How to Spot a Great Dive Bar

I have been in the bar business for many years.  I have been in every type of nightclub, euro club, pub, neighborhood bar, and high end social bar.  My favorite places are always the dive bars.  This is where the most interesting people hang out, plain and simple.  The conversations that you can listen in on, and join in on, with out the slightest bit of awkwardness are pure gold.  One story that comes to mind in particular that can sum up my love for these types of places happened at Club 21 in San Francisco. Unfortunately it is now closed, but I will always remember the bartender Frank.  He was extremely nice and he gave off a vibe that truly said that he loved running that bar.  I am not going to get into stories, as you should make your own, but what I will do is show you what to look for in finding a great dive bar for an experience.

A Small Element of Dangerdive-bar1

Don’t take this the wrong way.  I wouldn’t suggest going into the first bar full of bikers with “born to kill” on their vests that you see.  But the bar should have a baseball bat behind the counter.   The place should give off a vibe of, a little trouble might happen, but we can handle whatever does happen.  The bartender has been there for a long time and knows what is happening.  This is not their first rodeo.


The Jukebox

This is a big one as there are definitely a few rules.  It can’t be a modern jukebox.  It should not be digital.  There should be cd’s in this old machine.  It is acceptable that there is a small amount of rap and/or hip hop but nothing beyond the year 2000.  There should be a lot of old country, but even more classic rock.  Anything from the late 60’s to 1978.  Johnny Cash must be included on the playlist.

There Should Be Some Plywood, Where a Wall Should Be

A true blue dive bar should be a place where you go to order a great martini.  In fact, they shouldn’t have martini glasses.  If you order a martini, the bartender (most likely owner) will look at you as if you are an alien.  You are there to drink cheap beer, and drink cheap shot, and you should NOT be concerned if part of the interior of the bar is falling apart.

The Ambiance is Christmas Lights

Who doesn’t love Christmas lights.  When I was 16 I got my first car.  A 1989 Ford Escort.  Of course I got loud speakers.  I decided to hook up Christmas lights in my car that reacted to the music.  I have been hooked ever since.  Maybe this is my love for dive bars for one specific reason as they have perfected the use of Christmas lights throughout the bar to give that, what the French call, a certain “I don’t know what”.  If you see Christmas lights on the way in, you can be 75% sure you are on the right path for a great dive bar experience.  dive-bar10

There is a Distinctive Smell

You will know it when you smell it, as it is a combination of stale beer and cigarette smoke (even though smoking was banned years ago), it is definitely there.