The American dive bar, the neighbourhood bar. Whatever you want to call it – the historic refuge for those wanting to escape the puritanical eye and drink themselves some sanity. A place to find comfort, friends, comrades in misery or to let loose. Where the great cross-section of society comes to be together in quiet salute to the powers of alcohol. It’s a beautiful thing. We examine what makes an American dive bar a dive bar.
Isn’t A Dive Bar Just A Pub?
The dive bar is a truly American invention. In Australia we have those lousy, but comfortable pubs where you are likely to find counter meals and a dearth of craft beer. Our pubs are usually large places, multiple rooms catering to different purposes. The buildings are often grand and in no way shy of their use. America, on the other hand, has a long puritanical history that drove its bars underground. Dive bars blend in with their surrounds, announcing their existence with small signs that turn neon by night attracting barflys like moths. Entrances to the more historic venues are often concealed in an effort to hide the shame of those coming and going.
They’re Locals In The Truest Sense
I’ve come to LA’s Cozy Inn, five minutes drive from Sony Picture Studios in Culver City, to ponder the question of what makes a dive bar a dive bar? Firstly, the most important aspect of a dive bar should be that it represent the area it is located, dive bars in New York, say, or suburban Milwaukee are going to be different in the minutia but similar in feel to the Cozy Inn. The first thing that should strike you is the lack of light, at a dive bar it is midnight all the time. I fumble my way from the door to the bar finding a seat in the darkness. Like many dive bars in Los Angeles the only natural light penetrating the darkness at the Cozy leaks in from an open door, it’s a concrete box surrounded by parking.
I ask Matt, the bartender, a north-eastern transplant who I’m yet to see without a Pittsburgh Pirates cap, what makes the Cozy Inn unique. His answer reveals how completely local dive bars are, the only comparisons he can draw are to the other two dive bars in the area, as anything outside of this geographical location isn’t a valid comparison. Matt explains, “Around the corner you got Joxer Daley’s, and they’ve got the draughts, if you want beer on tap that’s where you go. At Cinema Bar they’ve got the smoking area outdoors, and sometimes they do music. But here at the Cozy, we pour hard, that’s what we’re known for, we pour hard.” I tell the bartender I like tequila drinks. Coming from a land where every millilitre of liquor is measured and accounted for watching Matt free pour my drink and deliver me something that is probably 80% Jose Cuervo is both very generous and a little terrifying. “That’ll be $6.50, and you should know we tip here in The United States,” he says.
A Typical Dive Bar
A dive bar is not a place to be seen, it is a place to leave status at the door and connect with people on equal footing, where the high rub elbows with the low. A dive bar should never make you feel rushed or hurried. Here at the Cozy I see a number of people who I can confidently say have been slowly sipping beer at the bar since before 10am, and this is only a conservative estimate as the place opens at 6am – like all good dive’s should. The majority of the floor space has been given over to games: shuffleboard, a couple of pool tables, actually very few places to sit – strange as the name is the Cozy Inn. Dive Bars should have at least a picture of the bar’s owner somewhere on the wall, although extra points are awarded if, as at the Cozy, above the bar are pictures of regulars struggling with the weight of enormous fish pulled from the open sea nearby.
Additionally, if you find a wall with various mugs engraved with regular’s names hanging on the wall, you’re definitely in a dive bar. While the trend among drinking establishments is to add food to their list of offerings, a true dive bar will, at best, serve a small offering of American classics that require a deep fryer. Onion rings, chilli dogs, nachos, French fries, buffalo wings and burgers. Also expect to find reasonably priced beer-and-shot-combos and a jukebox of some kind. I’d always prefer to see a CD jukebox heavy with classic metal but more usually these days it’s the internet kind. At the Cozy you can pay money to push down playlists requested by others, perfect if you’re having a quick beer and can’t stand to hear Born In the U.S.A. again.
What’s In A Name?
Where we in Australia might reach to honour place or history when we name a pub, dive bars can take a comical approach: Dew Drop Inn, The Horny Toad, He’s Not Here, The Stumble Inn. There are also a high percentage of dives that go the more personal route of simply being named after their owner: Beefy’s Cabin, Dear John’s, Sadie’s Flying Elephant. But more often than not the name will speak to the scene inside: Rock Bottom Lounge, Sports Harbour, Merrimaker, The Shelter and The Liquor Box.
I would like to lead off a list of America’s best dive bars with the most famous dive bar in the world, Moe’s Taven.
The scene of many evenings of convivial drinking between Barney, Lenny, Carl and Homer Simpson. Unfortunately, being fictional and all, it’s a difficult place to visit. But the following list should be a good start to your Americana odyssey. And if you need me, I’ll be sitting here at The Cozy Inn propping up the bar until Matt calls last drinks. Bottoms-up.
Try these dive bars next time you’re State-side.
#1 Mean-Eyed Cat, Austin, Texas
#2 Lucky’s Lounge, Boston, Massachusetts
#3 Rudy’ Bar & Grill, New York City, New York
#4 Lee Harvey’s, Dallas, Texas
#5 Jasper’s Saloon, Lompoc, California
#6 Chez Jay’s, Santa Monica, California
Backstory behind the lead image: Chez Jay’s has been an LA staple since 1959, serving locals, movie stars and the occasional elephant. It was even declared a Santa Monica Historic Landmark in 2012.
This post was originally published on March 4th 2015 and has since been updated.