offer a timeless antidote to real life, let alone every conceivable configuration of commercial bullshit.
Say a couple are out on a date. The concept of //WHITE GIRL WEDS// might seem a little awkward. Uptown there’s only the intoxicated braying of a self-styled elite. Unless they headed out in matching lumberjack shirts, or have an inexplicable urge to try that new place (where booze is administered in a decompression chamber)… well things have the potential to get somewhat strained.
All they really need is somewhere dark and intimate, where nobody knows their names, and nobody will bug them with inane chit-chat. They want to be left the fuck alone to enjoy one another’s company, whilst retaining access to the core facilities that a bar has to offer. The cool kicker always being when one asks the other – so how did you know about this place?
QUIRK OF OFFICE
Alternatively, imagine the scenario whereby a group of people have been thrown together by some quirk of fate. Perhaps they work in the same office. Members of such a group might vary substantially in attributes such as age, social status, taste in music, and choice of poison. Are they doomed to settle for the safe but uninspired surroundings of the generic chain that’s everyone’s fifth choice… or do they say “fuck that, let’s just find us a dive bar, where nobody will feel out of place”?
In a similar vein, people often remain in touch with old friends, with whom they may have little left in common, but whose company they still enjoy. The dive bar offers common ground, where people from different walks of life can hang out together as equals. Likewise the secret romance, or to put it more bluntly, the pair of fuck buddies who’ve been discretely jumping each other’s bones on and off for years. Where else can they go for a low-key drink, and a smoochy dance to a decent jukebox, without anyone so much as batting an eyelid?
NEW KID IN TOWN
And spare a thought for the traveller or recent arrival to town, who has no idea of where to find new friends, and yet who prefers to shun stilted small talk between fake personas, in favour of honest to goodness conversation with like minded souls?
Are these poor bastards destined to wander the streets aimlessly for all eternity, or do they simply head off the beaten track, in search of that telltale neon glow?
Dive bars enable people to dispense with social conventions, be true to themselves, mind their own business, and have an absolute hoot, without the need to consider potential repercussions, and without being subjected to bullshit masquerading as some sort of intangible benefit.
And that, in a nutshell, is the essense de la dive bar.