Not all dive bars are great dive bars. Some are serviceable neighborhood joints slinging cheap beers, others are run-down relics from decades past, and still others are ersatz constructions that wrap themselves in dive bar trappings but are actually hipster wannabes trying way too hard. Great dive bars are institutions. They have taken on lives of their own and will continue to exist in the hearts and minds of drinkers everywhere long after the DOH has closed them down. But what, precisely, is it that makes a great dive? We’re glad you asked. Here are 12 qualities every dive bar must possess to earn its spot in the sticky, mildewed, duct-taped dive bar hall of fame.
There’s no happy hour.
The drinks are are already dirt cheap, so further discounts just court financial disaster. Bottled beer might run as low as $2-3, with Boilermakers for not much more. If you can’t get out of a bar well-lubricated for just a couple of sawbucks, it’s not a dive.
There is no craft beer.
There’s just beer. Regular, carbonated, cold American beer.
The bartender is a surly bastard.
He or she might have a heart of gold underneath all that denim, but good luck getting to it. This person is here to scowl and serve you drinks—in that order.
There are terrifying regulars.
A dive is nothing without a cadre of degenerates worthy of their own bizarro-world Cheers spinoff.
One of the terrifying regulars is an animal.
Maybe it’s a dog. Maybe it’s a cockatoo. Maybe it’s a three-legged cat. Maybe it’s just a rat the bartender befriended one slow Tuesday night. Whatever it is, though, it’s always there and it’s more important than you.
There’s a mystery bottle somewhere behind the bar.
What is it? No one knows—the labeled has fully dissolved at this point. Don’t throw it out, though, it’s still alcohol—probably.
The lighting is either too dark and or too bright.
And it oscillates between the two throughout the night, depending on who is in control of the switches.
The bathroom is full of great reading material.
The walls are full of platitudes from amateur philosophers, rumors about people you’ve never met and a few surprisingly accurate anatomical drawings.
The smell is bad, but not so bad you don’t get used to it after three minutes.
It helps if you dive, nose-first, into a glass of straight whiskey.
The old wooden bar surface looks like it’s been gnawed on by a giant guinea pig.
Maybe it was a wild animal, maybe it was the regulars. Either way, it’s one of the many reasons you don’t want to run your hand along it is splinters.
The furniture has been re-covered and reinforced.
Multiple times. Typically with duct tape.
It’s been there a while.
No bar starts out as a dive. It might start out dingy, but to truly be called a dive, a certain level of disrepair must have taken hold—and that takes at least a decade. The dive-ification process requires a surfeit of fights, fires and fluids. Even then, if it wants to hang with the big boys, we want to see riots, blimp crashes or an appearance by Charles Bukowski.