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?