By definition a dive bar has no definition.
If you ask someone to define a dive bar, their answer won’t be about a dive bar it will be about their dive bar. Whether it’s the drab basement bar where they first sucked down a one dollar High Life, or some one-light-bulb hole in the wall where they continue to drink away the post-work hours, everyone’s vision of a dive bar is inherently personal.
Emily Dickinson once wrote, â€œI can’t tell you, but you feel it.â€ I imagine Dickinson was describing love (or just as likely despair) with this line, but her sentiment is just as true for a dive bar. Yes, there’s a certain atmosphere that all dives share. The outdated decor, the dusty bottles, the stone-faced bartender, the stench of stale domestic beers, a dirt cheap prices (often because the beer is just so damn bad.) We’re all familiar with these dive bar tropes, but what really makes a bar a dive is a feeling. It’s the sense that the world outside has disappeared, and for however long you sit on that raggedy polyester stool everything else can wait. It’s just you, a sweating bottle of beer, and your compatriots. Even if those compatriots are just the thoughts in your head.
But is this something that I’ve actually felt myself or am I just pretending? Have I experienced this feeling or am I merely regurgitating some scene that I once saw in a movie? Is there even such thing as a real dive bar anymore?
That final question is one that more and more bar-goers have been asking lately here in New York. In the face of rising rents and the general homogenization of the city, many of NYC’s most beloved dives have come under threat or been forced to shutter altogether. Mars Bar, Miladys, Blarney Cove, the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. And that’s just those that have actually closed for good. Max Fish was forced to relocate. Holland Bar was at risk in 2008, but managed to survive. And then there’s The Subway Inn which could seemingly close at any moment.
And yet, a search for â€œDive Bar in New Yorkâ€ on Yelp reveals over four thousand listings. The disparity between actual dive bars, and the commoditization of dive bars gets back to the look vs. feel distinction. There are now countless bars, new and old, but mainly new, that masquerade as dives. Or rather, they masquerade as the sort of bars that people, primarily of my generation, mistakenly identify as dives. What we seek out now is a warped version of a dive bar, one that has been standardized until any semblance of actual grit or character has been washed away.
Call it the Instagramification of the neighborhood watering hole. Our notion of a local community bar has been contorted thanks to the expansiveness of the Internet. From upstart indie magazines to individual Instagram photos, the dive bar aesthetic has become a commodity. My generation (those who still have memories, albeit hazy ones, of their twenty-first birthdays) might relish dive bar look – the seventies pinball machines, the faded upholstery, the archaic jukebox, and any other kitschy ephemera that might garner a few more likes on Instagram – but we don’t realize that a bar’s character is less important than its characters.
This attitude is in line with our general push to Brooklynify everything. It might look pretty, but it’s all surface level, and along the way we’ve forgotten that too much of a good thing just makes us sick. Now, I should take a step back here, because I am not trying to come at this topic as some archaic curmudgeon or blind hater of Brooklyn. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t frequent craft beers bars and cocktail boutiques with denim aproned bartenders and Edison bulbs tuned just so. But, we’d all be lying if we didn’t pretend like this â€œBrooklyn aestheticâ€ (because yes, once someone opens a â€œBed-Stuy Cafeâ€ in Amsterdam it is a full-blown aesthetic) has become a stock template for all things tailored toward the young, urban-dwelling populace.
Woodsy furnishings. A copper bar. Cocktails with literary names. Mismatched chairs. Faux quirky accents like thrift store books or board games. It’s paint by numbers of a Brooklyn bar, and it’s trying so desperately hard to replicate the character of a dive bar. We even call these places dives. But this is not character, it’s the appearance of character. What a dive bar has, or really had, is character.
Bars like Milady’s and Mars were both the center of a community and a member of that community. They had this organic, palpable character that bars simply do not have today. A new bar might be able to mimic the Milady’s look, but they’ll never recreate the spirit of a Saturday night down on the corner of Prince and Thompson. The contemporary bar is designed more for a audience pleasing Instagram photo than a meaningful conversation. Truthfully though, I cannot imagine many twenty-somethings who would even be able to sit by themselves and have a drink without the aide of their cell phones. We’d rather refresh Twitter than talk to our neighbor these days, even if that neighbor is our best friend, and this is the real issue. We’re so glued to the world’s that exist in the palm of our hand, that we miss the world right in front of us.
And so the death of the dive bar might not phase most people my age, but it should, because we need dives. A dive bar allows us to escape, whether into our own heads, or into the arms of our friends. In a city like New York, with so many people, yet so little interaction, a dive bar should be a cornerstone of any neighborhood. Now more than ever, with the endless demands of this digital world, we need these places where you can shut down, and connect with someone on a real level. Sometimes you just need to leave the pretension behind, have a watery beer, and just shoot the shit with a stranger.
Or better yet, with your friends.
When one of the regulars at The Holland Bar died in ’96, his friends at the bar pooled their money for his cremation. They didn’t do it for any reason other than that they were friends, and they were friends because of the bar. It brought them together, as only a true dive could.
Comments on “Why We Still Need True Dive Bars”
Totalllllly. There are so many great dive bars in NYC. Best ones are tucked away in the outer boroughs.
I immediately thought of Blarney Cove. So glad you included the pic at the end and so sad to see it go.
In Pennsylvania, the cornerstone of the neighborhood is called a tavern. It’s a family kind of place. You don’t find that in other places.
Amen, amen, amen.
Like most thing in today’s society nothing is original but merely a rendition of some former glory that have propped up in our mind. Everything for show. Nothing with true, unconscious substance. And we wonder why we are left feeling empty. Constantly searching we swipe our phone in a vain attempt to make a meaningful connection and find meaning.
“Have I experienced this feeling or am I merely regurgitating some scene that I once saw in a movie?”
Nail on the head. Genius.
“Sometimes you just need to leave the pretension behind, have a watery beer, and just shoot the shit with a stranger.”
This is the very reason I enjoy drinking in NYC. Everytime I fly in I head for a random bar close to wherever I’m staying, post up and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Helps get me in that New York State of mind.
Though it may not be a dive in appearance, Vig Bar at the corner of Elizabeth and Spring is my go to spot on those afternoons when you just want to listen to someone else’s story and maybe tell your own.
Most dives don’t set out to be dives. That comes with age. Dive status has to be earned.
Interesting read. Exactly the same thing has been happening in London (Hackney specifically) where so many of the old man pubs (pretty much our equivalent of dive bars) have been closing / or replaced by overly sanitised hipster craft beer pubs. The loss of a local pub, populated by local people who have lived in the area for years makes the area die a little, and the reason that these areas became popular in the first place moves further away. I’ve lived in Hackney for 18 years, and most of the changes have been for the better, except for the loss of virtually all the pubs that show horseracing, underpinned by the sound of men playing dominos, raised voices whilst a race goes off or a goal goes in. This is the unfortunate end product of gentrification and time to move onto somewhere else that has faded charm that is yet to be polished and made popular again.
Well put. I think people will eventually wake up and tire of the banal culture of constant foodie consumption, antique light bulbs, subway tile walls, and 10 minute drink preparations. People will discover or remember that the unexpected is more entertaining than the curated
aren’t the readers of this website the exact reason for these dive bars closing?
Nice piece. Agree whole-heartedly.
Overheard from two early 20-somethings on Houston St in Soho debating which walk-down watering hole to go into, ” Well, this one is cool, but the one down the block is divier”
How is Houston Street in SoHo?
Specifically, it was Houston at Lafayette, in Manhattan, NYC. Seemed like Soho, last I checked?
Anyone know the origin of the phrase “dive bar”?
The irony that the type of person(website) writing an article about the loss of dive bars when they(readers) are the reason these dive bars are going out of business.
if you ever set foot in a real dive bar you would probably be stabbed and have your wallet taken.
Lower Manhattan’s SoHo district takes its name from an acronym for “South of Houston”, as the street serves as SoHo’s northern boundary. That’s how…
John you would be an authority, but you are commenting on said website. Nice try.
A visit to any red light district of any city will yield an actual diver bar … NYC is getting a bit too trendy for this though … might have to go over to Hoboken for the real deal now!
Chicago certainly has gentrifying neighborhoods but there are still a great number of awesome dives throughout the city. I love the genre of dive in Chicago that has a package liquor store on one side and a bar on the other. Richard’s, George’s, The L&L, The Niesi, W Cut Rate Liquors, Rainbo, Phyllis’ Musical Inn, Rose’s, Lange’s, Simon’s, etc. Get to Chicago, pull up a barstool, crack open a can of Old Style, throw back a shot of MalÃ¶rt and appreciate the unironic ambiance. Cheers!
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. “Guy walks into a ‘real’ dive bar with a pair of $288 chinos made in China on and says to the tried and true ‘blue collar’ mongoloids at the bar…”
I get satire, so I got this one! What I’m overwhelmed by is how well the author paired his ode to ‘real’ dive bars with his incisive ‘structural’ analysis of unregulated capitalism…
“…what really makes a bar a dive is a feeling. Itâ€™s the sense that the world outside has disappeared…”
So, a dive bar is like the black lodge?
Really we the readers are the one’s who casued the demise of these bars? I think not! I read this blog for inspiration and knowledge. There is no way I can afford about 95% of the things that are mentioned or reviewed on this site; but by your logic I am the reason dive bars are closing?! I live in the builidng where Milady’s was and was a loyal pateron I did NOT cause them to close as you are insisting. The rising rents and foreign investment did. It is a damn shame that these place are clsoing at a rapid rate as I feel if Mildays was still open, Michael (whom I have not meet, but see in the neighborhood) and other commentors would have a real place to discuss our likes and interest; you know in the “real world” instead of a viral one. I find it sad they way human interaction is these days, there in no face to face, there is no tangablity, there is no vocal comunication. At the end of the day blogs have become “dive bars” where liked minded individuals can have a discussions etc, the only thing is conversation is better with a cheapo beer.
I am disappointed that there isn’t more attention in this essay focused on the people, the only ingredient that really matters in any establishment. I have a particular favorite bar here in the LA area, and the only real reason I go back is for the bartenders. One in particular is thrilled whenever I walk in and strikes up a lengthy conversation with me and my friends about anything and everything. It’s like catching up with an old friend. Here in LA, all the food blogs will trumpet some new establishment and mention that the cocktails are made by so and so, master mixologist blah blah blah, and I have to laugh because I think at this point I am much more interested in having a friendly conversation with the person serving me the drink than what’s in the drink itself.
Same for the restaurant scene by the way. Everyone is focused on the food on the plate, not the people AROUND the table; or God forbid the actual servers or staff who might remember how you like a particular dish or why you tend to order xyz.
Finally, what you describe at the “Brooklyn-ification” of everything is really just the New Monotony. Watch Diners Drive-Ins, and Dives, and every nook and cranny across America is serving sweet potato tator tots with chipotle aoili on distressed communal farm tables, etc. If you’re running one of these places, it’s a lot easier to create some tasty deep fried wonder than it is to create a space that has a soul and energy that overshadows the food or drink being consumed by the patrons.
My Shorter Oxford Eng Dictionary says the term “dive” originates from the late 19th century.
Great piece, though I have to concur that it’s not the material appearance that makes a place a dive, so much as the “upkeep” or lack thereof, and the people, as well as the neighborhood. I know I’ve arrived at a dive where I can walk in, sit down, and MAYBE the owner/operator/barkeep acknowledges my presences, but doesn’t lift a finger until I tell him/her what I want. Regular patrons that have their own favorite stool/table/booth (or maybe an “independent businessman” who holds court from a specific booth).
For me, a dive is a place where I might be nervous leaving my laptop bag or jacket on a chair while I go to the bathroom (which is probably NOT very clean; there’s no one with the time to clean it every hour), but contrary to that, in a dive, you can trust that the regulars won’t mess with your stuff any more than they expect you to mess with their stuff. There’s unspoken rules of behavior at work. You wont’ find that in a strict business “bar venue” where no one really is a “regular,” just a frequent customer.
There’s nothing like disappearing into a bar to for some serious conversation
nice article. I’m miss them.
(btw, “faze” “)
hehe, “I’ll” :)
Problem with defining a dive bar is that a “dive” is one that you consider to be below your usual standards. What is being described here are community pubs, locals etc. and they are dying out for all the reasons given
The atmosphere of these places is a product of the extended family of people that inhabit them and that is their appeal. To step into one and order a beer is a ritual that says I am done with my responsibilities for the day. Cheers!
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