While clubs play to the younger crowds and taverns bring in townies, a local dive bar can attract all walks of life and act as the beating heart of any city's cultural scene as well as a stalwart among the neighboring bars and restaurants. Dives are the great equalizer of nightlife, a place where all walks of life can congregate as they are- no flashy outfits or embellishments required. Dive bars offer no-nonsense refuge for locals to unwind at, and for visitors passing through a chance to see the cultural underbelly of wherever they are visiting. Tourists can hide in a dimly lit bar, basking in the warm glow of neon signage and the buzz of cheap drinks, and get a glimpse of what life is like in any city while mingling with the local characters. But what characterizes a dive bar?
Though the idea of what constitutes a dive bar can vary from city to city, this guide will offer some insight into the typical characteristics of a good dive bar while recommending some of the best dives in the south!
Characteristics of the Perfect Dive Bar
One of the first tell-tale signs that you've come upon a dive bar is a palpable sense of history. Since dives have a reputation of attracting thirsty locals through their doors, the bar has to have been around long enough that people are familiar enough with it to come back regularly. There is no such thing as a brand new dive opening up, for the best of dives look a little dilapidated from the outside.
Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge in New Orleans is a prime example of how dives set the scene of local history. Since its opening in 1994, Snake and Jake's have proudly served "cheap drinks with a big heart" for over 30 years. Though it may look a little rickety from the front facade, you know that there are decades worth of stories and memories locked in the bar.
The cult film director John Waters once described his idea of the perfect dive as "A good bar that isn't ironic, it isn't infected with expensive coolness." Similar to the historical aspect required of any respectable dive, dives have the appeal that they can exist in any era. This means you won't hear any of the top 40 hits from the past 20 years or so- that would be way too current for any self-respecting dive bar.
If you want to crank some tunes, you'll need to bring some change for the jukebox. Dives always retain a certain kind of rock 'n roll edge with their dingy, rough around the edges vibe. Especially true for the punks and alternative crowds, there is no cooler feeling than flipping through the racks of a golden-hued jukebox and seeing the heads at the bar turn in approval of your song choice.
Music is a top priority for Phoenix, AZ mainstay Rips Bar. Describing itself as "the past and present of Phoenix," Rips offers touring bands and fans alike a space to congregate in a kitschy, art-deco style building in the middle of the desert.
Dives don't have to follow any specific decorative theme. I've seen dives born out of old tiki bars, bare and dingy basements, gay bars, and so on, but any good dive bar makes its patrons want to leave their mark and become a part of the atmosphere.
This explains why so many dive bars are adorned with Sharpie and stickers from their adoring patrons. While many might feel a little skeeved out walking into a bar's bathroom to see notes and initials scribbled all over, I just like to think of it as people marking where something special happened, like lovers carving their initials on a tree trunk.
CBGB (no, not THAT CBGBs) in St. Louis, MO took the influence of graffiti one step farther when the owners Cindy and Guy Boar went on a trip to New York for their honeymoon. Rumor has it that they found "CBGB" scribbles across a bar entrance in Lower Manhattan and decided it was their fate to open their own bar. They also seem to encourage their guests to continue the tradition.
Greasy Spoon Bar Food
Unlike a tavern with dozens of craft beer options, dives can't be bothered with all that fancy stuff. Though the beer selection may leave more to be desired by the more acquired palettes, a good dive knows the importance of good, greasy bar food to soak up all that alcohol that is more than just pretzels and peanuts.
Don't be fooled by the almost fancy-looking menu at Atlanta's famed dive bar The EARL. Even though their array of vegetarian takes on bar food may make a dive purist raise an eyebrow, think of it as them welcoming people of all cultural- and dietary- backgrounds.