Calling Regular Bars 'Dives' Is an Insult… to Dive Bars

Jason Hoffman Thrillist illustration of hipster at dive bar
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Stop calling every low-key bar you visit a dive: clean, safe, well-run joints are not dives, and to refer to them as such is to insult the work and dedication it takes to operate one. It doesn't matter that you don't consider the term offensive; you're not the offended party. The overuse and misuse of the word "dive" is a relatively recent phenomenon, and I can think of no other word in English that has undergone a more rapid shift in meaning.

I know I should probably just shrug and accept the changing times. The problem is, I can't. This is about more than a word. It's about losing a sense of difference, about ignoring nuance and history.

Look, I'm not opposed to the evolution of words. This is something else. Calling taverns dives isn't evolution. It's lazy. Dives aren't hip, and they aren't the kind of place where listicle readers drink. Rife with vice and danger, they are establishments decent folk avoid and cops raid. Dives reek of desperation, puke, and dust. They're called dives because they exist beneath society, where squalor and vermin reign.

Somewhat astonishingly, many (most?) people today see nothing derogatory about the term dive. As one tavern customer told me recently, "A dive is just a laid-back bar, no pretense." When I asked for his definition of a tavern, he grinned and said, "Pretty much the same thing, I guess."

I thanked him for his time, stepped out to the smokers porch, and pounded my head against the brick wall. I suspect we'll soon be calling cats dogs. I'm not exactly sure how we arrived at this point where these words have become meaningless, but I've given it a lot of thought and I think the trouble started with yuppies and fern bars.


The era of yuppies and fern bars

Back in the early 1980s, yuppies wanted a new type of nightspot, places more urbane than the bars and taverns of the blue-collar working class. These new spots were designed to pay a stylish homage to the grand saloons of the Gilded Age, appointed with polished brass rails, overstuffed booths, and whirring ceiling fans. In place of brass spittoons, potted ferns spilled from brass planters situated on ledges and various flat surfaces throughout the bar.

Gone were the narrow spaces and high ceilings of saloons; high-top tables and standing rails were replaced with low tables and chairs on casters. These fern bars were the first to offer appetizers like spinach artichoke dip and nachos. Their jukeboxes played dance hits, video games doubled as cocktail tables, and glistening bathrooms doubled as cocaine parlors.

Fern bars were every bit as awful as they sound, and -- as you'd suspect -- disgust spawned backlash. Just as punk rose against the glitz of disco, many drinkers during the mid- to late 1980s recoiled from the false glamour of fern bars and embraced the authenticity of working-class joints.

Barfly screenshot
Cannon Film Distributors

It was around this time that low-life culture gained in popularity, too. Writers such as John Fante, Nelson Algren, Harry Crews, and Charles Bukowski wrote about the down-and-out and the dives they inhabited. The 1987 film Barfly (based on and written by Bukowski) allowed audiences to gaze into genuine dives from the safe remove of the big screen and, later, videotape.

Barfly’s protagonist, Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke), is a poet who spends most of his time drinking in a pair of Los Angeles dives -- The Golden Horn and The Kenmore --  alternately toasting, insulting, and fighting prostitutes, scammers, bartenders, and tremor-stricken lushes. The film is an exegesis of the symbiotic relationship between dives and their customers. It's not a life for the timid or the clean, but Bukowski captures the dark charm of the down-and-out, and Chinaski is an antihero for the ages.

The film was well received by critics and it became a cult hit. Whether drawn to the humanity and humor or the horror and depravity, people liked Barfly. With notable exceptions during Prohibition and the Beatnik era, dive bars had never before appeared on popular culture's radar. When they had appeared in print or on film, dives were settings in pulp novels and noir thrillers. Thanks largely to the popularity of writers like Bukowski, and films like Barfly and David Lynch's Blue Velvet, it became cool in the mid-'80s to celebrate low culture. Young drinkers made a hobby of dipping into dives for a real-life glimpse of the down-and-out. We called it slumming. That many of the drinking establishments weren't dives mattered little. The experience was the point, the search for the authentic, not the obvious. We raised cheap glasses of yellow tap beer and aped Chinaski, "To all my friends!" and Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), "Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!"

dive bar in south beach
Flickr/Phillip Pessar

Dive bars in Flavortown

By the end of the '80s, the term "dive" even began appearing in the names of new drinking establishments -- a trend that, regrettably, continues to this day. One of the first, Christy’s Dive Bar in Boca Raton, FL, opened in a shopping mall in 1987. "I liked the idea of a casual, come-as-you-are, regular-guy place,” owner Allen Christy told the Boca Raton News.

Of course, it took more than a couple of cult movies and a mall bar in Boca to turn "dive" into a wildly misapplied and overused appellation. The culprits are legion, but I suspect the rise of the internet and the popularity of clickbait articles and a certain Food Network show deserve the lion's share of blame. In 2006, Food Network aired an intended one-off special featuring a spiky-haired host named Guy Fieri, who invited viewers to join him on a road trip to America's best diners, drive-ins, and dives. Ten years and 260 episodes later, the frost-tipped huckster has yet to visit a true dive.

The essence of a dive bar

So what is a true dive? That's a question I've been asking myself a lot lately. Let's start with the basics. Dive bars usually have more than one life. Their first is as a tavern, mom-and-pop shop, roadhouse, speakeasy, juke joint, nightclub, honky tonk, club, lounge, pub, beer hall, fern bar, gay bar, Tiki joint, inn, or saloon. At some point in time, unforeseen circumstances lead to compromises in upkeep, inventory, and clientele. This can occur slowly or swiftly, but the consequences are lasting. Often it is the result of changes occurring in the neighborhood in which the bar is situated, but many a dive was borne of divorce, health crises, or legal judgments. If you still need help discerning the relative divey-ness of a watering hole, I've worked up a short list of questions suitable for printing and laminating.

Condom dispenser
T.S. Flynn/Thrillist

Did everyone in the place look you over when you walked through the door?

Might be a dive.

Is there a kitchen serving food from a menu?

Not a dive.

Are security camera monitors positioned behind the bar?

Might be a dive.

Are the mirrors, windows, and floor clean?

Not a dive.

Do you get the sense that shit could get strange -- dangerously strange -- at any moment?

Might be a dive.

Are craft beers on tap?

Not a dive.

Is there a condom machine in the restroom?

Might be a dive.

Does the bar sell branded merchandise of any kind?

Not a dive.

Is the weekly special a challenge of endurance or consumption?

Might be a dive.

The next time you're taking a selfie from a bar or posting a review on Yelp and feel the urge to classify the place, pause a moment and consider whether you'd tell the establishment's owner that he's running a desperate operation that reeks of stale lives and beer. And then ask yourself why you're compelled to call that place a dive in the first place. Is it about self-satisfaction, about your pride in recognizing authenticity? Great. Good for you. You know, there's no shame in drinking in a tavern or a neighborhood bar. There's no shame in drinking in a dive, either, of course, but most of the folks bellied up in one have about as much time for shame as they do for Instagram and Facebook. Find a better word for the low-key places you go for domestic beers and strong cocktails. Save the term dive for the people and places you ignore.

They've earned it. You haven't.

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T.S. Flynn is a former bartender. He writes and teaches in Minneapolis. For more of his takes on tavern culture, books, music, and baseball, follow @mighty_flynn.