What Exactly is a Dive Bar?

When I told people I wanted to write a blog on dive bars I sometimes got the question: “What exactly is a dive bar?” This question confused me, being as opinionated on the matter as I am. Yet answering is not so simple. Nobody is satisfied with “Well, when you go in, it feels divey.” This has led me to assemble some criteria, and, since this is my blog, I get to decide what those criteria are.

First, it has to be a bar. That means a full liquor license, not just beer and wine. Also, while I may drink at Applebees (and I do) I’m pretty sure that’s a restaurant. If the bar part of a restaurant is cordoned off in some way, maybe that part qualifies as an actual bar. Maybe not. I’ll have to call those as I see them.

A dive should aspire to the following criteria (actually not meeting #1 might be a game killer):

  1. $3 must get you SOMETHING, at least during happy hour. Yes I know this doesn’t exist in many places in the country but that just makes me think that’s probably what’s wrong with those places.
  2. Pabst Blue Ribbon. I get that this seems arbitrary, but since my bar diving partner, Dave, is inordinately attached to this brew it gets a spot.
  3. The floor should be sticky or uneven somewhere. Doesn’t matter where. Duct-tape on the floor definitely counts.
  4. It must be dark. Anything from ‘dark enough to induce seizure-like blinking if coming in from the daylight’ to ‘so dark your friends can’t find you until they’ve sat at the bar for five minutes’ (this happened to me once, in Paul’s).
  5. The bathroom should have some deficiency. No hot water counts, but better if parts of the toilet are missing and replaced with cardboard from beer boxes.
  6. They must be incapable of making a chocolate martini. There are many fru fru drinks that don’t belong in a dive bar, this one just sounded the most terrifyingly wrong.
  7. Regulars! Every dive bar needs ‘em. Here’s how to ID a regular:
  • They order without looking around or asking questions
  • They know the bartender’s name
  • They opt for self service of napkins, lemon wedges, or coasters by reaching behind the bar
  1. There should be a pool table or dart board. Bonus if the pool balls are a mismatched set. (I used to hang out in a bar where half the balls were #2. We played a game we called 2-ball. I miss that place.)
  2. Unless there is a band playing it should be quiet enough to have a conversation in most areas, not just the bathroom.
  3. There should be something in the décor worth a double take. Like maybe a stuffed jackalope behind the bar.

I’m thinking seven out of ten to make the dive bar cut.  And yes, that is a completely arbitrary number.


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