The Service Bar

When Is a Dive Bar Truly a Dive?

In July of this year, Rolling Stone published an article about pop star Olivia Rodrigo’s impromptu performance at a “U.K. dive bar” called Bunny Jackson’s. The meticulously branded Manchester club is slathered in tropes of Americana: bourbon, cheap wings, and an unhealthy obsession with corrugated siding. “I’m dead sober,” Rodrigo told the audience, seemingly self-aware of the strangeness of this moment set against the dive bar backdrop. Must a person be drunk to be in a dive? Of course not. But the comment seemed to underscore the awkward tension between Bunny Jackson’s shabby-chic marketing scheme and the hard-won authenticity of an earnest dive.

The question of self-defined dive bars came up for me again in September when Food & Wine published an article titled “NYC’s First Sober Dive Bar is a Very Good Time.” A video on the magazine’s Instagram page shows off a quaint and kitschy Manhattan spot with bar mats branded by Aperol Spritz and Deep Eddy Vodka, despite having a back bar stocked exclusively with non-alcoholic spirits. These alcohol-free products have become a legitimate part of the conversation for most serious bar programs in America, but there was something about the “sober dive bar” moniker that I found grating. Again, it wasn’t the focus on sobriety that bothered me as much as its using the allure of a dive as a marketing ploy. Whether a sober space lends itself to being a dive bar is probably a much larger conversation.

To be called a “dive bar” is a dubious honorific. The title appears to have originated from the eponymous Dug’s Dive, founded sometime in the early nineteenth century in Buffalo’s Canal District by William Douglas, or “Uncle Dug.” It was a filthy and often dangerous place by today’s standards, but it was also a place of refuge. Dug, a former slave, was known for providing food and shelter to Black men in need. After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, that need could be very real, and “dives” like Dug’s were places where the well-heeled were unlikely to travel and police would pay no mind. This act of charity and community along the fringes of polite society unknowingly set the foundation of what would define dive bars in the modern era.

dive bar street view

Dive bars are deeply loved institutions, regularly full of passionate patrons who have a sense of individual ownership of the place. Like most tribal environments dive bars can be moderately unsafe to outsiders, with their own customs that normal bars might not abide. And while assaults, theft, and occasionally worse can happen at dive bars, they rarely happen to members of the community who occupy them. As a bartender, I once admonished a young man that I’d cut off who was on the verge of doing something about it: “If you try to jump over this bar, either I’m going to get you,” then I nodded to the room full of regulars who had all grown quiet, “or they will.”

What marketers, trendsetters, and even many bar owners fail to grasp is that a “dive bar” is more than an aesthetic. It’s not something that can be papered on the walls or adopted by fiat. No amount of corrugated siding, expired license plates, carved initials, or sliced-up posters and stickers will turn a regular bar into a dive bar. A popular magazine can’t simply anoint a trendy new concept a subspecies of dive. In fact, the moment a place is written up as a “great dive bar,” its dive bar credentials suffer until, after a couple of months when tourists invariably grow tired, the regulars return.

There are no great dives, no new dives, no sober dives, no all-ages dives, and certainly no fucking cocktail dives; there are simply dives. Does the beer taste a little warm? It’s probably because the keg cooler has been begging for a new compressor for years, but the owner just needs to get through the next payroll. Your glass has a chip? Drink around it. If you insist on telling the bartender, wait until you order a new round, so they don’t just refill the same pint. But be warned that the next glass might be coming hot out of the dishwasher. You get what you get in a dive bar.

Like the people who inhabit them, dive bars don’t care what you think and only nominally care about what you want. Depending on the day they may be too tired, too old, or simply too hung over for your shit today. This is probably why so many bartenders occupy dive bars during their off hours. For people who clench their teeth every day at work serving clueless twenty somethings, indecisive bachelorette parties, creepy old men expecting a smile, and bros demanding shots then fumbling with their wallets when they hear the price, we sometimes need a break. We find respite existing in places that don’t suffer fools, where decorum is defined by minding your own business. Dive bars are places, perhaps the only places, where we know we can be pensively silent or absolute goblins entirely without judgement. If bartenders have safe spaces, they are dive bars.

Please bear this in mind when your excitable friends say they’re taking you to a great dive to get you out of your shell after a breakup. Because they are not. They’re taking you to a regular bar. With all due respect to your friends, dives aren’t for breaking out of shells, they’re for getting cozy within them.

dive bar bathroom wall

Earlier this year, Miller High Life collaborated with an alcoholic ice cream brand called Tipsy Scoop to release a small run of “High Life Ice Cream Dive Bars.” The 5% ABV ice cream is flavored with actual High Life beer, chocolate, caramel, and a peanut swirl, to evoke that “distinct sticky dive bar floor feeling.” A sprinkle of carbonated candy emulates the spritz of a freshly drawn pint of shitty beer. I normally try to avert my eyes when niche companies and ad execs for beverage monoliths pander for press, but this one got under my skin. “Who wants to lick the carpet where Jerry pissed himself?” I wondered aloud.

It’s unfair to pigeonhole dive bars as purveyors of inferiority. In truth, some dives offer delicious meals at prices so low it’s hard to comprehend. They’re irreplaceable domains of local culture where income, social status, fame, and everything else don’t matter for at least the time you spend within their four walls. They’re great equalizers. The staff of a dive loves the bar like it’s been in their family for generations, and there’s a good chance it has been. The regulars of a dive have been coming to them since they could drink. If they moved away, they never fail to return on a visit.

Popular non-dive bars have a different culture. They’re where you go to be seen, to experience a new trend, or to impress a client or a date. Sometimes they’re just where you go to have a great time and watch the game. Not being a dive bar does not make a place lesser. But dive bars have history and community. They’re where a person can turn when they have nothing and need a place to be. They’re bars where your mother can point to the corner stool where your grandfather always sat. They’re the keepers of the “remember when.”

About ten years ago a journalist for a local publication asked me where I liked to go to drink, and I answered honestly. I told him about the dive that I spent a couple of nights a week at, where I knew I would never see a regular from my bar and rarely even another bartender except for those like me who were chasing the sunrise. I regretted it. It was uncomfortable to see this place, with the felt on its pool tables shredded and its stage for shows little more than a stack of combo amps, spin through a culture rag. Because it already had a culture, and it didn’t need a new one. When its building was finally sold, demolished, and rebuilt into a glass-walled coffee shop, I promised myself that I wouldn’t do that again.

Because dives deserve to exist, to flourish, and sometimes to be torn down to their foundations based on their own merits and existing as much as they can by their own rules. We lessen them, and to some degree ourselves, by asking them to be something different.

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There Are James Cordens Dining In Restaurants Every Night

I always laugh at the latest bout of performative outrage over celebrities abusing the staff at restaurants, as James Corden allegedly did at Balthazar this week. Not because I think it’s funny, because of course it isn’t, but as a former server I know this entitled behavior is quite common in restaurants. If you haven’t read the news yet, Corden apparently dressed down the staff at Keith McNally’s Manhattan bistro when several mistakes were made preparing with his wife’s bespoke “egg-yolk only” omelette with Gruyère. Reports claim that Corden repeatedly admonished his servers, yelling insults like: “You can’t do your job!” and “Maybe I should go into the kitchen and cook my omelette myself?”

The situation called to mind a similar row involving “Iron Chef” Cat Cora back in 2019 when Cora was accused of going ballistic and flipping off the hostess at Chicago’s Alinea after she was refused a table (even though her party arrived without a reservation). Cora vehemently denied the allegations until the owner Nick Kokonas released surveillance tapes that showed her getting aggressive with the staff. Like McNally, Kokonas used social media as a bullhorn to air his grievances and the food media, as they always do, worked themselves into a froth about it for weeks.

The most amusing part of it to me was that restaurateurs like McNally train their staff to be docile when guests become ornery, like Corden did. It’s generally unacceptable for servers to speak up for themselves when customers talk down to them. I’ve had many coworkers lose their jobs for talking back even though they were clearly justified in doing so. The prevailing wisdom in hospitality circles is that nothing good can come from challenging the primacy of the guest’s needs. That leaves staff impotent in situations like this and vulnerable to being abused by people like Corden who get aroused by the power dynamics. It happens everyday restaurants. The perpetrators forget, but the servers don’t. These situations live on in their restaurant nightmares for years.

One inalienable truth about the Corden and Cora situations is that the people who deserve an apology, the staff, rarely get one. Lost in the posturing and Instagram shaming is that a group of hard-working and likely exhausted restaurant workers were trying their best to make these people happy. No one was conspiring to hijack Corden’s leisurely lunch. There wasn’t a vindictive line cook who prefers Jimmy Kimmel purposefully slipping traces of egg white into Mr. Corden’s wife’s omelette. The cooks probably separated the whites from the yolks to order which—especially during a crazy busy Balathazar service—isn’t easy to do without flaw.

Balthazar is still one of New York City’s busiest restaurants

Every restaurant I’ve ever worked in over the twenty-year span of my career has had guests, often regulars, that mistreat staff. Rarely are these individuals refused service or asked to raise the standards of their behavior. Instead, restaurant workers are conditioned to hold their tongues and “kill them with kindness.” Unfortunately, we end up killing ourselves, on the inside, when we’re repeatedly asked to administer triage to aggrieved guests who have no legitimate grievances.

The Corden situation, trivial though it is, should remind us that we need to re-examine the lob-sided power dynamic inherent to hospitality. The fallout from the pandemic has exposed how the old rules of engagement have become a hindrance to recruiting talent. The labor shortage is at least partially born out of the fact that former restaurant workers are tired of cowering to undeserving rich people like Corden, especially when doing so puts their health at risk. If hungry people want restaurants to be able to find adequate staff, they need to accept a new framework for how they should behave when they dine in them. Allowing James Cordens to throw hissy fits like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory every time there’s a mistake in their order is simply unsustainable.

Within less than twenty-four hours, Corden apologized to McNally personally, and his ban was reversed. Unsurprisingly, there were no reports of Corden directly apologizing to the staff he’d abused. I wonder if the staff would be so charitable about allowing Corden back into the restaurant if they were given a say. My guess is they wouldn’t, because they’d rather that table be occupied by someone with a good conscience and a clean diaper. To an owner, faceless tables represent naked sales. They just want the seats full. To staff, on the other hand, how the occupants of each table comport themselves can dramatically affect the tenor of their night.

The fact is that most restaurant workers don’t have time to dwell on the James Cordens of the world. Our sanity is challenged every night by guests’ outlandish behavior, and it always exceeds our wildest imagination. “You can’t make this shit up” is one of the most common phrases uttered behind the curtain of every restaurant. We maintain sanity by filtering out the impurities and assuring ourselves that it’s not us, it’s them. There will always be another James Corden, and we’re better off saving our energy for the next battle than wasting our breath on carpool karaoke. Plus, the rent is due, and we probably have to work a double tomorrow.

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