In Search of the best ugly gems
Defining the Dive Bar
Dive bars face a tug-of-war: they’re either worshiped or ostracized. This must stop. Dive bars are just like any other bar — plus or minus a few roaches and/or bathroom stall sex stories — in that “good” or “bad” depends on who’s asking. The Jersey Shore cast goes head over slutty heels for a sweaty-floored, skull-shaking house music club, for example. Wall Street types might take you to a joint with a pretty waitress, blue lighting and $18 whiskey-cokes. Your cousin from the country’s spot has cigarette butts on the floor and Willie Nelson competing with the crack of a cue ball; your hipster cousin visits the same spot, actually. Whatever your cup of tea, we contest simply that “dive” not be used to describe a place that sucks: it should be a place that sucks with vigor, or with style, or with crassness. Here are the sordid watering holes that our staff believes, in their slightly perverse estimations, capture the true spirit of the dive bar.
Dan’s Cafe, Adams Morgan, Washington D.C.
Ever wonder what kind of person it takes to call an establishment that has nothing to do with coffee, baked goods or aspiring writers a café? Well, don’t pontificate on this with the staff of Dan’s, because they definitely don’t give a shit. The windowless hole in the wall is smaller than most bedrooms in surrounding Adams Morgan, has been around since 1965 and has a staff that couldn’t care less about what you have to say regarding the smell.
All of the liquor comes in pints or airline-sized bottles and the beer selection is limited to cheap and cheaper. They’re famous for their “squeeze bottles”, which outsource bartending duties to the customer with a $20 eighth of liquor, your choice of mixers and a couple clean shot glasses. Dan’s is exactly the place you don’t want to be at 7 and do want to be at 1:30.
– Henry Phillips
Sam’s Quik Shop, Durham, North Carolina
They say you always remember your first. I do. It started when Dave picked me up in his 1998 Corolla. The seatbelt didn’t click and the brakes squeaked and I had to crank the windows by hand. But the engine worked. Barely. I was nervous. Dave told me to relax.
“What if we get caught?” I said.
“It’s not illegal,” said Dave. “Just don’t touch anything.”
He parked outside Sam’s Quik Shop, 1605 Erwin Road, Durham, North Carolina, right next to a dilapidated gas station, just past a concrete retaining wall that supports the Durham Freeway. He turned off the car and I got out and slammed the door and looked around. I saw a freestanding brick building, windows covered with some type of white plastic. Stickers from various breweries pasted on the door. A beat up trash can. A rusty satellite dish, a sign advertising Coca-Cola, another hawking snacks and cigars. From where I stood, I could smell the freeway, heat and exhaust and dying vegetation.
I followed Dave inside and saw a checkout counter and beer. Rows and rows of beer. More beer than I’d ever seen. As I stood there, staring at the colors and the bottles and listening to the hum of the refrigerators, I remember thinking, My God. I’ll never try all these beers by the time that I leave school. And I was right, because there are like, 1,000 damn beers in that store.
Still, as soon as I hit 21, I tried. There were obstacles: once, when I asked for Founders’ Kentucky Breakfast Stout, a skinhead in the corner burst out laughing and said, “You want that beer, you’re gonna have to kick someone in the pussy.” And I was like, Whoa. I’m shy. I’m nice. I don’t want to kick anyone in the pussy. I just want beer. I didn’t end up buying anything — I just went home and went to sleep. But in the end, I persevered. Although I left college without a working knowledge of chemistry, or calculus, I did leave with a love for the art of fine dispensation. So thanks, Sam’s Quik Shop. I love you.
– K.B. Gould
The White Hill Cafe, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania
If you’re ever passing through Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, you might come across a small white one-storey structure called the White Hill Cafe. It’s just on the other side of the train tracks (from either direction), catacorner from the old slate supply yard, haloed by the stale light from an old electric sign that reads: “Try Our Famous 32 oz Burger: Over 50 Million Sold” with the “Million” crossed out. Inside you’ll find your pick of five or six of the heavies and lites. Cash only. Drunks are falling off their stools whether you drop by in the a.m. or p.m. — but there are also plenty of normal working folks drinking and chain smoking and listening to the country music pumped through the radio. If you’re bored, there’s always the old, sticky Golden Tee game in the corner to eat your quarters or a game of some sort to watch on the TV. It’s a fun place, if you don’t mind the smoke and you just want a beer. My dad once asked the barman about the famous White Hill Burger, out of curiosity. “No more burgers”, said the barman. “The cook’s dead.”
– Chris Wright
Grassroots Tavern, New York, New York
I hate noisy, crowded bars. I’m 6-foot-5 and have bad hearing, so if I want to be “involved” in the conversation at a hopping bar, I have to slouch and lurch like a Neanderthal towards whomever is speaking. This is why I go for bars like the Grassroots Tavern in the East Village; the large, open bar is rarely crowded.
I’m new to NYC so I don’t fully appreciate this, but Grassroots has remained largely unchanged since it first opened in the mid ‘70s. The dungeon motif of the basement bar, under a low ceiling and dim lighting, keeps away the crowd, which is surprising, considering the tavern is located on St. Mark’s Place — a trendy street in a trendy section of Manhattan.
All of this is peripheral to the fact that they serve $1 popcorn, $9 pitchers and $5 hot cider with bourbon, not to mention their happy hour specials. I go for a cheap, quiet spot on weekdays to play darts and put songs on the jukebox, but it’s also a great spot to start or end your weekend night.
– J. Travis Smith
The Only Cafe, Danforth, Toronto
The Danforth area of east-end Toronto is littered with more bars than most pub-crawlers could ever hope to remember. Irish pubs are squeezed between upstart lounges and new-school versions of old-school speakeasies on almost every block. A little off the beaten track though, just a touch further east and bordering on suburbia, there lies a dimly lit ray of hope known as The Only Cafe. With over 230 bottles and 25 craft taps taunting your tastebuds, The Only Cafe certainly doesn’t sound like a dive bar. You’d be right, until you walk in, open your eyes to look around and slink your way to a wobbly table. Dark, dingy and oozing with the dank, The Only Cafe is an east-end treasure chest for beer drinkers brave enough to dig it up. If food is what you seek, the bartender will kindly inform you to head back outside and turn left or right — the nearby pizza and shwarma joints do take-out. What it lacks in ambiance The Only more than makes up for in its dedication to all things malted and hoppy, which makes it one of the best damned dive bars in town.
– Matt Neundorf
Waterfront Ale House, New York, New York
In the context of dive bars, Waterfront Ale House lives on the fringes. On the corner of 30th street and 2nd avenue, adjacent to a popular East Side movie theater, its poorly lit sign says “Home of Warm Beer, Lousy Food, Ugly Owner. Est. 1989”. Not exactly Chiat\Day level shit here, but I must protest. I’ve squandered plenty of hours and dough at Waterfront with rare disappointments — ever noticed how that happens when expectations are low, company is good and libations are great?
Home to about every post-movie beer I’ve had since living in New York, Waterfront delivers on several, well, fronts. For ambiance there’s poor lighting, chalkboards and a couple of TVs. Dark wood abounds and the music plays, not blares. A self-serve popcorn machine spews mediocre kernels, perfect for instant table grabs — but you really don’t care since you’re already perusing the chalkboards for a new craft or tonic. The surly yet sweet waitstaff do not distract your with legs and cleavage — you get earnest impatience. “If you can’t tell there’s only two of us working tonight, honey”. (Smile). Your order should be ready and on point or better yet, your usual.
There’s Bud Heavy, but the rotation selection of suds are a better choice; a sampling may read like this: Rogue Morimoto Soba Ale, Chelsea Nut Brown or Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. The list goes on, but manageably so. The cherry on top? Food. A brief, rotating menu of grub is cheap, easy and delicious; the specials are always worth hearing. Regulars like the pulled pig sandwich, ale battered shrimp, or a 14-hour hickory smoked beef brisket — fingers or forks, plenty of napkins. If you want to snob it up a notch, order the chicken fin du monde, a German wurst platter or the “award-winning” barbecue spare ribs. Everything is around 10-12 bucks and there’s plenty of weekday twofer specials. Oh, the beer battered fish & chips are always bullet proof.
Kips Bay can be a doldrum of a neighborhood compared to, well, all the Villages, everything South of Houston, and Brooklyn et. al, but if you want a good bar (with a dash of dive), everything is just right when you’re on the Waterfront.
– Eric Yang
Das Loch, Berlin, Germany
Das Loch, which means “the hole” in German, was indeed a hole in the sidewalk outside a bar called Fischladen on Rigaer Strasse in Berlin circa 2007. We would shimmy down through the hole and into a spartan bar with one euro half liters of Sternburg Export beer, a busted up foosball table and a mix of expats, punks and old-school Ossies. The best and worst part of das Loch was the toilet, which steamed constantly and stood on a platform such that you had to hunch over it to piss. You didn’t go there unless you had guests in town and wanted to show them something rare and everyone was tight enough that toilet steam wasn’t a deal breaker. The bar no longer exists. When I think about it, I’m not even sure it ever did. There are just a few passing mentions of it in the comments section of German websites. It was a real dive, though, a place where you went to get messed up; otherwise, you’re just an observer, and real dives don’t have tourists — just clients.
– Jeremy Berger
Bigfoot Lodge, Los Angeles, California
If Sasquatch and Smokey the Bear re-envisioned a dive bar, the Bigfoot Lodge would be it. Log cabin decor, wall-mounted animal head lamps and Elk horns, carved wooden animal statues in the corners and lack of a food menu make this bar located in the hipster haven known as Los Feliz a great place to settle in; then there is the down-scale $10 PBR + Shot combo or full-scale cocktails like the delicious Lodge Mule using house-made ginger beer or the Roasted ‘Shmella, a rum drink featuring a flaming marshmallow, to keep things interesting. In a city with hyper-modern glitzy bars, it’s refreshing to find a down-home place with a singular focus on serving alcohol that doesn’t also require me to burn my clothes after leaving.