When I was 21, I worked as a cocktail waitress in a motel bar on the outskirts of Boston. The owner paid me in cash and told me never, ever to ask anybody any questions. The guys who hung out at the bar, many of whom sported prison tattoos, occasionally showed up selling watches or pantyhose that “fell off a truck.” Sometimes they played poker in a smoky back room with a high roller who was “in from Vegas.” They treated me like a kid sister, and at the end of each shift, when I was entitled to a free cocktail, they furthered my education by introducing me to Grasshoppers, Manhattans, and Pink Cadillacs.
It was my first dive bar, and I loved it.
For those who aren’t familiar with this American term, “dive bar” refers to a no-frills, slightly seedy neighborhood drinking establishment, the kind that used to be housed underground in cellars so patrons could “dive” in without being observed. Some old-school thinkers insist a real dive bar is dirty, dangerous, and likely to be raided by the cops. Yikes! That’s a bit extreme for me; I’m not a fan of nights that end in brawls and/or incarceration. But I do like bars with plenty of atmosphere and colorful characters. And I agree that a cookie-cutter microbrewery in a Florida shopping mall that calls itself a dive bar is an insult to disreputable gin joints everywhere.
Rich and I are now on a quest to find dive bars wherever we go. This can get complicated in countries that don't go in for such time-honored hallmarks as juke boxes, pool tables, and blinking neon Budweiser signs. After more than a decade of tireless research in Seville, we’ve come up with our own unscientific, totally subjective set of criteria for defining what a dive bar means in that city.
Cheap drinks. Beer is inexpensive in Seville, typically €1.20 ($1.30) for an 8-ounce glass, and we give points to any bar — such as the Abaceria Caña y Romero in Triana — that manages to shave another ten centimos off the price. Draft or bottled beer is fine, but top-shelf liquor, trendy cocktails, or wines you’ve read about in gourmet magazines would be disqualifiers. More points are awarded if the bartender drinks along with the patrons, as happens in Caña y Romero.
Basic food. When we first moved to Seville, virtually all bars served the same dozen items, including jamon (ham), Manchego cheese, and tortilla (dense potato omelet). Now the city is going through a foodie revolution, and much as I like international cuisine, it’s comforting to find the old standbys in unpretentious places like Cheers. This back-alley hole-in-the-wall serves delicious tortilla in a tapa portion so generous I can’t finish it without Rich’s help.
Underwhelming exterior. The welter of signs may give the impression they're staging a going-out-of-business sale, but don't be fooled; Bar Ambigú is a perennial favorite. On weekend nights it’s standing room only — and worth the effort to elbow your way in through the crowd.
Locals. One of the things I love about Seville is that Spaniards, expats, and tourists mingle comfortably at many hot spots. But to qualify as a dive bar, there has to be a solid clientele of locals who frequent the place on a regular basis — as you'll find in the convivial Casa Vizcaíno, an old stand-up, beer-and-olives neighborhood favorite.
Casual, unfussy atmosphere. Taberna of Aguilas qualifies due to its old-style wooden stools, aging tables, and relaxed but attentive service. Tapas and drinks are handed through the window for those who prefer fresh air. The menu offers a few exotics, such as curry and enchiladas, but otherwise it’s strictly old school. Rich and I stop in often.
Fast service. Seville bartenders understand thirst and set land-speed records serving cold beer on hot days. One of the quickest and cheapest options is an abacería, a grocery store that offers frosty bottled beer, bocadillos (small sandwiches), and simple tapas that you can consume standing at a tiny outdoor table or large barrel. Store prices vs. bar prices; you can see why the Abacería la Clementina (above left) is more popular than the conventional restaurant next door.
No rush. In Seville, the purchase of a drink means you own the barstool, and no one will even hint you need to keep ordering if you want to linger. The frail older gentleman to Rich’s right, whom we dubbed "Henry," is escorted to the Bodega Virgen de los Reyes every morning by his attendant and left there for hours, happily sipping a single dry fino (sherry) in the sunny doorway.
A hint of danger. This sign advises Esclavina customers to avoid bothering the neighbors. Locals in some barrios have become so fed up with late-night revelry that they have taken to dumping buckets of ice water out the window onto merrymakers. The threat adds an edge of excitement that some feel is essential to the dive bar ambiance.
One thing I’ve learned about Seville’s dive bars is that they rarely have websites. I really had to scrounge around for links, and the English translations can get seriously goofy at times. But don’t worry, if you can’t find these bars, just ramble through the city; before long you’re bound to stumble across someplace that’s offbeat and intriguing. No matter how you choose to define a dive bar — seriously degenerate, a bit funky, or somewhere in between — you can be sure that in this city of 3000 bars, there’s one nearby, just waiting to welcome you.
Do you know of any great dive bars? I'd love to hear about them!
I hope I don't need to tell you that no dive bars offered me any incentives to include them in this post. As always, my blog and website are free of sponsorships of any kind.
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WHERE ARE WE NOW? ON THE ROAD AGAIN!
By the time you read this, Rich and I will be back in California, once again due to family issues. And we were so hoping to avoid the US during the final days of the election madness! With any luck at all, I will continue posting regularly (although not about the election) in the weeks to come.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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