There are “dive bars,” and then there are dive bars. The former may appeal to a certain crowd. Heck, it may even convince a certain crowd that they’re actually doing the dive bar thing. But real dive bar veterans know the distinction between imitation and bona fide dive. So, we spoke to a handful of bartenders and frequent dive bar patrons to come up with a list of ways you can be sure you’re not spending your money at a phony.
The bathrooms are… memorable
“The bathrooms are 90% graffiti and 10% covered in urine,” says Jesse Gaddis, who’s currently in the process of opening up a dive bar in Flatbush called Old Friend. He may be exaggerating a little bit here, but the bathroom in a dive bar is about the furthest thing you can get from a five star commode. Forget about toilet dividers or walls and prepare for less-than-appealing smells and sights.
Krissy Arnold, a self proclaimed “world class professional drinker,” and photographer who’s very familiar with the dive bar scene, agrees on the bathroom front. “If the bathroom looks like a safe place to pee, you are not in a dive bar,” she says.
The drinks are cheap
A genuine dive bar will serve you some of the cheapest drinks in town. A faux dive bar, on the other hand, may charge more than even your standard drinking hole. These faux establishments likely know they’ve got hipster wallets on lockdown, and an ironic PBR for double or triple the normal cost breeds not even a bead of sweat upon their brows. In short: if your drinks cost more than you’d normally pay, you’re probably hanging in a counterfeit.
Forget the cocktails and wine
There’s probably a dusty cocktail book sitting somewhere near the register, and perhaps an uninitiated patron may wander in and try to order a Cosmo. However, a classic sign you’re sitting in a dive bar is the distinct lack of cocktails. The same is true when it comes to wine, unless we’re talking bottom shelf stuff (but even then…). Wine lists and martini glasses are to dive bars what panda bears are to wildlife: nearly extinct.
Also important: There will be at least one local favorite beer on tap, perhaps a few more. “If there are more taps than patrons, it’s not a dive bar,” says Arnold.
Look for the bar pet
“Every real dive bar has a dog who just walks around and seems to know everyone,” says Pete Vasconcellos, who’s worked in every level of the bar and restaurant industry, from divey rock clubs to James Beard Award-winning locations.
“The dog doesn’t belong to the bar owner or anyone working there. It might belong to one of the patrons, but you’ll never find out who,” he adds. “Everyone knows the dog’s name, and it’s always a regular person’s name like ‘Petey’ or ‘Fred.'”
The bartenders fit the part
“The bartenders should look a little gruff,” says Arnold. “If they are too fresh, chances are they are new to the bartending game, or the establishment just went thrift shopping for decor to give it that ‘divey feel.'”
A dive bar bartender won’t greet you with trepidation, she says, and the service will be good. If you’re being ignored — especially if it’s not busy — that’s a sign you may not be in a true dive.
Tip well and frequent often and you’ll be besties with your bartender in no time (though you shouldn’t be dismayed if the bartenders at some dive establishments pretend to not know you).
Real dive bars like Manhattan Cafe in Athens, GA always have a cast of characters enjoying their worn-in features. Photo by Erin Wilson.
On that note, you can expect to see the same people wander in around 5:30 p.m. at least once a week, if not everyday. These regulars are typically of the older variety, many over 65, and blend in extraordinarily well with the bar. This is because, by their very presence over the course of years, they helped create the dive’s “vibe.” These regulars tend to have claimed a regular seat, as well. Don’t even think about taking it. Find your own or stand, lest you make an enemy.
“A real dive bar has a CD jukebox — not an Internet jukebox,” says Vasconcellos. “There are a lot of lousy bars that have Internet jukeboxes where any schmo can decide to put in a buck and play the Lil’ Jon ‘Shots, Shots, Shots’ song right after Patsy Cline, but a charming dive bar has a CD jukebox that was thoughtfully curated in 1998 and hasn’t been changed since.”
There’s a spot to smoke
“All good dive bars will provide a proper area to smoke,” says Arnold. “If they do not have a patio or a smoking room, they will at least provide proper receptacles — AKA a butt can — on the sidewalk for patrons.”
Forget windows. Nobody wants to know what time it is outside. And really, nobody wants to illuminate the place more than necessary. On that same note, you definitely do not want to be around for last call when the lights flip on.
The decor is probably one of the easiest ways to get fooled by a faux dive bar if you’re not used to the real thing. After all, it’s fairly easy to make a place look old and worn and divey. Do note several distinctions, though:
First, things are genuinely worn in places they ought to be: the seats, the floors, the bar itself. The floors are probably sticky and the art leans more “haphazard” than painstakingly curated. There’s likely a pool table — though don’t be surprised if it’s missing a couple pool balls, and count yourself lucky if you don’t have to share a cue stick. The barstools do not match, there’s a noticeable layer of grit and dust, and there’s probably a well-loved dartboard in a dark corner somewhere with accompanying bent darts.
We’ll leave you with this: “A true dive bar takes years to develop into its true self,” notes Arnold. “A good bar knows this and lets its vibe develop naturally.”