In praise of... American Dive Bars: why low-key watering holes are fabulous for getting to know the locals

Dark, cosseting, steeped in American folklore - there's nothing quite like State-side dive bar. Here, Katrina Conaglen explains why she adores dingy watering holes

In praise of... American Dive BarsIn praise of... American Dive Bars
In praise of... American Dive Bars

In praise of... is a new weekly Travel feature in which NationalWorld writers extol the virtues of a particular aspect of adventuring. From the idiosyncratic, divisive, or sometimes just plain quotidian - these are the things we love to do on our holidays.

Aside from a frankly unhinged political system, insane gun laws and backwards-pedalling attitudes to abortion, I adore America. I love the scale of the cities, the easy curiosity and warmth of the people, the endless (ok, obscene) levels of choice you get at supermarkets and restaurants.  It’s a country I have unironic warmth for, and nothing represents the zenith of the American travelling experience - my favourite thing to do regardless of which coast or city I am in - than finding a great dive bar, pulling up a stool and wiling away a few hours there.

Sometimes the evening will pass quietly, a drink sipped, a book read. Sometimes they'll turn suddenly raucous, and I'll find myself playing darts with new friends at an ungodly hour despite having worse aim than Dick Cheney on a hunt. Either way, time in a dive bar - and it has to be an American dive bar, I've never found the like in the UK - is good for my soul.

What is a dive bar?

But what is a dive bar, you peripatetic lush? you cry. Which is a touch over-familiar of you, but a fair query. Dive bars remind me of the US Supreme Court definition of pornography - difficult to define, but you recognise it when you see it.

R Bar, New Orleans - one-time favoured haunt of Anthony BourdainR Bar, New Orleans - one-time favoured haunt of Anthony Bourdain
R Bar, New Orleans - one-time favoured haunt of Anthony Bourdain

Etymologically, they have a rich history. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary cites one of the first usages of the phrase “dive bar” in an 1871 issue of the New York Herald, where they were “illegal drinking dens in the lower levels of a building, like a cellar or a basement.” There, patrons could “dive” into the venue. 

By the 1960s, they’d developed quite the taint of ill esteem, defined by Websters as “a disreputable resort for drinking or entertainment”.

These days, dive bars are more notionally nebulous. Indeed, rather than being a pejorative term, 'dive' is used affectionately by those that frequent them, a marker of authenticity, and lack of pretention.

There are many, many attributes to a dive bar, individual components that no dive bar has to have, but if a place has enough of those attributes to hit a critical mass - boom! That ramshackle gestalt forms a dive bar:

Being downstairs. Being dimly lit. Having a jukebox. Being dark in the day time. Sticky floors. Pinball. A pool table. Pickled food offerings. Sarky bar staff. A wall of ever-fraying band tour posters. A giant TV constantly screening exploitation cinema or cheap horror movies. Terrible bathrooms. A five buck 'shot and a brew'*.   

Throw enough of these factors into a place, and that's a dive.

In the same way that an anthropologist instantly changes their surrounds by stepping into one, it may seem that a trespassing of a middle aged, middle class white Kiwi woman into a dive bar marks their gentrification - officially demarcating them as bourgeois (that’s bougie to some). 

Delilah's, ChicagoDelilah's, Chicago
Delilah's, Chicago

But that’s not remotely the case - indeed, I’d argue dive bars are the most democratic, egalitarian spaces in the US. You can be there with a story and a yen to chat nonsense to strangers. Just been fired, want to nurse four reasonably priced martinis and mind your own business? They fulfil that brief too. You might find yourself hustled at pool, or singing “We Are The Champions” with your new best friend at 4 in the morning. It’s an enclave of misfit toys, with dim lighting and hard liquor.

If they're so low-key, why are dives fun?

“For me the beauty of a dive bar is you get exactly what you see. It's not pretentious, it's not pretending to be something it's not”, says Justin Hutton, Operations Director at Two Tribes Brewery, whose work frequently takes him to the States in search of new delectable tipples. 

“The whole concept is not to spend a shit load of money on appearance [as the owner] which you then have to try and recoup from the customer. You spend little, but make it somewhere people want to hang out, bring their friends and socialise without breaking the bank. Exactly what going to a bar should be.”

Justin's favourite dive bar: The Hideout, Chicago

"The Hideout is great because it feels like somewhere you can stumble upon, but at the same time, if you were local, it would be your favourite spot. It's hard for a spot to feel as comfortable for tourists as locals and vice versa - this place does."

Hannah Waddington, who spent a decade running some of the most iconic pubs in Brighton ahead of becoming Operations Manager at Tex/Mex chain D Grande in London, elaborates: “There is almost always an interesting bartender, or story about the owner, the reason it’s there, why it’s endured, why people adore coming back. And so often you’ll get a sense of what locals actually drink and actually enjoy, which you wouldn’t in a bar frequented by tourists, which is designed to try and cater to their tastes.

“In contrast, at a great dive bar, no one is gonna bend over backwards to find you a wine you like, you’re gonna drink what we like (out of ten choices) and you’ll like it.” 

That brusque attitude, a slight saltiness, a little sass is part, for me, of the calm of a dive. No one is paying attention to your dress, your drink order, your desires. It sets the perfect tone to relax and take things as they come. 

In The Rainbo Club, Chicago, two fellas start jockeying for use of the pinball machine; after slinging insults back and forth with me for a while, they concede I’m alright and welcome me with a shot of malort (If you are fortunate enough not to have tasted this uniquely Chicagoan tipple, count yourself grateful).

At a great dive bar, no one is gonna bend over backwards to find you a wine you like, you’re gonna drink what we like and you’ll like it.

Hannah Waddington, Operations Manager, D Grande

At Chicago's Delilah’s, my favourite dive bar in the world, I start chatting to a mezcal salesman at the bar who good-naturedly (if mercilessly) teases me about my job, only pausing to ask the bartender for a different mezcal varietal for us to sample. When he slings his hook for a work meeting, he leaves with a warm hug, pressing a bottle of mezcal into my hands as a parting gift.   

Rainbo Club, Chicago, is a delightfully no-frills dive that features in the High Fidelity FilmRainbo Club, Chicago, is a delightfully no-frills dive that features in the High Fidelity Film
Rainbo Club, Chicago, is a delightfully no-frills dive that features in the High Fidelity Film

While in Max Club Deuce in Miami, a retired FDNY chap props up the bar reliving the horrors of working Ground Zero at the Twin Towers (you get the feeling he dines out on this story every day, though fair play to him, that seems justified). His account is ribald and laced with fruity language, to which the bartender always responds “watch your language - there’s a lady present” and nodding at me, which I confess to being hopelessly charmed by. 

At Bar Nancy’s in Miami the floor is gloriously sticky, the tunes anchored in the late 80s, and the queue for the bathroom is almost always 20 deep (it may be libellous to speculate that the wide-eyes of the people as they emerged meant they were in there for a bump, but who can imagine such vice ever taking place in Miami?).

Delilah's has over 750 whiskey varietals, a pinball machine, and pool - a dive divineDelilah's has over 750 whiskey varietals, a pinball machine, and pool - a dive divine
Delilah's has over 750 whiskey varietals, a pinball machine, and pool - a dive divine

There are downsides, of course. Sexual harassment in a bar is, lamentably, hardly a rare occurrence, and dives are no exception. Though I will say that bar staff in those joints are so sharp, assertive and good at dealing with poor behaviour that I always felt assured they'd intervene should things get out of hand.

At the R Bar, in New Orleans, I was repeatedly offered crack. I never felt unsafe, but I did leave paranoid I had the consumptive appearance of a junkie.

Katrina's favourite dive bar: Delilah's, Chicago

Mike Miller, owner of the iconic Delilah's in Lincoln Park, doesn't consider the place to be a dive. With 750 whiskies, and over 25 absinthe varietals, he specified at Tales of the Cocktail, 2016: “We’re not a dive bar, we’re a dark bar... We are consciously creating an environment that we believe to be entertaining, clean, safe and engaging to people. I like dive bars, but I’m not a fan of dirty bars. "I'll defend the right of any proprietor to define their own establishment, but that deliciously dark, comfy, fun spot has, to me, the definition of Big Dive Energy.

And there’s no doubt that you are either alive to the romance of a dive bar, or it’s not for you. I met a friend in Bar Nancy when last in Miami, which turned him sclerotic in an instant. Surveying the dry ice billowing out, the writhing crowds, feeling the sticky floor under foot and inhaling the fresh sweaty scent of the revellers, he muttered “I can’t stay here” and pulled an instant volte face. 

Me? I danced until 2am, before staggering back to my hotel room, dishevelled, sore from dancing, and more than a little refreshed. I wouldn't have it any other way.