The 21 best dive bars in America 2014
By Andy Kryza and Liz Childers @apkryza @lizchilders1 Sometimes, you go to a bar for a fancy cocktail. Sometimes, you go for a rare beer paired with some gastropub innovation. And sometimes -- most times -- you go to drink in a dark, windowless room, where the drinks are stiffer than a 2x4, beers are as yellow as a Frank Zappa snowcone, and conversations are limited to grunts and threats over sitting on "Dave's stool". For Thrillist's second-annual list of America's best dive bars, we surveyed co-workers, travelers, readers, and several stool-hoarding Daves to find the best no-frills bars in the country. Granted, there are divier bars out there, but these are the ones we recommend spending time in, rather than ones we'd dare you to slam a tallboy in before running for your life. Yes, we know we missed some spots. Let us know in the comments where we should nab our next well whiskey. In the meantime, consider us your personal Ben Kenobi: you won't find more wonderful hives of scum and villainy this side of Tatooine.
Portola Valley, CA Alpine Inn First of all, it’s called Zott’s because it used to be Rossotti’s, and everyone just calls it that, okay? Second, it looks like an old-timey saloon from the movie Tombstone, and allegedly was a roadhouse back in the 1800s along the Old Spanish Trail. Third, you need to go here on a sunny day (luckily, most days in Portola Valley are sunny), walk past all the old video games and the scarred, carved-up tables, order a beer and their cheeseburger on a sub roll, and then sit in their glorious beer garden in the back, among the bikers, Stanford kids, and Peninsula locals. And then you need to stay there for a long, long while. Continue Reading
Back Porch and B&B Bar
“I know you! You slept with my sister,” a shot-slurping woman declared on my first visit to the Back Porch. That seemed unlikely, since I was 20 and with my Grandma the last time I visited this Black Hills town. But then again, a lot of wonderfully salacious things can happen at this wondrous joint housed in a historic old bank building on the college town’s Rockwellian Main Street. Bikers en route to Sturgis and locals congregate on the dance floor or look down on the revelry from the balcony as SoDak bands and touring acts rage away. On quieter nights, you can knock back gigantic shots and beers with the regulars who seemingly never leave, served up by staff that straddle the fine line between surly and charming and never let your glass go empty. Which leads to the inevitable question: "Where’s that chick’s sister?” Probably on the dance floor... two Fireballs, please!
Albuquerque, NM Burt's Tiki Lounge Burt's has a dark, moody vibe, which operates in stark contrast to the sunwashed vast expanse of the nearby New Mexican desert. Add to that a serious bric-a-brac fetish -- with surfboards, oars, and other tropical junk covering the walls -- live rock, and tropical drinks, and you've got yourself a bizarre oasis. It's like stepping into a TGI Fridays that married a dive bar in Oahu, then wandered off into the desert to raise their weird kids. We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Burt's is fantastic.
The institution pulls a double hit as a neighborhood dive located in the basement of a former flophouse and as a strip club with such a reputation that tourists flock to its single stage to see 65-year-old dancers take the poles or watch a younger girl light her nipples on fire. You can also catch live bands, but that’s only when the strippers aren’t choosing their dance songs on the jukebox. The upstairs hotel is in redevelopment as a boutique luxury space, but we can only hope that PBRs will still cost you $2 each, and you can drink those cans while watching Blondie -- the most famous stripper -- crush empty ones between her, uh, cans.
Washington DC Dan's Cafe If you look up “no frills” in the dictionary, you will likely not find it, because it is two different words. But that doesn’t stop it from being a damn accurate description for Dan’s Cafe, from the name to the decor to the famous sign that's peeling paint as I type. But the glory that is Dan’s comes from their heavy hand on the liquor. Seldom do you need to go past two drinks at this place before you are set for the night. So while you have that dictionary open, you may want to re-look for Dan’s under “best damn deal”. You won’t find it in there either, but you get what I’m saying.
From the diary of Thrillist sage David Blend: "I spent four years of college trying to get Sarah Ransom to like me. I wasn’t alone. The woman who spent almost 50 years running Dry Creek -- a one-pool-table fixture on Mt. Bonnell with a rickety upper deck that miraculously supported the aimlessness of generations of college slackers and regulars alike -- well, she didn’t like anyone, which is why every single piece of press about her (including her obituary) identifies her as 'the meanest bartender in Austin'. My senior year, I finally broke through when I noticed a photo of FM 696 she’d tacked to the wall and told her it was one of the most perfect stretches of road in Texas. She agreed, the first words she’d ever spoken to me besides her infamous warnings of 'Bring down your bottles!' and 'No gambling!'. I think she might have smiled as well, but I can’t say for sure. Sarah passed in 2009, but Dry Creek’s still there, the beer’s still cheap and cold, and the dogs out front still look like they might be feral. They won’t really bite you though. At a dive bar, just because you don’t act nice doesn’t mean you’re not welcoming."
It’s a late, snowy night in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, and we're approaching the ground level of the old house -- formerly a speakeasy -- that Duck Island calls home. A familiar sound -- Humpty bragging about a Burger King bathroom -- greets us. A DJ is spinning in the tiny den, accompanied by an older woman slamming a set of bongos between drinks of her incendiary whiskey & Coke. This place was once trouble, home to bikers and metalheads. It’s since turned into the city’s most friendly dive, with retro-futuristic furniture, deep-red walls, and a bar serving a mix of fizzy yellow beer, a surprisingly well-curated selection of micros, and cocktails ranging from standard to complex... unified by their extreme generosity of spirits. Speaking of generous spirits, everyone -- young and old -- in the crowded bar was offered a solo on the bongos. And hugs were doled out freely. This place feels like home, and it would even if it wasn’t actually in a house. Peace and Humptiness will do that to people.
Chicago, IL Happy Village Parked on a nondescript residential corner like so many quintessential Chicago taverns, Happy Village nails many of the expected dive bar essentials. Darkness? Check. The feeling that you might be drinking in someone's basement? Check. Visits from a dude selling tamales out of a cooler? Well, maybe that's just a Chicago dive staple... but, still, check. Separating Happy Village, however, is a side room devoted entirely to a pair of coveted ping-pong tables (don't try to play beer pong in here, these are for real feats of athleticism). But the crown jewel is the beer garden out back, with its tent and fountain and cheap plastic furniture all adding up to the feeling that you're attending an eighth-grade graduation party with a bunch of people who took WAYYY too long to finish eighth grade.
Before she opened Seattle's King's Hardware, The Bait Shop, and Tallulah's, prolific booze-slinger Linda Derschang's first (and eponymous) drinking destination started serving suds & spirits to the musicians/cool kids of Capitol Hill over 20 years ago, all under the watch of a beautiful taxidermy buffalo hung in a rough-hewn, wood-heavy space that's hosted everyone from political candidates to Kurt Cobain, who was seen entering the bar a day before his death. To this day, they say it still smells like Teen Spirit. And by Teen Spirit, we mean whiskey.
Louisville, KY Magnolia Bar & Grill Don’t be mistaken: there’s absolutely no grill inside the Mag Bar -- but you’re not there for the food anyway. The dimly-lit dive has the requisite pool tables, a pinball machine, and a loaded punk-heavy jukebox. Plus, one of the most disgusting bathrooms you’ll ever consider -- and then reconsider -- stepping into. Don’t touch the pole on the dance floor. Do show up for the Wednesday dance party that manages to combine dive standards with EDM music and college girls dancing on tables. It all somehow works. As long as the rickety tables hold up.
Nye's Polonaise Room
Nye's has an "old side" and a "new side", though neither looks like they've changed much since the '60s. You're assured one thing at both places: music you'll want to drink to. On Friday and Saturday nights, it'll be polka on the "old side" and piano players serenading you on the "new". On either side, pair the booze with pierogies, a fine complement to the beer prices that have recently risen slightly. And yet, being unfailingly popular has not stopped Nye's from achieving a perfectly divey vibe. If the polka and pierogies don't convince you, the red vinyl booths and aging carpet sure will.
At the risk of bumming out Will Smith, “Miami” stands for “Missing in Action Michigan”: this classic Cass Corridor dive was intended as a hangout for veterans coming home from the sh*t. But in the past three decades, it’s become so much more. Sure, the place is awash in a sea of donated military memorabilia, which you can gaze at from old couches, and enough bric-a-brac and taxidermy to make you feel right at home (provided you’re 64 and spend your pension at flea markets), but the joint’s also become a go-to venue for area bands, DJs, and rappers to cut their teeth. Punks, hippies, bikers, blue-collar workers, neighborhood folks, hipsters, and vets all come together under Old Miami’s roof (or on its nicotine-choked patio). This isn’t just a safe haven for vets to chill out with their brothers-in-arms Jim, Jack, and Johnny. It’s a home away from home for every Detroiter in need of a stiff drink.
Reel M Inn
There are divier bars in Stumptown -- what up, Yamhill Pub? -- but Reel M Inn gets extra love for what it represents: one of the last glimmers of its neighborhood’s former self (with respect to the crumbling porn theater down the road). SE Division Street has quickly evolved from a quiet, blue-collar hood to a constantly changing sea of hip new restaurants, boutique bottle shops, and gourmet food carts. But Reel M Inn -- with its graffiti-strewn exposed ceiling planks, nautical ephemera, shoddy bathrooms, and day-drinking old men -- remains to remind us that a stiff drink and sundry company are equally important parts of the area’s lifeblood. It also helps that the place cooks up some of the best fried chicken in the Pacific NW, served by a friendly cook/bartender/bouncer/therapist. It takes about 40 minutes to cook, and 20 more for it to cool to a safe temp. Use that hour to pound PBR and gigantic Wild Turkey shots while talking to the regulars about how much the neighborhood has changed, then chase it with a Jell-O shot. There’s always room for Jell-O, and any excuse to prolong your stay is welcome.
New York, NY Rudy's Bar & Grill They say people find their wives here. Maybe it’s the red duct tape-upholstered booths that are so tight and oddly curved, you can’t help but rub up against each other. Maybe it’s the $8 pitchers of beer, which make everyone look real good, real quick. Maybe it’s the giant tuxedoed pig out front that you’re supposed to kiss, pushing people towards the smooching mood. Maybe it’s the free hot dogs, fresh off the time-worn roller, that they give you every time you order literally anything. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because this is the kind of bar where strangers actually talk to each other, since you’re at Rudy’s, and they’re at Rudy’s, and that means you’re both the kind of people who can’t be all that bad.
Santa's been bad. That's why he now operates this beat-up double-wide and its storied karaoke night, which serves $2 beers -- and nothing else! -- and is populated with Nashville singers both fledgling and washed up, all united in their commitment to naughtiness and off-key singing. That karaoke goes until 3am every night, which is just about the time you'll start craving milk and cookies, and maybe a pillow.
Larkspur is a beautiful town, nestled among the wooded hills of Marin, just North of San Francisco over the Golden Gate. And downtown Larkspur is kind of adorable, with its old-school retro movie theater, and its burrito shops and art galleries and Catholic churches and hip newer restaurants. But in the middle of it all sits the grand Peso, which has been a bar in Larkspur since the 1930s, when I’m pretty sure California may not have even been invented. According the the Marin History Museum, after World War II, a veteran purchased the bar “with silver pesos he recovered from Manila Bay after learning the Philippine government had sunk its bank reserves to prevent them from falling into Japanese hands”. I could tell you more about the friendly confines and the mess of classic locals and the reliably heavy pours on their well drinks, but isn’t that kind of enough?
Los Angeles, CA
The Smog Cutter
Rumored to be an old Chuck Bukowski haunt -- and seemingly frequented by people who have been here since before he was born -- East Hollywood’s Smog Cutter is the dictionary definition of a dive bar. LA’s sunshine is held at bay in its eternal darkness. A two-drink minimum is strictly enforced by two Thai bartendresses who seem to have a six-drink pre-work minimum themselves, and who will unleash a string of expletives both foreign and domestic if you get on their bad sides... or be your best friends if you play by the rules. Bad karaoke is continually belted out by old-timers and invading hipsters from an old tube TV. Yup, the Smog Cutter has never changed. And if it does, well, God have mercy on those who have upset its grand vision of glorious depravity and vexed the women running the show. Oh, and it's cash-only. You’ve been warned.
New Orleans, LA Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge The last time I went to Snake & Jake’s, sometime after 3am (the perfect time to enter the grungy, tilting shack), a woman in her 40s leaned backwards off her bar stool, looked deep into my eyes while upside down, cackled hysterically, and then tried to have a totally normal “how are you tonight” conversation, before sitting back upright. In that moment, I both fell in love with and was terrified by the dive, where the only light comes from candles and red Christmas lights, there’s a very eerie Santa doll watching over the cash register, and the “signature cocktail” is a Possum Drop -- a shot of Jager in a can of Schlitz.
The Sundown Saloon
Tucked underneath the walking mall that is Boulder’s Pearl Street -- safely away from the bleary-eyed trustifarians, hula hoopers, and drum circles -- the bar affectionately known as the Sundowner is a welcome juxtaposition to Boulder’s hippie-dippy image. Sure, it’s gotten less tawdry in recent years: the lights are slightly brighter, and a smoking ban means you can see the person sitting in front of you without squinting. Colorado’s craft beer boom has infringed on the formerly PBR-only offerings, and the well whiskey now shares a shelf with a surprisingly robust selection (is that Pappy?!). But the essentials remain: the pool tables and foosball, the cheap drinks and blaring music. It’s a place where non-college students can escape the chaos of the Hill to... well, to behave like college students. Everybody in Boulder has a story about the Downer. Most of them are hazy. And that’s what makes it an icon.
Boston, MA The Tam The Tam is the kryptonite to the Theater District it inhabits -- a no-frills bar parked amid these horrible clubs as the single beacon of sanity, the only place to get an extremely cheap Brubaker that kind of smells of sour milk, and play a very entertaining, very spirited game of trivia, or watch the Red Sox suck and then not suck in alternating years. The crowd is the perfect dive-bar mix: old crusty guys who seem like they were born seated at the bar, Emerson grad students drinking off their nerves at dropping serious money on artistic degrees, and the random tourist who just lucked into the best damn experience of his life.
No one needs a Florida beach cabin when they can have the Wisteria Tavern. Without its red-lettered sign, this squat, grey rectangle on cinder blocks looks like a house you’d end up at after a night out at any another Pensacola dive. But inside, there’s pinball and pool and over 100 beers -- with 20 taps loaded with beer you only wish you could have in your beach cooler, like Bell’s and Southern Tier -- meaning you’ll never go to another bar or want to leave this one. Maybe, if you're extra nice, Terry, the owner, will let you spend the night.
Andy Kryza is a senior editor on Thrillist's Food & Drink team. His favorite dive is Flushing, MI's Duffy's, where Makers is cheaper than Black Velvet, and where they never serve you a double... because a single is a triple. Follow him to a Photo Hunt record via @apkryza.
Liz Childers is an associate editor on Thrillist's Food & Drink team, and would like just one more pitcher, please, at 7B/the Horseshoe Bar/Vazac's. Follow her to dives with confusing name choices at @lizchilders1.