What Makes A Dive Bar, A Dive Bar?

TRAVEL | I’m always up for visiting a good dive bar when I’m in the United States. There’s something about dive bars that’s so appealing that I can’t quite put my finger on. The lack of pretention, and honesty is a big part of it, but there’s more, a je ne sais quoi. What makes a dive bar, a dive bar?

You’ll find common threads when searching for definitions of a dive bar online. “Shabby”, “Disreputable”, “Cheap Drinks”, “Dodgy”, “Local’s Spot”. Dive bars can exhibit some or all of these qualities, it’s not always the case.

When people try to pigeonhole anything, it’s often because they want to use it for their own purposes. They want to appropriate it, market it, profit off it. Society loves to put everyone, and everything, into neat boxes. When I learn of a new bar that markets itself as a dive bar, I’m wary. They’re often fun, but they miss the point when they call themselves dive bars.

I refer to these bars as “dive-themed” bars. They’re bars that have taken the imagery and aspects that many associate with dive bars, and neatly packaged it. Some of these bars work well, and I enjoy them. Others miss the mark completely. Any of them may become actual dive bars one day, but that takes time.

Turning the lights down low, filling the bar with Americana, and installing a jukebox with the volume turned up high does not make a dive bar. It’s more than having a “we don’t care about the rules” attitude, and covering your bathroom walls with tags and stickers. If you’re a new venue, and you’re calling yourself a dive bar, you’re not a dive bar. A dive bar isn’t about ticking off a checklist, it’s not about making an effort to be one.

A dive bar simply is. The bar might be new, it might be old. It might have stock standard drink options, it might have craftier stuff available. Food may or may not be served. Perhaps there’s live sport on the TVs. Music might be heavy rock, it might be golden oldies. You get my drift.

So what makes a dive bar, a dive bar? Saying “it’s the vibe” might be a copout, but it’s the truth. There are some common threads amongst my favourite dive bars that I’ve been to over the years. The drinks are generally cheap. They’re community focused places, filled with locals, but welcoming towards strangers. The staff and punters are friendly. There’s an air of informality. They know what they are, and aren’t vying for your attention. When the stars align, any bar can, in theory, become a dive bar.

Trying to put together a list of “best dive bars” is a pointless exercise. No single true dive bar can be “the best”. What I can do is tell you about some of the US dive bar that I’ve enjoyed over the years. They’re places that have nailed that indescribable vibe, that I’ve had an amazing time at, that exemplify, to me, what dive bars are all about.

19th Street Station. Oakland, California

I came across this bar while doing a little bar/brewery crawl in Oakland. It wasn’t on my list of venues to visit, but I’m sure glad that I popped in. It’s owned by duo Bill Bailey and Roy Mejia, who took over what was an old doctor’s surgery (if memory serves me right) in the 90s. Roy’s an affable guy, and I had a great chat with him, learning about the bar and its stories, and Roy’s history working in bars since the 1960s.

The bar is filled to the brim with sports paraphernalia, and since Roy was showing the San Francisco 49ers game during opening round of the 2023/24 NFL season the next day I vowed to return. The next day, my friend and I were joined by about three different groups of locals, who all knew each other and were regulars of the bar. We all hang out and enjoyed the game, eating mini burritos that Roy had made at home, and hot dogs from Winky Dinky Dogs. The latter, located two doors up from the bar, is owned by former Digital Underground member Tyranny Allan, who is a larger than life character with a lot of stories to tell.

Roy and the regulars were so warm and welcoming, and I left the bar feeling like it was my local joint. If I didn’t have a flight to catch, I could have stayed there all day.

Barry’s On Broadway. Denver, Colorado

My first time visiting Denver was in 2023, and I had a plan to spend my first night in town bar hopping along Broadway. The night began at the excellent TRVE Brewing, as planned, but deviated straight after. Walking to planned venue two, I was seduced by entrance of Barry’s On Broadway. Inside, I was greeted by a welcoming neighbourhood spot, cheap drinks, skee ball, and locals up for a conversation. I never did make it to any other bars that night.

As it happens, I was very lucky to visit when I did. A few weeks later, owner Barry Zadikoff, who opened the bar 20 years ago, announced that Barry’s would be closing down, due to an impasse with his landlord. Barry’s poured it’s last drink on September 30, a real loss for the area. Reading the outpouring of comments on social media, and articles written about the closing made it clear just how much of a beloved local’s spot Barry’s was.

Broadway Bar. Boise, Idaho

Broadway Bar has been around since 1958, known for its cheap drinks, wonderful service, billiards tables, and screen showing whatever sport is on at the time. I popped in on a whim, having noticed the signage while passing by in an Uber earlier that day. It didn’t take long before I was having random conversations with strangers.

The first time I heard a loud bell ring, a drink appeared in front of me. Turns out that it happens whenever someone buys a drink for the bar. A few rings in, and I got in on the action. Drinks are cheap and quality, and a round for everyone won’t set you back much. Bucking the dive bar stereotype, the locals here are quite proud of the toilets. They’re amongst the cleanest of any bar in town.

Gold Room. Los Angeles, California

In a rapidly gentrifying part of Los Angeles, Gold Room stays true to its roots. The no frills family-run Echo Park bar offers cheap beer and cocktails, and top shelf tequila. TVs play baseball and Mexican league futbol, and the vibe is great.

The jukebox smashes out classic bangers and karaoke hits, mixed in a with a good dose of Mexican tunes. If you’re lucky, you might end up there when there’s free tacos being handed out. A great bar to visit post seeing a game at Dodger Stadium.

The Matador. Santa Fe, New Mexico

After years of seeking out hidden gems I’m attuned to the fact that things of interest can potentially be found anywhere, and am always subconsciously looking out for them.

I wandering through Santa Fe, taking in the atmosphere of the city, when I saw an assuming stairwell leading to a door with a some street art above it. There was a guy standing by the railing and I asked him if he knew of anything down there. He responded with “yeah, it’s my bar. It’s a divey spot, and it opens at 5”. That was all that I needed to hear, and come 5pm, I headed over.

The Matador is a cash only spot, with quick service, loud music, and things like 90s action movies and cult films playing on the TV. At various times during the night, the main floor becomes an impromptu dance floor, with everyone getting in on the action.

Merchant’s Saloon. Oakland, California

On Oakland’s waterfront you’ll find Merchant’s Saloon, which has been around since 1916. It originated as a place for sailors, dockworkers, and all sorts who frequented this part of town. Apart from a stint as a simple Italian restaurant in the 1950s and 60s, it’s been a bar. Merchant’s Saloon is known for its strong cocktails, loud music, and rowdy atmosphere.

While I was there, the security guard came to the bar and asked for “the bat”, and was swiftly handed a baseball bat. Turns out there was a situation outside, and he was just being cautious. Don’t be dissuaded. Visit without pretence, and you’ll find that the crew at Merchant’s Saloon are some of the nicest people around.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find Filipino-Chinese-American cook Cat Allen popped up out the front. At her pop-up, Compost Kitchen, Cat cooks up an variety of delicious Filipino snacks and more. And yes, you can eat the food at the bar.

Richard’s Bar. Chicago. Illinois

Richard’s Bar is a River West institution, open since 1926. Walk inside and you enter another era. Neon signs and a retro jukebox filled with tracks from Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and the like light up the smoke filled room (yes, smoking is allowed, and cigarettes are sold). Rat Pack memorabilia and Scorsese movie posters dot the walls.

The bar is lined with regulars and the service is friendly and no-nonsense. A TV shows live sports out the back while spontaneous bouts of dancing can happen anywhere in the bar. Drinks are cheap, with a range of entry level and higher quality options. To eat, its one item – 75c hard-boiled eggs.

Smith’s Union Bar. Honolulu, Hawaii

Located in Honolulu’s Chinatown, Smith’s Union Bar has been doing its thing since 1935. It’s the oldest bar on Oahu, with many a story to tell. It’s a long-time favourite of the sailors of Pearl Harbor, in amongst what was the city’s red light district at the time. Many a politician, underworld boss, and business tycoon has walked through Smith’s Union’s doors over the years.

Today, things are much the same as they’ve always been in here. Smith’s Union Bar has a reputation as the best (if not the only true) dive bar in town, and it ticks all of the right boxes.

It’s a small space, nothing fancy, with images and trinket from the bar’s past lining the walls. Everyone is welcome and respectful of everyone else, and it doesn’t take long for everyone to become friends. The music is loud and rocking, the drinks are cheap, and there’s karaoke late at night. The first time I visited, I found myself shirtless, singing along with a bunch of off-duty sailors.

The Tap Bar & Restaurant. El Paso, Texas

I found myself in El Paso with a desire to satiate my curiosity about what the vibe in a US Bordertown would be like, and to eat some Mexican food. After my walk through El Centro and El Segundo Barrio, I headed to El Centro’s Mona Bar of Modern Art (also worth a visit) for a beer. When I asked bartender and co-owner Enrique where to find the best Mexican food in town, he replied with “my mom’s house”, He followed with L&J Café, a place that was on my list that I unfortunately didn’t get the chance to visit and, “the dive bar next door”.

That bar is The Tap Bar & Restaurant, which I visited once my beer was done. The Tap opened in 1956 and from what I was told, chatting to locals, has barely changed. It’s a welcoming venue, accepting of all, known for cheap beer and excellent Mexican food. Grab a seat at the bar, and it’s a whole vibe. I felt like I was in a movie, a thriller, waiting to meet a contact, with something about to go down. “When you’re on the border with nothing to lose, there are no rules”, is how I envisage the voice over for the trailer”. That’s the vibe.

Whether it’s more Spanish or English spoken here depends on who is serving you. I had the former, so placed my order in broken/poor Spanish. “Quisiera dos IPAs, y nachos y un steak torta por favor”. The IPA bit was lost in translation, as two Modello Specials appeared in front of me. No complaints from me. As for the food, wow. It’s all cooked by an abuela in the kitchen and is the real deal.

The nachos, which many say are the best in Texas, are outstanding. Homemade refried beans, onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, queso blanco, and carne deshebrada (shredded beef). Each tortilla chip is individually topped with just the right amount of ingredients. How’s that for attention to detail. As for the torta, next level. Charred, tender steak, fluffy bread, and perfectly balanced it’s hands down the best torta I’ve eaten.

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