What Is a Dive Bar and Why Do I Love Them?
It's hard to define what makes a dive a dive, but you know it when you see one—it feels like home.
If you asked me about my favorite place in the entire world, I'd probably take you to Churchill's, an anarchic mess of a bar looming in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood. For decades, owner Dave Daniels lived on the property and was a fixture there. But even after he sold the place the bar kept its traditions: It's supposedly had live music every single day since it opened in the 70s, and it remains incredibly, gloriously, shitty. There's a laundry room there that I've seen people both wash clothes and have sex in. Its bathrooms are legendary for their filth, and people would stand ankle-deep in dirty water in order to do key bumps.
It's the kind of place where anything can happen. Local crackheads don reflective vests in order to convince motorists they're parking attendants and trick them out of a buck or a cigarette. One time, someone stole my car and drove it into Churchill's—as in, crashed it against the back of the bar. They left a shank broken off in the ignition and a Stephen King book in the backseat. When I showed up to deal with all that, the locals demanded payment for "protecting my car" all night. I ignored them, went inside the bar, and grabbed a set of pliers so I could work on getting that shank removed.
Churchill's sometimes had better music than most dives, but it was unquestionably a dive. You know what a dive is—maybe you have your own dive memories, your own recollections of scuffed counters and spilled beers. Growing up in central Florida, I remember dives as spots where you could get dollar drafts, play pool, and smoke inside––a crucial lure, because there was no smoking in my parents' house. You could talk to people about catching catfish with their bare hands, sit quietly in the corner and play the naked version of Photo Hunt without anyone bothering you, or show up to eat a buffet-style meal prepared by the bartender on Thanksgiving if you didn't have anywhere else to go.
But when you try to turn those recollections into a definition, separate the dives from the ordinary bars, words fail. What makes a dive a dive? I kind of felt the same way that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously felt about the concept of obscenity––I knew it when I saw it.
"It's cheap and there's no question when you walk in about whether you're dressed well enough. If you're wearing pants, you're good," is how Kathy Giuffre describes dives, and she would know. Giuffre is now a sociologist at Colorado College, but in a past life she was a denizen of a bar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, called the Cave. At the time she was in her 20s, a transplant who didn't know anyone, so she started chatting up the regulars there, and eventually started working for the bar since she was there all the time anyway. She wrote a novel fictionalizing the watering hole, and today studies "third places" like the Cave.
A third place is a term coined by a sociologist named Ray Oldenberg. His idea was that home is the first place, work is the second, and any place where you can build community counts as a third. Think the Agora in ancient Athens, coffee houses in pre-Revolutionary Paris, and whatever parking lot goth teens congregate in after school. They're hubs where people from different backgrounds can freely exchange ideas, a fact that perhaps explains why many of the people accused of witchcraft in Salem were either tavern owners or related to them, according to Giuffre.
She tells me that the concept of a third place is possibly even more important than ever as people migrate away from their hometowns. There are few places you can go to meet new people when you've just blown into a new city: Your choices are basically just church or a bar, and I know which one I'd pick.
The term dive bar entered the lexicon in the 19th century as a way to describe a bar or opium den that was literally subterranean. There's a folk etymology as well––going in meant you were headed out of sight and into a zone of ill repute.
"To me, a dive bar is a place you don't want people to know that you are going to," John Cline tells me. "A real dive wouldn't call itself a dive, the same way you wouldn't say, 'I'm a degenerate alcoholic.'"
Cline has a PhD in American studies, but his real qualification comes from the hours he's logged in those kinds of places. He's hulking and bearded, and was big and hairy enough in high school that he could get into biker bars, no questions asked. His fascination with dives began at these places in rural Illinois, where he giddily remembers ordering Old Milwaukees with impunity while rubbing elbows with roughnecks. The core clientele of a dive bar, according to Cline, is always the lowest rung of society—they may be open to everyone, but traditionally these spaces are reserved for the working classes.
"It's going to be really sad when there aren't places where a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old can just sit around a table and shoot the breeze."
Dives don't generally make an effort to appeal to cleanliness. Giuffre still has a recurring nightmare about the Cave where she's being forced to put her bare feet on the bar's dirty floor. You can love a dive bar, even think of it as home, but still be disgusted by it—and maybe that's why you love it in the first place.
"Maybe as human beings we need a little danger," Giuffre says. "People have been helicopter parenting for a long time now and we grow up in these places that are so controlled that we need risk. For a lot of people who live in little suburbs and places that are very safe, it can be soul-killing."
The flip side of that attraction to dive bars is that we sometimes fetishize them. It's not just working-class people who seek out dives, it's everyone who wants to burrow into someplace dark and beery for a few hours. Cline compares the phenomenon of the upper-middle class going to dives to the way white musicians of a certain era would have formative, life-changing experiences at black clubs.
"It's like transgressing the boundaries of class," he says. "And how many white people going to these places have any direct connection to the working class anymore?"
In the country's most obnoxiously cultured cities, there aren't many dives left—some have been pushed out by gentrification, others have closed when aging owners die or retire. What takes their place are often hip cocktail bars or "small-plate" restaurants catering to the young and overmoneyed. Nice places to visit, maybe, but you wouldn't want to live there the way you do with a good dive.
The Cave is still open in Chapel Hill, but Giuffre knows its only a matter of time before it too shuts its doors. "It's going to be really sad when there aren't places where a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old can just sit around a table and shoot the breeze," she says. "That's a really wonderful way to be in the world."
One thing we have more than enough of is nouveau dives, like the one that just opened in my neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. There's antique Budweiser signage, distressed wood, big containers of cheap beer—the signifiers are there, but something in my gut tells me that it's not a "real" dive. It's like what Disney's Fort Wilderness is to camping, or what Grand Theft Auto is to actually stealing a car.
When Giuffre and I try to put together a theory of what was wrong with places like that, she says the problem is that the wear and tear wasn't earned the way it would be in an actual dive.
"The people who distress wood in an actual dive bar distress it by putting their cigarettes out on it by accident or spilling their beer on it by accident or running into it with a pool cue," she says.
Cline doesn't have kind words for these faux dives either. When I describe the new bar to him he likens it to a place in Austin, where he lives, that uses truck beds as benches. It's the sort of place that a free weekly paper might give the honorific of "best dive bar." He says that what those tastemakers consider a good divey spot is actually a highly selective, very curated take on what "low culture" is. That is to say, going to one of these nouveau dives constitutes a sort of class tourism––the illusion of authenticity without the inconvenience of having to hang out with any working-class people.
So what makes a dive a real dive? For one, the main activity that takes place there has to be drinking. No karaoke, definitely no bar trivia. A TV can be there, but it should be old, unremarkable, and probably tuned to the local news. There's no such thing as a new dive—they need to be there long enough to attract a regular clientele. The best dives still do buy-backs, a practice entirely forgotten in faux dives in which the bartender gives loyal customers drinks on the house. Mostly what makes a dive a dive is the people inside.
"I like the people here... I've never met a bad person here."
The other week, I wandered into a dive I had never been to— Gottscheer Hall in Ridgewood, Queens—on one of those sweltering New York days when any bar seems like an oasis. It was so hot the roaches were flying and a white-haired man stood just outside the door, swatting at them.
He told me his name was Dave Lennard. The 67-year-old had cascading eyebrows that hung about an half-inch off his face and two visible teeth on the bottom row. Carcasses of his past kills littered the ground along with the butts of the Half-and-Half cigarettes he'd rolled at home. Lennard, who punctuates about every fifth sentence with "boom," told me that he had done three tours in Vietnam, and had lived in the neighborhood for 20 years before moving to Glendale, still in Queens but not exactly close.
"There's always steadies here, but then always new people you want to meet," he said about why he still treks back to Gottscheer.
Inside the bar were pictures of past and present winners of a pageant that caters to women descended from a part of Germany that's currently in Slovenia. A couple small televisions played the Olympics, but no one really was watching. You could get a big mug of beer for $5, and there was a stack of business cards for a local car service at the door. A free jukebox played Private Dancer in the background.
"Now, who doesn't like Tina Turner?" Lennard asked rhetorically. "Boom."
Lennard told me about his love for Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia. He was still upset about the American League's designated hitter rule, which took effect back in 1973. The best Led Zeppelin album, we agreed, was the first.
"I like the people here," he said just before I left. "I've never met a bad person here. You can come out here and deal with young people and old people and everyone gets along. We all come in here and communicate, and what's better than that?"
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.