What Is A Dive Bar?
One of life’s great debates
Small towns. Quiet neighborhoods. Neglected side streets. Hidden alleys. We all long for that hidden gem, that part of the world that only we know about, whether it’s a quiet bookstore, a lightly trafficked park or a corner bar with a regular crowd. A dive bar is nothing more than an enduring piece of authenticity that happens to serve cheap drinks in an honest way.
That might sound a little poetic when describing a cinder block building famous for inexpensive High Life, but that’s really the heart of why I and why we seek out places like dive bars, or hole-in-the-wall record stores or mom & pop restaurants. We’ve all done the touristy thing on vacation, we’ve all eaten at an Applebee’s, but we’re also very much aware that we’re picking the heavily-traveled path when we do. Our lives are full of those choices, from what we buy to where we vacation to what we watch.
For every trip to a chain restaurant, there’s that urge deep down to support a local business.
And just like any aspect of life, we crave balance. For every trip to a chain restaurant, there’s that urge deep down to support a local business. For every item bought off of Amazon, there’s that urge deep down to stop into the corner store. Life is full of conveniences that we seek out, but we make a known and willing tradeoff every time we sacrifice community, or originality or authenticity with those choices.
Qualifications are subjective, of course, and if you like a bar, you should go there. No field guide, no person, no set of criteria should tell you that choice is wrong. But “dive bar” is a term for a reason, it’s a badge of honor for the drinking establishments around the world that make a choice every day to resist the commonplace, to stay true to their roots, to be who they are unapologetically and enduringly.
When I walk into a dive bar, I want to see a little bit of wear and tear on the building. I want to know that this is a much-loved, rough around the edges piece of real people and real lives. For every ad that tries to convince us that Olive Garden feels like home, a real dive bar never has to tell you, convince you, sell you.
Show me a dive bar with sawdust on the floor, a wall of clip-on potato chip bags behind the bar, an honest-to-god television set bought before 1985 that’s a foot deep and probably heavy as hell.
Give me a place with a story, a bar with character, wall art that hasn’t changed since 1956 or an owner who refused to sell out to the apartment complex developer across the street (Thirsty Beaver Saloon). Show me a dive bar with sawdust on the floor (McSorley’s), a wall of clip-on potato chip bags behind the bar (Johnnie’s Glenn Avenue Grill), an honest-to-god television set bought before 1985 that’s a foot deep and probably heavy as hell.
A commonplace definition of a dive bar always throws out ‘cheap beer’ as a requirement, but it’s not about serving cheap drinks, it’s about doing what’s right by the people who hit up the same barstool every night on their way home from work. It’s about respecting locals enough to resist the urge to price gouge them on a Bud Light on a Thursday night. Dive bars don’t serve cheap drinks because they hope to not make money, they do it because their patrons are family and they’re treated accordingly.
And that’s what this thing, this Scoundrel’s Field Guide idea, is for. I have to believe that there are people out there like me who want to travel, want to experience the world, but want to feel like we live there, not like we were passing through. There’s time to see the sights, but a trip filled with expensive restaurants and crowded monuments is the travel equivalent of a bulleted list. You’ll get the gist of the city, but none of the depth.
People from New Orleans don’t drink hand grenades on Bourbon Street every night, but they might just grab a po’ boy and an Abita at the bar around the corner
Dive bars provide one way to feel that depth and live in it for a night. There are others, of course, but there are few things more immersive and more communal than a neighborhood bar on a Tuesday filled with regulars steeped in their daily or weekly or monthly routine. People from New Orleans don’t drink hand grenades on Bourbon Street every night, but they might just grab a po’ boy and an Abita at the bar around the corner (Le Bon Temps Roule), and that’s where the authentic moments lie for those of us lucky enough to visit.
The bars that end up on this site and the places that I hold in my heart as my favorite dive bars around the world wrap up character and authenticity and community and an unfiltered sense of place and connect people to other people, connect me to a real sense of place, not me to a way to spend money, or me to a checklist to say that I’ve seen that, or been there, or took that picture.
What is a dive bar? A dive bar is a living, breathing piece of a local and vibrant community, an unapologetic, unflinching cornerstone of real life, lived in and frequented by real people. They can feel gritty or classic or dusty or timeless. There is no template. But every dive bar feels like home, feels honest, feels sure of itself. Dive bars are grounded and honest and they’re a window to feeling like a local for a few hours, or settling in as a regular.
These are my favorite places on earth. And this site and this travel guide is a monument to dive bars as a counterpoint to every manufactured moment sold to us every day. A dive bar is a refuge from all of it, a place to experience community, to connect to a place and to simply grab a bucket of bottles, a handful of darts and start trash-talking a loved one, or maybe a stranger. And if that cold can of beer in your hand is reasonably priced, all the better.