America's Best Dive Bars

An open love letter to the dive bar, with a list of some of the country's best and truest examples.


Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once opined that pornography is tough to define, but "I know it when I see it." I feel the same way about dive bars. Over the last decade, I've covered the bars, beer, and booze beat with a liver-pummeling, coast-to-coast focus. I've imbibed high and low, sipping exquisitely calibrated cocktails in suit-and-tie joints and glugging Styrofoam buckets of Bud in graffiti-covered cockroach lairs. Thus, I have a clear concept about what constitutes a dive bar.

For starters, it's 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 New Orleans' Ms. Mae's, where cocktails start at a dollar and the conversations with the ne'er-do-wells are priceless.

Secondly, I like a dive to have an off-kilter shtick. That doesn't mean setting up a beer-pong table. I'm talk about the kind of offbeat, um, entertainment, found at Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon in Austin, Texas. On Sundays, patrons place bets on a chicken defecating on a number-covered board. If the No. 2 hit your number, you win!

Next, dive bars are idiosyncratic and unable to be replicated. Take Bubba's Sulky Lounge in Portland, Maine. It's crammed with taxidermied critters, lunch boxes, ice cream parlor equipment, and a light-up disco dance floor. The collection has to be accreted over time, which is the most crucial element for defining a dive bar: It's the layers of stickers at San Francisco's Toronado, and the currency tacked to the ceiling at Alaska's Salty Dawg.

Dive bars aren't born; they're created as the years dissolve into decades, and the customers grow ever more curmudgeonly — in the best way possible. Here are some of my favorite dive bars in America. What are yours?

Click here for the America's Best Bars Slideshow.


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45 Comments

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I went into this article with the condition that there was no way I could take this article seriously unless the 5 Point Cafe was listed. Thank you for not disappointing me.

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The 5 Point Cafe in Seattle - truly one of the world's best dives and diners, with great food, stiff drinks, a moose head with bras, a periscope in the men's room where you can view the Space Needle, and the best eclectic cast of characters as customers. Open 24 hours as a real dive should be. http://www.the5pointcafe.com

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I have to agree with you 100%. Seattle rock and roll combined with awesome steak and eggs, bloody marys, tattoos, and piercings. The 5 Point is awesome.

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Nowhere Bar and GA bar--Athens, GA

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King Eddy Saloon - 5th & Los Angeles St (on the "nickel") Downtown Los Angeles (with secret tunnels)

You can get a Bloody Mary for $ 3.25 and "biscuits, hash browns, sausage and gravy" for $ 3.25 at 6 AM - Monday through Sunday.

The last time I was there with my girlfriend, she bought almost three rounds, for the four of us, including her son and his friend.

They were drinking Boilermakers, shots in a draft beer glass; Whiskey and Coke, for me, and Bud Ponies, two, for her.

When she pick-up the tab, with what would have been close to a "Ben Franklin" on the Westside (of Downtown) with tip; Lesley flatly declared, after seeing the check, "The King Eddy's my favorite bar." - TK

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Don't miss the best dive bar in America, Skippers Smokehouse in Tampa, FL

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The Old Pink on Allen Street in Buffalo, NY. Toilet paper is chained to the wall in the ladies room. AWESOME steak sandwiches.

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mmm, PBR for a buck. i'd pour that swill into the port-a-john

Valaer Murray's picture

Love Toronado. Also, The Raven in D.C.!

Arthur Bovino's picturetdm-35-icon.png

That's right! How could I forget The Raven. Good times...

Mr. Avocado's picture

Holy Avocado I was so happy to see Ms. Mae's front and center in this article, like a second home to Mr. Avocado for 4 years, they let me in when I was 18 and never kicked me out after I had a few too many 2 dollar well drinks, Katrina knocked it around a bit but they were alive and kicking faster than most places because Mae knew how important this place was to that community. Foosball? check. Juke Box? Check. Abita on tap? check. Open all the time? check.

Joshua M. Bernstein's picture

Hey, Alexis:

I love the Turkey's Nest (only bar where I've ever been strangled), and the Wakamba is great, but the prices ain't. And Arthur, Lucy's is a classic. I'll have to check out Replay next time I cruise across the country.

Alexis Anderson's picture

Lucy's is great. So are Botanica (Nolita), the Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge (Hell's Kitchen), and the Turkey's Nest (Williamsburg).

But, I must say, it's a complete travesty to leave the Replay Lounge in Lawrence, Kansas, off of your list. Best (worst?) dive bar I've ever had the pleasure of frequenting.

Arthur Bovino's picturetdm-35-icon.png

I used to walk by the Turkey's Nest twice a day too and from work. It always seemed too-too for me. But I liked that it was there. Still do.

Arthur Bovino's picturetdm-35-icon.png

Great last line: "Dive bars aren't born; they're created as the years dissolve into decades. "

Lucy's on Avenue A near E9th Street in the East Village is one of my all-time favorites.
http://nymag.com/listings/bar/lucys/

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