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!
“Is this one of those eat-in-the dark places?” Rich asked as we stumbled out of the bright heat of late afternoon into the near-black interior. I was taking him out for a birthday drink at Sacramento’s Dive Bar, chosen because Rich loves a casual gin joint with low lighting and slightly seedy charm. In darkness so dense we could barely navigate, we groped our way towards the gleam of backlit bottles and the glow of a forty-foot aquarium where large, colorful fish swam among fake rocks and treasure chests. Then a live mermaid slithered into the tank.
She wasn't a real mermaid, of course, but a young woman dressed in a fish tail and a few strategically placed clam shells. She swam back and forth, blowing languid, bubbly kisses to the crowd, which at that hour consisted of Rich, myself, and one or two others. The act wasn’t particularly racy; in fact, it looked like cold, hard work to me. I backed up to get a photo and almost bumped into two young women staring up at the tank.
“Aren’t you glad you don’t have to do that for a living?” I remarked.
“Actually, that is what I do for a living,” one said. “I work here as a mermaid.”
Oops. “Wow. Really?" I turned to her companion. "You too?”
“No, I don’t work here,” she said. “But I am a mermaid. I have my own traveling tank.”
We chatted a while about the life of a professional mermaid, and I reflected that Sacramento was turning out to be a lot more interesting than I'd expected.
Sacramento suffers from constant and, if I am to be brutally honest, not terribly flattering comparison to San Francisco and LA. As a California city in which to pursue business or pleasure, it’s considered an also-ran. That must be disheartening for a town that was once the hottest destination on the planet. In 1838 the discovery of gold at nearby Sutter’s Mill made it the epicenter of the California Gold Rush, and everyone with a get-rich-quick itch showed up, many adding their own brand of wildness to the legends of the Old West.
Since then, Sacramento has settled down into something of a cultural backwater, and now locals are working hard to renovate the city’s infrastructure and reputation. Four years ago, the mayor declared it America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital, citing the area’s year-round growing season and 1.5 million acres of farms and ranches. OK, we thought, they had plenty of fresh ingredients available, but did that guarantee quality? We decided to give the town’s cuisine a test run with a Local Roots Food Tour of K Street, once the city’s main thoroughfare.
Our knowledgeable and vivacious guide, Cearra, first steered us to Mayahuel, named for a Mexican fertility deity. Under the slightly unnerving gaze of the goddess, we sampled así sabe (fresh watermelon, cucumber, lime, and tequila rimmed with chile), accompanied by the signature chile poblano soup. Wow.
Next came the Ambrosia Café, a casual eatery beloved by nearby office workers. “Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger used to stop in,” Cearra said. Easy to see why. Our grilled cheese sandwiches were amazing: crusty, homemade focaccia bread, gruyère cheese, artisan herbed cream cheese, and thin slices of apple. Yum. “I’ll be back,” Rich told the hostess.
Dessert began at Andy’s Candy Apothecary, winner of the city’s first Calling All Dreamers competition, which awarded the owners startup costs plus services donated by local pros. “Andy wanted apothecary in the name,” Cearra explained, “because candy cures all ills.” I certainly felt better after sampling the dark chocolates, salted caramels, and other treats.
Our final stop was Cornflower Creamery, where owner Cynthia explained her “farm-to-scoop” approach: fresh, local ingredients sweetened with fruits and vegetables, using minimal sugar and no artificial flavors or corn syrup. Somewhat skeptically, I tried the current special, Pride Confetti, flavored with purple carrot juice, studded with candied fruit and granola. To my amazement, I loved it.
Strolling up K Street, Cearra regaled us with city history, such as the devastating floods of 1853 and 1862 that caused the town to raise whole neighborhoods ten to twenty feet higher. This left many underground rooms that are, naturally, said to be haunted. In fact, our Dive Bar host told us hair-raising, first-person tales of whispering voices and demonic laughter. “And of course,” he added casually, “the Crest Theater across the street has been haunted ever since the marquee fell down and killed two people.” Yikes!
This kind of vivid backstory is a boon to locals who are working to redefine Sacramento’s future. Will the city become a vibrant alternative to overpriced, traffic-choked San Francisco/Silicon Valley just two hours to the south? With ghosts, mermaids, and a hot new foodie scene, I think they’ve got a good shot. Good luck, Sacramento! We’ll be back.
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Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships of any kind. All gin joints, mermaid tanks, and eateries mentioned in my blog posts are included solely because I believe you might find them interesting and/or useful in planning your own adventures.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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