In the beginning, I took a dive. Rather, I took to dives, spending my early 20s wrapped in the stiff embrace of cheap gin-and-tonics served by bartenders with one foot in the grave, the other ready to kick misbehaving boozers in the kiester.
I adored the low drinking life, marinating in bars with Christmas lights that twinkled in July while sipping foamy beer served in frosty mugs yanked from a freezer. But what started as an idle way to spend an eve soon snowballed into an obsession. Instead of merely drinking in these grimy, graffiti-covered lairs, I began writing about them with a rigor associated with scientific study. I submitted my liver to endless shots of bottom-shelf whiskey and canned beer. I listened, sympathetically, to sad-sack stories told by men with skittering eyes and scarred hands. Dive bars became my religion. And like any religion, dive bars have a few unbreakable commandments.
Commandment One: Cost. "What makes a dive bar is prices," Jimmy Duff, whose eponymous Brooklyn joint serves up ear-splitting heavy metal and PBR for a buck, once told me. "Even if you’re serving beer out of a port-a-john, it’s dirt-cheap drinks that attract a cast of characters." That’s why I love L.A.’s King Eddy Saloon, where a fiver buys two mixed drinks.
Commandment Two: Dubious Legality. The best dive bars feel like they’re flouting the law, existing on the fringes of society. Take Philadelphia’s Republican: The after-hours strip club is only open for one hour a night, a couple nights a week. Then the doors are sealed shut, leaving nothing but smoke-shrouded memories.
Commandment Three: Dive Bars Aren’t Born. Instead, like sedimentary rock, dives are built up in layers, such as the stickers at San Francisco’s Toronado or the currency tacked to the ceiling at Alaska’s Salty Dawg, as the years dissolve into decades and the customers grow ever more curmudgeonly — in the best way possible.
Here are a handful of my favorite dive bars in America. What are yours?