In appreciation: The dive bar

dive bar

(Note: This column originally was written for the Scripps Howard wire. To my knowledge, no newspaper ran it. Maybe there was a reason. Or maybe America just wasn’t ready. Which is my theory. In either case, read for yourself, and enjoy.)

When it comes to drinking in a place where misdemeanor crimes are committed outside in the alley and criminals freely plot felonies atop “Rockford Files” pinball machines, nothing beats a dive bar.

Poll college students and young professionals on their political beliefs and philosophies and you’re sure to get a wide range of preferences. But the one thing they’ll almost all agree on is that there’s no better place to enjoy an adult beverage than a dive.

Why do people love dive bars? What makes them the social glue that binds a generation? And why does every one of these bars have a giant Pabst sign the size of Sammy Sosa’s forehead? Does anyone actually drink Pabst? Or are they now solely a neon-sign manufacturing company?

I headed down to my local dive bar for answers.

My dive is a sports bar.

This is an important distinction because dive bars tend to come in three varieties: sports, townie and biker. If you see a local middle school sports pennant tacked on the wall, you’re in a sports dive. If tourists and/or college students are not welcome, you’re in a townie dive. If the bar has tire marks on the ceiling, you’re in a biker dive.

There are other variations, but these are the main three and they share a host of commonalities.

For instance, all dives smell the same. This is the smell: What if a Camel cigarette drank Budweiser all day, ate nothing but jalapeno poppers, picked a fight with the bouncer and was stomped Joe Pesci “Goodfellas”-style, after which point he was left to die? That’s the smell – the drunken cigarette of death smell.

And dive bars always have pseudo-creepy names like “The Cat’s Eye” or “The Smiling Skull.” The names all have the same subtext: stay away.

The clientele? There’s a certain type of woman who swears by these bars. You’ve met her. She always says, “Me? I ONLY go to dives.” But what she’s really saying is, “I have a phony marketing job, my nails are fake and this isn’t my natural hair color, but my love of dive bars makes me authentic.”

As much as she professes to love dives, you never see her type there – or any female type. That’s because the proper male to female ratio in a dive bar is approximately 12:1. The only excuse for a tighter ratio is if several of the male patrons are jailed simultaneously.

In the grand scheme of things, dive bars are not the unhappiest places in the world. On my list of Most Depressing Places to Drink Legally In Public, dive bars would rank fifth, behind bowling alley bar, mall bar, airport bar and Applebee’s. (This is a topic that will be explored in-depth in a future column. Feel free to send me your thoughts.)

Still, the more depressing the dive bar, the more people love it. But why? Why do we while away the hours in places where you can carve your name in the wall, where fistfights are commonplace and where there is more illicit activity in the bathroom on one Tuesday night than on the average season of “The Shield?” Why do we seek out such a depressing environment in order to have a good time?

I’m not exactly sure, but I think it has something to do with how much we all miss public high school.

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • Dive bars are an important part of my life. They are incredible screeners.

    First, an area’s dive bars tells you a lot about the area and whether or not you can live there. The only reason I live in LA is because I found the Poop Deck in Hermosa Beach. After visiting, I finally was able to say “ahh, so THIS is the spot in LA where a dude moving from Austin can get along!”

    Second, they are great screeners for girls. Let’s face it – If a girl cannot handle going to the Poop Deck and drink a pitcher of Budweiser, she is not fit to hang out with me. And I’d rather find this out sooner than later.

  • Andrea

    I love love the cat’s eye, the smiling skull and cassidy’s in Newport Beach – i do not have fake nails…no comment on the hair and i guess i do have a marketing job, but i love it and its not phony! OR it could be my love of Athens, Ohio…home of the dive, townie bar…that does not have an applebees…

  • Joe Donatelli

    I should point out that not ALL women who are associated with dive bars are phonies. Only the ones who go way out of their way to tell you how often they go to dives, like it makes them real. I am talking about posers. Andrea — and Nicole, who voiced her displeasure to me over the phone after a night of heavy drinking — you are dive bar girls all the way. In the good way.

  • Joe Donatelli

    Berto — right on! Agree completely. Dive bars are the poor man’s e-harmony.


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