Food & Drink

What to Order at a Dive Bar According to Bartenders

There are certain reasonable expectations when walking into a dive bar. It will be cheap but unpredictable. It will also have some of the best regulars and most honest bartenders. That said, dive bars are not the place where you can peruse a cocktail menu or get deep on drink orders. No one knows this better than bartenders, so we spoke with 12 bartenders from around the country about what their go-to dive order is and why. Beware, Boilermakers ahead.

Todd Stern, general manager and beverage director at Seamore’s in New York City

Go-to order: “Beer and a shot, which for me is whatever local IPA they have on draft and a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey.”

Reasoning: “If I’m hanging out in a dive bar, it’s probably because there’s drinkin’ to do, and ain’t no better way to get to that happy place than lining ‘em up and knocking ‘em back two at a time.”

Amie Ward, beverage director at R. Bar in Baltimore, Maryland

Go-to order: “I am 100 percent a beer and shot woman. In Baltimore, our dive of dives is called Mount Royal Tavern, aka MRT, aka the Dirt Church. MRT is cash only, has a swear jar, and is adorned by a painting of the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling. It is epic. The special there is a Natty Boh [National Bohemian] and shot of Rittenhouse Rye.”

Reasoning: “The special costs about $8, and brings you one step closer to having your own religious experience. It is simple, unassuming and captures the charm of Charm City.”

Shane Paule, bartender at Péché in Austin, Texas

Go-to order: Bell’s Two Hearted Ale or another session IPA with a cheap shot of Old Crow.

Reasoning: Old Crow “does me good every time.”

Jesse Ross, assistant manager at Sycamore Den in San Diego, California

Go-to order: “As at any bar, my drink order reflects my mood and a dive is no different. Miller High Life and a shot of bourbon is definitely a go-to, sometimes a gin and soda with lemon or a Dirty Martini.

Reasoning: “If you bartend it’s usually pretty easy to read the bar and your drink decision makes itself, just don’t be stuck up and don’t demand more than the space can provide. Be cool.”

Robert Freeman, bartender at Husk Restaurant in Savannah, Georgia

Go-to order: “A cozy neighborhood dive is an easy way to my heart. I’ll have a Budweiser and a shot of Irish whiskey, please and thank you.”

Reasoning: “Reliable and easily executed.”

Will Elliott, bar director for Maison Premiere and Sauvage in Brooklyn, New York

Go-to order: “There’s a bar around the corner from Maison, which is not a place you’d ever order a mixed drink besides maybe a Gin & Tonic, but what they do happen to have is Calvados. I’ll usually order that with a crisp pilsner or Guinness, sometimes I’ll even combine it with the beer.”

Reasoning: “I’m not a big fan of what you usually find in a dive bar, I don’t shoot whiskey or anything like that, but Calvados is nice on ice, by itself, with tonic or delicious with a beer.”

Michelle Sordi, bar director at Colonie in Brooklyn, New York

Go-to order: “My go-to dive bar cocktail is a Ferrari.”

Reasoning: “If there is anything I can tell you about a dive bar, it’s don’t trust it until you know it. Quality dive bars may be able to make good cocktails, but if you don’t have a rapport, there is no sense in trusting the bar(tender) to make a quality drink. Things to steer clear of are juices (probably synthetic) and vermouth (probably not refrigerated, and therefore stale). When trying to negotiate a drink that requires no fresh juice or vermouth, a Ferrari comes to mind. It is simple, easy, and flavorful. Equal parts Fernet-Branca and Campari, it packs a punch and satiates all of your immediate needs.”

Chelsea Carrier, wine director at Vinateria in New York City

Go-to: “'After a long shift of tasting wine, all I want is a cocktail. Something simple, easy to make, and bitter. Unfortunately, I am Celiac, so beer is out of the question. Instead, a Negroni is my go-to.

Reasoning: “Hits all my favorite points, but also, settles my belly after late-night family meal.”

Tom Walker, bar director at Pig Bleecker in New York City

Go-to: “I usually ask for a bottle of Budweiser (or another domestic beer) and a shot of well whiskey. Easy.”

Reasoning: “Being surrounded by amazing high-end spirits and quality cocktails, sometimes it’s nice to take a break from all of that and order something that hits the spot.”

Cat Cannon, bar manager at Federal Galley in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 

Go-to: “When I go to a dive bar, I want to do dive-y things and for me that usually means a Miller High Life and  a shot of Jameson or blanco tequila. However, full disclosure: I am a sucker for Long Island Ice Teas. DIVE-Y THINGS!”

Reasoning: “Dive bars were made for beer and a shot—you don’t go to a pizza joint and order tacos, do you?!”

Tim Garso, beverage director of the Galley Group based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 

Go-to: “I always like to make sure my order is something easy for the bar staff. That’s just the way my mind is programmed now. Sometimes I like to be fancy, in which case, I order a Cosmo. Yes, a Cosmo.”

Reasoning: “It’s one of those drinks that every bar has the ingredients for on hand. Plus, the left over ice chips floating on top is the best part of any dive bar Cosmo.”

Ryan Maybee, owner of Manifesto in Kansas City 

Go-tos: Gin & Tonic (“always London Dry Tanqueray or J. Rieger gin if they have it”), a whiskey on the rocks (“with a well bourbon like Old Grandad”) or a shot of J. Rieger whiskey with a hard cider.

Reasoning: “I love dive bars. There is an element of escapism no matter what genre you work in, from speakeasies to luxury hotel bars. You leave your worries at the door and it’s the pure pleasure of drinking with friends.”