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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The Service Bar

9 Ways You’re Pissing Off Bartenders

Bartenders have a lot of power. They control the fun. Everyone wants to be their friend. Any given night they can get people drunk, laid or arrested. Also, they monitor the flow of alcohol, which means if you want to keep your whistle wet it pays to stay on their good side. So mind your P’s and Q’s and try not to piss them off! Here is a list of things you should avoid doing if you want to stay in your bartender’s good graces:

1. Waving your money around to get their attention – There is a fallacy that bartenders are more responsive when they see you flashing cash across the bar. This isn’t a strip club, Broseph. In most cases, obnoxiously waving money around will make the bartender perceive you as pushy and he or she will probably continue to ignore you. If they can’t get to you right away, it usually means they’re busy. Keep your money in your wallet—try flashing a smile instead.

2. Ruining top shelf spirits with unworthy mixers – Macallan 18 and Diet Coke? Really?? Really. You might be spending more money on drinks but your money can’t buy the bartender’s respect. Okay, okay—we know your banker friends will be impressed when you order your dirty martini with Stoli Crystal but the bartender serving you still thinks you’re a douchebag. We understand that calling for higher quality spirits helps circumvent the hangover-inducing effects of drinking from the well but sometimes respect comes with a price.

3. Insisting on complicated cocktail garnishes – You ordered a martini not a Greek salad so chill with the extra olives and cucumber slices, Hendricks Boy. We know you like to drink your vodka on the rocks with three ice cubes and five lime wedges so you can squeeze them in one at a time then ask for simple syrup and custom-make your own special little gimlet but it’s annoying. Just because we’ll do it for you, doesn’t make it right. Don’t even get us started on asking for blue cheese-stuffed olives. No, we don’t have them. No, we’re not going to make them for you.

4. Criticizing pour levels – In every watering hole, some drunken barfly will always blurt out, “You call that a drink?” when his Dewars-on-the-rocks arrives looking a little skimpy. Bartenders don’t set the measurements, management does. If you want more booze, order another drink (or ask for a double). If you don’t like the pour, go to another bar. But wasting energy giving your bartender the business won’t help the situation. It will only injure the relationship you have with them going forward. Ordering hard liquor in a wine glass isn’t going to make your drink bigger either. Nice try.


5. Having unrealistic expectations for virgin drinks – It’s not a coincidence that the word mocktails contains the word “mock.” The bartender will try to hide his or her disdain. It won’t be easy. Asking a bartender for a virgin cocktail is like asking a sportscar salesman to recommend a nice ten-speed bicycle. Maybe they’ll cut some slack for pregnant women, but otherwise if you’re looking for something fancy without alcohol most of the time you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

6. Ordering Cosmos – We don’t care if it’s your mom’s favorite drink. The Cosmopolitan is an outdated cocktail that tastes like powdered Crystal Light pink lemonade mixed with vodka. Sure, one day in the future it might be considered retro and cool, but right now it’s tacky and 90’s. Servers and bartenders—unless their restaurant is adjacent to a mall—will look down on you for ordering one. We need to move on. We did it with Hootie and the Blowfish, and we can do it with the Cosmopolitan.

7. Talking about “ABV” or “IBU” when you order a beer – You’re the only one who cares. It’s just beer. Unless you’re drinking in an establishment that specializes in craft brews, the bartender doesn’t give two shits about the alcohol content or bitterness quotient. Most bartenders can’t tell the difference between pilsner and lager. If you ask for something “sessionable”—you should be cut off immediately. Order a Heineken and shut your pie hole, dude.

8. Staggering drink orders – When you’re with a large group of people, try your best to order drinks as a round instead of in a million fragments. Bartenders can get annoyed when your group is constantly running them around, one mojito at a time. If you show sensitivity to their needs by consolidating your drink orders, they will return the favor by being more attentive. Maybe they’ll even buy you some shots.

9. Lingering with empty glasses – Real estate at a bar is a valuable commodity. Camping out after you’ve finished drinking inhibits your bartender’s ability to monetize those seats. So don’t sit there taking up space with your watered-down, whiskey-soaked glass of melted ice. Order another drink! If not—for the love of God—stop hitting on drunk Cougars.