More Than Just Cheap Beer: Why Dive Bars are the Best Drinking Spots in the US
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
All countries have their budget, no-frills drinking holes. Mexico has its cantinas, Japan its izakaya…and the UK has Wetherspoons. For United States of Americans, the humble dive bar is the economy-grade location to drown one’s sorrows. But there’s more allure to dive bars than the price of a pint: most of them are just so mysteriously comforting, miserably fascinating, and full of character.
It’s not quite agreed upon how exactly to define the term “dive bar”, although this article comes close to my own perception of the phrase, arguing that it all comes down to effort. Dive bars put in the least amount of effort possible in order to stay afloat. This seems like a great definition. It appears to perfectly explain why dive bars can look so different and yet feel collectively similar.
Moe's Tavern: Definitely a dive bar
Yet maybe “effort” isn’t actually the right word. It’s not like dive bars owners are swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck, but haven’t got to fixing the busted hand dryer because they can’t be bothered. Dive bars are—for the most part—operated on a budget. Although, a thorough cleaning regime isn’t too pricey, so I guess maybe some dive bar owners are a tad lazy…
Let’s look at a few of the common characteristics that unite most dive bars.
Firstly, they are ridiculously dark. I mean, fumble-your-way-around-for-the-first-five-minutes dark. I’m not sure if it’s a cost-saving initiative or a technique to make people drink more, but I do know that leaving a dive bar to meet the mid-afternoon Californian sun is incredibly jarring. Well, so I’ve heard from people who frequent dive bars in the afternoon.
The loo situation is often dicey. In one of my favorite dives—Cheswick’s in San Diego—the wall that separates the toilet from the sink area only comes halfway across the room, and there’s no door. There’s never been one. No chance of getting any privacy if you need some sit-down time.
I’m not really painting a great picture here to the folks back home so I’d better move on to what makes these places so charming. A good place to start is you’ll always come across a character. You know, some mildly eccentric/dangerously loquacious type propping up the bar and talking the bartender’s ear off. Thing is, the staff are usually nice enough to let the rambler ramble, or they’re just as eccentric and talkative as the customer.
This blend of cheery and chatty is the hallmark of the dive bar bartender. With a huge side of “I’ve seen some things.” Of all the dive bars I’ve visited, I can’t think of a time where a member of staff was rude or unfriendly. Some of the friendliest service I’ve ever experienced has been in dives—and that’s in a nation of weirdly overly-friendly service staff. Kudos to the King Eddy Saloon in Downtown LA, the aforementioned Cheswick’s, and Hi Brow in Pomona for knocking affability out the park. Hi Brow sadly didn’t survive the crushing blow the pandemic served to these establishments.
Outside the King Eddy Saloon, Downtown LA
For me, the perfect dive bar must have a jukebox. And luckily most of the ones I’ve frequented seem to think so too. Dive bars are the perfect places to choose your own tunes—there’s barely anyone else around to tell you they stink. If you’re really lucky, the bartender will put it on free play and let you go nuts.
All this is why “effort” isn’t really the best way to measure the diveyness of a bar: owners and staff put in just as much effort to make you feel welcome, they just don’t have the means to upgrade their facilities, flooring, seats...ceiling…pool table…etc.
It may be easy to quip “you get what you pay for”, but that’s just not true. For usually dirt-cheap prices (OK, I’m talking compared to other SoCal establishments— for UK readers, think the average price for a drink in, say, Stockport), you get a friendly, sometimes lively, atmosphere, with a decent music selection and great service.
You’ll rarely struggle to find a seat. You can rest your eyes from the bright California sun. And you’ll get to eavesdrop on some fascinating conversations.
Inside The Drawing Room (the brightest it's ever looked)
Here are some of my favorite dive bars I’ve frequented so far with my partner in bar hopping and in life. Let me know where we should go next…
The Drawing Room (Los Feliz): old school jukebox, dark as f*ck, opens at 8am
Hi Brow (Pomona, closed): friendly service, always someone doing or selling drugs in parking lot
V Room (Long Beach): most talkative bartender ever, diverse clientele, Guy Fieri on the TV
Frolic Room (Hollywood): $4 drinks on the walk of fame, quiz machine with great selection, might bump into someone famous (I haven’t, yet)
Hinano Café (Venice Beach): what you’d expect a beach dive to look like, very popular
Deane’s Bar & Thrill (Rancho Cucamonga): lots of blue neon, rowdy customers, party bar
Sans Souci Cocktail Lounge (Ventura): nice beer garden, friendly bar staff, serves pizza
Cheswick’s (San Diego): great service, Bouncing Souls on the jukebox, filled with bikers
King Eddy Saloon (Downtown LA): at least two really friendly bartenders, frequented by Kiefer Sutherland, right on the edge of Skid Row
And finally, a few of my favs outside of SoCal: Dirty Franks (Philly), The Buffet Bar (Tucson), Nob Hill Inn (Denver) and The Missouri Lounge (Berkeley).
The time we went to V Room in Long Beach