Last month I introduced a French friend to my favorite California dive bar, the Silver Peso, and it was clearly love at first sight. Smiling with delight, Sandra glanced around the dim room, slid onto the ragged bar stool, leaned across the sticky wooden bar, and said, “White wine.”
Aghast, I tried to shout “No, no stop!” but before I could get the words out, the bartender had disappeared into the back.
“I guess I should have mentioned this earlier,” I said. “Never order white wine in a dive bar.”
“Why not? Don’t they have it?”
“Well, they’ll have something,” I said. “Doesn't mean you’re going to want to drink it.”
In case you’re not familiar with the American term “dive bar,” it refers to a well-worn, unpretentious local place that can be anything from a comfy, no-frills neighborhood pub to the kind of seriously squalid gin joint where you’ll want to keep your back to the wall and check to make sure all your vaccinations are up to date. The term comes from Prohibition-era basement speakeasies entered by diving down a flight of stairs under the cover of darkness. Today, dive bars enjoy a kind of retro, hipster vogue, and this can lead you seriously astray. Google “dive bar” in most cities, and you’ll come up with a list of trendy taverns and cookie-cutter microbreweries that are, frankly, an insult to the time-honored concept of down-and-dirty drinking establishments.
To me, the essence of a dive bar experience is a funky atmosphere, modest prices, and quirky patrons who tend to accept you exactly as you are. It’s very refreshing.
Sandra, who just hours earlier had been at an excruciatingly chic luncheon, said as we waited for our drinks, “I like this place. No one is looking at us, no one is watching what we wear or cares how we look.” Exactly! Which is why it’s worth the effort to find the real thing. We often stumble across great ones by sheer chance while strolling through an unfamiliar city or taking a road trip through a rural area.
How to Spot a Dive Bar
For a start, a true dive bar never calls itself a dive bar. The name is usually something old school such as The Hide-Away, Monty’s Log Cabin, or simply Bar. The exterior is usually underwhelming, and the interior is dark — murky, even — and festooned with Christmas lights and barroom kitsch: neon Budweiser signs, poker-playing dogs painted on velvet, calendars showing sports teams from 1986, and signs like “Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.” Ideally, the bar stools are held together with duct tape while the floors are sticky with old beer, and occasionally (I award extra points for this) covered with peanut shells or sawdust.
What to Order
You know you’re not in a dive bar if they have top shelf liquor and a wine list — especially one offering chardonnay at $17 a glass. In a recent visit to Petaluma, Rich and I were drawn to Gale’s Central Club Bar by the hand-lettered sign offering $2 pints of PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer). Now that’s what I’m talking about!
In a proper dive bar, nearly everyone will be drinking beer, whisky, or whisky with a beer chaser. Don't even think of ordering a mojito or cosmopolitan — or of course, white wine. Even if they manage to scrounge up something approximating such beverages, you’ll be proclaiming yourself a rookie and an outsider. In America, order a Bud, and elsewhere ask for a local draft beer, at least for the first round. You may notice the bartender is drinking one as well, and perhaps you can bond over that.
What Not to Order
During a recent trip to Portland, a friend said, “My son knows a great vegan dive bar!” I’m sorry, but vegan food is an automatic disqualifier! Nothing wrong with vegan food, of course, but like a $17 glass of wine, it is way too fancy for a dive bar.
In fact, food and dive bars are rarely a happy combination. Some of the hipper places like Zeitgeist in San Francisco provide suitably downscale fare such as low-budget grilled cheese sandwiches and burgers, but for the most part, dive bars offer little beyond packets of peanuts or potato chips (and I’d check the sell-by date on those). One night in Torino, Italy, Rich and I rashly sampled the all-you-can-eat buffet at Damadama, eating unidentifiable deep-fat-fried substances that left us with a strange taste in our mouths and a disturbing tummy rumble. Never again.
It crossed my mind that Sandra’s wine might not be so terrible; after all, the neighborhood around the Silver Peso was seriously gentrified now, and we were just hours from vineyards producing some of California’s finest labels. Perhaps a decent chardonnay had managed to creep into the cooler by osmosis. I watched with interest as the glass appeared in front of her and she took a cautious sip. A look of horror passed over her face.
Oh, thank God, I thought. The spirit of the Silver Peso — and of dive bars everywhere — lives on.
Been to any great dive bars lately? I’d love to hear about them!
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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