Hunting for a good dive bar sounds like a contradiction, but a good dive bar is a thing of beauty. Finding the elusive dive bar can be intimidating at times, and you might even be nervous about stepping through the doors and finding a barful of eyes staring at you or even an empty bar with a bartender sizing you up. However, there are plenty of signs to guide you on your search for your next dive bar.
The first thing a dive bar should have is regulars. It's not a dive bar without a rotation of predictable clientele filling the bar space. This scene can be difficult to notice on your first few visits, and it can even depend on the time of day or the bartender working. However, when you first stop in, take a moment to drink in the scene before you. Consider a few of these observations: Is the bartender familiar with any of the guests? Do any of the guests know one another? Do the guests look at ease or comfortable as though they're in their own home? The last question can be a double-edged sword, as you can be sure to disregard overly comfortable ones. On your subsequent visit, take a look to see if you see any familiar faces and run through the above observations.
A (Fairly) Attentive Bartender
It's a myth that a dive bar bartender is rough and brutal to customers. While some may be more gruff than others, it is a dive bar after all, and not a fine dining establishment. A bartender should make a good drink and offer you another before your last sip is gone or shortly thereafter. What separates a dive bar from a lousy bar is the service. Just because you're at a dive bar doesn't mean that manners have flown out the window, so while you may not hear a "you're welcome," it wouldn't be amiss to use your please and thank yous.
This reminder leads to the next point: ordering a drink from your bartender. A dive bar is pretty heavily stocked in basics and maybe one or two cocktail-forward ingredients, but keep your drink order simple. While you may order an old-fashioned, it may not be the same style old-fashioned you'd get from a steak house. Sometimes you just get what you get. So keep it simple to three ingredients or less, unless it's a Long Island iced tea, but if you order that, your bartender could be worried you'll need babysitting.
When you sit down, scan the walls, and if you can spot a few dozen dollar bills or even upwards of a few thousand, you've found yourself a good dive bar. Every bar with money for walls has a different reason for this, be it regulars who want to adorn the bar or leave a semi-permanent note for others, visitors who want to leave a memento, patrons interested in leaving behind a few bucks in hopes of luck or wishes. Regardless of why, the money is a message: home and comfort. Some bars use the funds during slow or poor business times, while others donate the money towards charity.
Be it a pool table, dartboard, shuffleboard, or live music, a dive bar has an activity to pass the time while you spend time with friends and strangers that are your friends for the night. Consider these your invitation to stay a while and open a tab. Some dive bars even host weekly league nights for darts or pool, so swing by to catch your dive bar full of action. Sometimes the activity is people watching from a patio, sometimes makeshift, filled with plastic chairs and tables.
Skeleton Crew of Staff Plus One
You'll never find a dive bar overstaffed, but it will be perfectly staffed with a skeleton crew plus one. Would three bartenders be best for that 40-minute rush? Sure. But with more staffings comes higher prices for everyone. You can wait that extra 65 seconds for your drink. The number of dive bars with a host ranks pretty close to zero, except prime dinner hours to help the flow of customers when it comes to seating. Don't snap your fingers or whistle; wait your turn, and your cold beer will be yours in no time.
A Guinness Sign
This trait needs next to no explanation: any good or notable dive bar will have a Guinness sign, light, or banner somewhere in the bar, and perhaps several in addition to other beer signs or buckets. There's no clear answer about why this is the case. It's just one of those unwritten rules in life. Just as sure as any dive bar will have a Miller High Life and shot special.
Brief but Encompassing Food Menu
A dive bar menu will be no more than two pages if there is a menu at all. Some will have withstood the test of time and be grandfathered in to not being required to serve food. Some get around the food rule by serving chips or popcorn, and some even sell pre-made sandwiches. You don't go to a dive bar for an upscale food experience. You go for the sweet potato fries and jalapeño poppers appetizers or a burger and fish and chips, maybe even macaroni and cheese. Whatever the menu has, you can rest assured your meal will be prepared and in front of you within 20 minutes. The exception is the Irish bars with a scratch kitchen, and those are a rare gem.
A good dive bar has some sort of free food, most often popcorn. Think of this as the dive bar's way of making you thirsty with all of that salt, but also a little something to snack on while you're drinking because no one likes patrons who are drinking on an empty stomach. Often situated away from where patrons are sitting and drinking, if you can't seem to locate it, you can ask your bartender or server over your next drink where you can find that bar gold.
A Few Decent Reviews
Review websites are a reasonably useless algorithm for finding the feel of a bar. How often do people leave a positive review? Not very often. However, if you're nervous to try out a new dive bar, you can search for a bar with a handful of reviews a year-no more than that. Dive bars aren't touristy, so there's no reason for it to rack up dozens and dozens of reviews every month, especially from out-of-towners. If a dive bar is tourist-heavy, then it's not a place you'll find regulars or cheap drinks. But, a visitor or two will slip through, shedding some light onto the atmosphere. Do take all reviews with a grain of salt. Someone's poor beer selection is another person's dream lineup.
Happy Hour Prices
A good dive bar will have a happy hour. A good dive bar will also not have a happy hour. Whichever a dive bar has, the prices should be reasonable all day and all night, too. With the exception of a few craft beers or top-shelf liquor, a dive bar drink should be at least a dollar less than any other surrounding bar. Any dive bar with big dollar signs for prices isn't authentic. The same goes for chicken wings and other food specials. It's a tourist trap to make you feel like a local. Go ahead and turn around. Be prepared, as some dive bars are cash only, but they'll likely have an ATM in a corner or beside the building. Don't skimp on your tip, either.
Dive bars don't start that way. Bars with great deals and happy hours can become a dive bar, but a dive bar is like your favorite clothing: worn in the right places and a source of comfort. It's the right amount of cluttered but not dirty. Every state's and even a city's idea of a dive bar will vary. If you're new to that area, you can do a quick search of the best dive bars in the area to see what's most popular or what to look for. A dive bar in Boston won't look the same as a dive bar in Florida.
An Ode to the Dive Bar
A dive bar isn't a place where you forget manners or money. It's about trusting those unassuming buildings with flickering neon signs drawing you in like a moth to a flame. If you're nervous about what awaits you on the other side of the door, you can always feign looking for a friend, then kindly excuse yourself, or just turn around and walk out. But you could take the gamble and order a beer, soaking in the atmosphere. You might find a diamond in the rough and be the next regular to join the roster. Above all, a dive bar is where you are comfortable and not breaking the bank. It's as personal a feeling as it gets.