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Ode to the dive bar

The 500 Club by day...

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In this ever-gentrifying city of San Francisco, many of us maintain a special place in our hearts for something that is decidedly and stubbornly downmarket: the dive bar. Perhaps it’s because it reminds us of the fabled, debaucherous days of the Barbary Coast. Or maybe we require a basic, everyman kind of experience to balance out all the studiously crafted $10 cocktails served in fancy bars all over this town. However you explain it, dive bars have a certain gritty glory; aside from cheap drinks, they also serve up a kind of unquestionable authenticity. And I love them for it.

My favorite dive bar is the 500 Club, also known as “the Five.” It’s a neighborhood institution and favorite after-work hangout among my coworkers. The jukebox has great music (frustratingly in the form of unlabeled mix cd’s, making it impossible to figure out who you’re hearing), and the crowd is easygoing and neighborly. But my favorite part of all is the facade: jutting out from the corner of the building is a giant neon champagne coupe, with glittering lights that emulate bubbles. And underneath this beacon of indulgence is a charming but outdated sign stating “Open 6:00 AM.”

When I told my mom that I was going to write about this subject, she paused, and I could tell that her appreciation for the dive bar was…well, limited. (She’s far more temperate than I.) So for the purposes of discussion, here are some criteria for dive-bar status, and why they’re important:

  1. Dive bars aren’t made; they happen. There’s no such thing as a “recently opened” dive, and though diveyness can be encouraged, it cannot be cultivated. Just as trying to be cool is an automatic disqualifier for coolness, dives come into being by striving to be nothing more than a watering hole. This is key to the authenticity factor.
  2. They usually have weathered signage, often featuring an image of a martini glass. Some dives are so downtrodden that they have no signs at all.
  3. They must have the signature smell. In many states, dive bars mostly smell like cigarette smoke. But here in California, where smoking is prohibited in bars and restaurants, dive bars have the distinctive smell of soured beer. The good thing is that you stop noticing the smell once you start in on a drink.
  4. Dive bars specialize in two kinds of drinks: beers and shots. You can get away with a highball like a Jack & Coke, but purists stick with things that can be poured from a single bottle or tap. These kinds of drinks are beverages of the proletariat, which is at the core of the dive experience. Don’t even think about ordering a Cosmo or a glass of wine; either will be horrible and the bartender will ignore you for the rest of your visit. Speaking of…
  5. You don’t go to a dive bar for the service. The bartenders are often surly, which adds to the “not trying too hard” charm.
  6. There has to be a jukebox. If it has Guns n’ Roses’ “Apppetite for Destruction” on it, you know you’re in the right place. It doesn’t matter if you like the album; it’s an important barometer, for dives and rock n’ roll both have strong undercurrents of rebellion and excess.
  7. The best dives are open in the afternoon, or better yet, in the morning. And the windows are either small enough or dirty enough to keep it dark inside the bar, even on sunny days. After all, dives are ideal places to drown one’s sorrows, and nobody wants to do that in broad daylight. Plus, dim lighting facilitates anonymity.

All these things add up to a bar that is unpretentious, a little bit rough around the edges, and all the more charming because of it. I have nothing against elaborate cocktails; in fact, I quite like them. But sometimes you just just want to sip on some Maker’s, and a good dive bar fills that need perfectly.

What about you? Do you have a favorite dive, and why do you love it? And have I missed any key criteria?


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  • oceanic64 | 05/11/2009

    Romeos in Abington Pa. It's a step back in time. Been there since the 20's. Some of the customers are 3rd. generation

  • cooklisa | 05/11/2009

    many in St. Louis Missouri have been gentrified but many still exist. The Cat's Meow in Soulard was owned by two beehive hair-doed women before the more recent owners purchased it but they have kept many of the attributes that make this an ultimate dive bar - Smoke, cheap drinks, the regulars on their usual bar stools, shots, small, dark, teeny bathrooms, etc. The food selection is limited - frozen pizzas warmed (burned) in the little oven - best consumed late at night after many drinks. Like many dive bars in St. Louis, the Cat's Meow catered to the nearby brewery workers. Early hours for the late shift. Not sure if they still do, but they have a strong allegiance to the local Anheuser-Busch workers and drinkers and were an A-B beer only bar for the longest time. Nearby you will find the Hiway Bar. And every dive needs a nearby diner - Billies Fine Foods is open weekdays from 6 a.m until 2 p.m. but on weekends it opens at 1:30 a.m. for the after bar crowd. After drinking all day/night at the Cat's Meow, one can head to Billies for biscuits and gravy or a chicken fried steak breakfast.

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