What is the fascination that we restaurant people have with Dive Bars? Every great restaurant community has an “industry bar” where waiters, cooks, Maitre’D’s, and managers all gather after they shoo the last patrons out of their establishments; and they are always the divey-est, dirtiest, most outdated places around. Is it a knee-jerk reaction to the prim and proper atmosphere of our restaurants? Do we just need a place to completely let our hair down after being “on stage” for our guests, shirts pressed, ties straight, with all the “Yessirs” and “Yessmaams”? Or is it just that they are centrally located and never, ever, close before the absolute latest legal limit for last call?
Ray’s in St. Helena, Wright’s Corner in The Carneros, McTighe’s in Buckhead, Claudie’s Lounge and Pancha’s in Yountville, and The Alibi in New Orleans are/were classic examples of the genre; some are still there, but like restaurants that flambé tableside or drive-in movies, the true Dive Bars are an endangered species.
So what makes a dive bar a Dive Bar? I propose the following as basic criteria. Although not every great Dive Bar will meet them all, hitting the mark on at least two-thirds is required to make the cut:
1. Neon martini glass on the sign out front. Extra points if it has a neon olive of a different color.
2. Front door with no window; if there is a window it needs to be “Speakeasy” sized, like the little hatch they used during Prohibition to slide open so patrons could tell the bouncers, “Joe sent me”. And if there is a tiny window, it needs to be really filthy.
3. Dark enough so that if you emerge during daylight hours you have to squint like a prison inmate that’s been in solitary for a week.
4. A long bar with a brass foot rail and big, fat, wide Nauga-hyde barstools that don’t have backs and don’t swivel. People in dive bars need to be able to slide in and out and off their stools; and we don’t like (or need) to look around.
5. Don’t close until the latest possible legal last call, then have a “Shots only” call at 5 minutes to closing.
6. They are open for business at 7am in states that have 2am or later closing times. Extra points awarded if there is actually someone in there drinking at 7am; double points if there are people outside at 6:45am, waiting for them to open.
7. An un-level pool table with a “house roll” that gives the regulars a clear advantage over first-timers.
8. An old, floral print sofa by the pool table that is so nasty you need to be really, really drunk to ever consider sitting on it.
9. Pin-ball machines. Video game consoles don’t count unless they are at least 2 decades old.
10. Bathrooms that have one or more of the following: vending machines that sell condoms, combs, aftershave, or all three; well thought-out, creative graffiti (no gang tags or “dick and balls” drawings, although the latter can be good for a chuckle); and a bathroom sink that has been torn off the wall so many times it is either a) missing, or b) now sits on a too-low plywood box that the owner has built in a kind of “give-up” re-model. Bonus points for the matching plywood toilet tank cover.
11. Dust and cobweb-covered sports and trivia memorabilia hanging from the walls and/or ceiling.
12. Smoking allowed, even in states where it’s illegal. If you don’t meet this very important standard, your Dive Bar status is immediately revoked. Extra points awarded if they have a cigarette machine and it sells either Chesterfields or Lucky Strikes.
13. The have “Old Crow”, in both the 80 and 100 proof versions.
14. They let you run a tab; and I don’t mean leaving your credit card with the bartender until closing time. A real tab, listed in a little black ledger or a file box full of 3 by 5 index cards that is kept under the bar.
15. A clock with all fives for the hours and says “No Drinking Till After 5!”
16. A non-electronic, mechanical cash register for the till.
17. If they have any food it needs be sandwiches only and comes from a kitchen that is only visible through a pass-through window so tiny the light doesn’t expose the lack of janitorial services.
18. Last and most important criteria: you would never, ever go there if you hadn’t just gotten off work at the restaurant around the corner.