If I had the time, resources, and inclination, I’d open a tiny bar and name it Dive Bar. It would be poorly lit, serve mostly bottled beer and well drinks, and the restrooms – clean and serviceable – would be graffiti temples filled with genius insults, beat poetry and psychedelic cartooning.
To have visited a dive bar is to have loved a dive bar – and all of you, I’m guessing, are already time-warped to That Dive Bar You Loved: You can feel the beer bottle or ridged plastic cup freezing your hand. If the music is live, you are head-bobbing toward a six inch high “stage” in the corner. And if you didn’t snag a barstool, you at least found a heavily varnished wooden ledge to set your drink on.
Kingsbury’s in Elmira was my first dive bar. Townies and the crunchier flannel-wearers from campus harmoniously swilled the house drink – Red Stripe from the bottle. After the pop-infused clubs of my high school and early college years, King’s to me was as much a revelation as Kurt Cobain murmuring “Come, as you are, as you were, as I want you to be.”
A revisit there for a college reunion was a letdown – King’s was actually now named “King’s” and I hazily remember it as a caricature of itself. Or maybe the caricature was me. I guess you really can’t go back.
I went to Mohawk Place, a legendary live music dive bar in downtown Buffalo, only once, about four years ago. The show was Maria Taylor of Azure Ray. Whispertown 2000 and Bela’s Shadow opened. I wondered if the former band was “for real” — for reasons I’ll leave to your imagination — and the latter was a local indie/shoegaze/post-rock outfit whose album I would have bought to keep company my Explosions in the Sky disc, had they an album to sell.
Sadly, I never made it back to this now-closed Buffalo institution where the bartender, a young Grizzly Adams, didn’t know how to work a waiter’s corkscrew and a side conversation in the ladies room netted me a “wow, you look young for your age”-backhanded compliment. That’s a dive bar for you. RIP, Mohawk Place.
I’ve visited dive bars in more exotic locales, too. There is the open-air joint a bumpy one hour pickup truck ride from where our off-shore-anchored cruise ship’s tender boat ported in the Dominican Republic. The beach was gorgeous and I remember drinking something cold and pleasant. The sensation of the experience came back recently when I watched the movie The Rum Diary.
There is a scene where Johnny Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson-esque Kemp and sidekick Sala get lost in a Puerto Rican jungle in the middle of the night and end up at a backwater open-air dive bar. A car chase ensues, they almost die, they get arrested… and, yes, this scene reminded me of the dive bar in the DR. I have a vivid memory, er, imagination.
The Raquette Lake Tap Room in the Adirondacks is a bit more genteel with Friday night fish specials like escargot and Crab Gruyere. I doubt the place is rated by the fire marshal for more than 50 people, but I guarantee you that it is the best party for miles (okay, it’s the only party for miles, but it’s still pretty great).
All the local color is here. In one corner is a group of summer camp counselors playing Jenga. In another corner is an assortment of lumberjack locals and downstate millionaire summer-locals – and you can’t tell who’s who.
There are politics, sports and great storytelling over hard and soft drinks. Make no mistake – the Tap Room is a dive bar and the kind of place where two women who just met will switch t-shirts in the ladies room so that one can gift her shirt about loving Jesus and drinking to the other, just because. (True story).
My hometown dive bar is Marge’s Lakeside Inn. A prohibition-era converted house right on the beach of Lake Ontario, Marge’s is quite possibly the orgy love child of all the other dive bars I’ve mentioned. The newcomer entering through the front porch might pause at the door worried that they’re about to stagger into someone’s living room. Mother and daughter proprietresses Fran and Francine Beth are the nicest people you will meet, and Fran will make sure you check out the vintage jukebox playing vintage tunes at a vintage price.
There’s free popcorn, an enclosed back porch, a back deck, and then…the beach. Really. I have brought take out from hot dog row across the street (a story for another day) and eaten dinner with my toes in the sand and sipping a cold brew. At 80 years and counting, Marge’s is the grandmamma of dive bars, and anyone who’s been there *loves* it. Really, what I love about a dive bar has nothing to do with the drinks.
On second thought, I wouldn’t try to open a dive bar. A dive bar “becomes,” like the aging of fine wine or whiskey. With every birthday, my tolerance for alcohol wanes a little more and so I have become a cheap date. But I will never, ever pass up the chance to have one at a dive bar.