Craft cocktails and moustachioed bartenders are nice and all, but sometimes you just want a super-still whiskey/Coke served up by a lifelong bartendress with nicotine-stained fingers who calls you "hon". Or just hates you outright. Sometimes you want to sit in the dark, watching people playing video poker. Or see a fight. With that in mind, we've assembled this list of the country's greatest dives, places where the drinks are as strong as the parking-lot brawlers, the prices are as cheap as the chick you made out with in the bathroom, and everything that is good in this world thrives.
Charleston: The Ultimate Local's Guide
2 Way Inn (Detroit, MI) The oldest standing bar in Detroit -- it survived riots and the collapse of MoTown, plus an endless stream of bar fights -- the 2 Way has also doubled as a store, a jail, a brothel, and a dance hall. Now, it stands as the Motor City's ultimate dive, with a bar as old as the building -- and it's owned by a dude who'll often fire up the grill after a few cocktails strong enough to level a building on Devil's Night. The patrons range from hipsters to old-timers, the bartenders are surly, and the interior is like a time portal into Detroit's heyday… right down to the dude at the bar who probably never left after his last shift at the plant.
Dan's Cafe (Washington, DC) The guy sitting next to you might be a senator's aid. Or a college kid. Or a serial killer. But no matter who he is, he's sitting at a dilapidated bar in a dilapidated building, dilapidating his liver via the cafe's mix-your-own cocktail program, where you get liquor, mixer, and ice and pour it in a squeezable condiment bottle. That'll make people do a lot of things, from punch dudes in the face to make out with a butterface in a bathroom that looks like it's trying to trump the one in Trainspotting. Yeah, this place rules that much.
The Cloak Room (Austin, TX) Located near the Capitol, the Cloak Room's been an Austin institution since the '70s, when it was opened by a lobbyist who was inspired by a similar DC joint. The unchanged basement bar -- which's located in a historic building -- rocks eerie low-watt wall sconces and dark wood tables that date to before W's governorship (he came in once... for a soda), and the same crotchety bartender has held court/denied you "complicated" cocktails like old fashioneds since 1989. If a David Lynch film ever called for a conversation between two sinister legislators, this would be the place.
Buddha Lounge (San Francisco, CA) Unlike any other joint in Chinatown, the Buddha's bartender, Mark, will play you in a dice game for beers (lose and you buy him/you a beer, win and he buys you/him a beer). The one caveat -- you have to play before 8p, because he "has to drive home after work". The ultimate in dive bar-iness: if you want to go to the bathroom, you have to flag down Mark and he'll buzz you into a gate in the back of the maybe-12-seat bar to walk down some sketchy staircase to their men's room. It's cash only, and Mark pushes a "Three Penis" Chinese whiskey pretty hard. Oh yeah -- they have "Three Penis" Chinese whiskey.
The Aladdin General Store (Aladdin, WY) The biggest building in the Wyoming town of 15, this joint has no plumbing, but it does have an antiques shop, jerky, and -- most importantly -- one of the last "honor bars" in the country. Pop into the liquor store/bar section of the store (it's across the aisle from the post office and next to the buffalo-emblazoned sweatshirts), hit up a shelf full of whiskey, and pour to your heart's content. When you're done, just tell the cashier what you had. But be honest. In a town of 15 people (most of whom probably have guns), you're gonna be pretty easy to track down.
The Salty Dawg Saloon (Homer, AK) A beacon for crusty crabbers, locals, and tourists (in the busy season), the Dawg's a literal coastal lighthouse that began life as a cabin in 1897, before Alaska was a state. Once also a school and post office, it's now a repository for cheap, strong drinks served up in a joint that's covered with fishing gear that's covered with signed dollar bills from patrons (seriously, if it caught on fire, it'd be a stripper's nightmare). The locals are friendly, and the ladies will gladly regale you with made-up local folklore in exchange for beers… possibly about the origins of the human skull behind the bar.
Double Down Saloon (Las Vegas, NV) Tucked away from the glitz of the Strip, this Vegas dive offers a different kind of fear and loathing in a strip mall you'd only walk into if you were looking for a jukebox stuffed with real-deal punk rock (The Germs! Big Black! A ton of bands you've never heard of with anarchy symbols on the album covers!), "Ass Juice" (their signature drink, basically all the leftovers from every other drink they pour), and epic, incredible bar fights. We witnessed one while we were hiding behind a flipped table drinking our Ass Juice and trembling. Seriously. This place is incredible.
Irish Haven (Brooklyn, NY) Martin Scorsese is a stickler for authenticity, so when he needed the most Irish bar possible for a scene where Leo DiCaprio smashes a glass in an Irishman's face in The Departed, he shot in the Haven. A 50yr Brooklyn institution, this is the real deal, from the brogue-spitting bartenders who pour perfect Guinness to free pool and a classic rock/Gaelic-centric jukebox that goes 24/7, with things getting rougher (re: Irisher) in the pre-dawn hours. And, in case you were wondering, they serve the best cranberry juice. Period.
Pinkie Master's Lounge (Savannah, GA) With its wall of framed photos of famous lushes, gigantic box TVs, random beer ephemera scattered about, and barkeeps dressed in Bavarian outfits taking tall boys out of a giant bucket mid-floor, Pinkie Master's seems like a place where you'd kick it with Chuck Bukowski, not a future president. Apparently, though, this trapped-in-time Savannah dive is where Jimmy Carter announced his bid for presidency… perhaps as a bet after drinking his weight in the bottom-shelf liquor that flows through most regulars' veins.
The Slippery Noodle Inn (Indianapolis, IN) The oldest continuously operated bar in Indiana, the Noodle opened up in 1850 and has pretty much stayed the same ever since. Apparently a haunted place and definitely on the National Register of Historic Places, the joint was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a speakeasy, and a hangout for the Dillinger gang (they've still got bullets in the wall to prove it). Today, it remains delightfully divey as a blues bar and a place where you can drink so many $3 Crown shots, you'll swear you saw the ghost of your sobriety somewhere in the corner.
Old Town Ale House (Chicago, IL) Old Town Ale House has received accolades from Anthony Bourdain and the late Roger Ebert. Such media fanfare might run counter to the dive-bar ethos, but Old Town just keeps barreling right along as if nothing's changed, because nothing has. The place is equally beloved by locals with nothing better to do and SNL cast members who might pop in during a return trip to their Second City proving grounds across the street, and with good reason: a cheap pitcher and a tastefully comedic nude painting of Sarah Palin unite all walks of life.
Lakewood Landing (Dallas, TX) If you’re a Dallasite of a certain age, you have a story about Lucille Matthews, the beehived, coke-bottle-glasses sweetheart who worked at this “upscale dive” for three decades, waitressed at Jack Ruby’s joint before that, and was known to do incredibly nice, random things like, say, give customers giant boxes of cucumbers from the farmers market because she just really didn’t like cucumbers. She’s serving drinks to the angels now, but the Landing preserves her legacy beautifully, and serves up one of the best no-frills burgers in the universe to boot (you probably will boot it, because the drinks are really strong).
La Kiva (Terlingua, TX) It’s built into a natural cave in a ghost town. The mascot is a manipulated set of wall-hung bones called the “Penisaurus Erectus”. The men’s urinal, aka “The Infamous Urinal”, is a copper flower pot the original owner stole from his mom. Some of the best regulars live in Winnebagos in the parking lot. Back in the '90s, one of them was known to take off his shirt and, in a thick Welsh accent, challenge tourists to an arm wrestling contest “for a shilling”. The awesome part was that he wasn’t even Welsh.
The Kingfish (Oakland, CA) After beating the wrecking ball by being recognized by Oakland's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, this ramshackle former bait shop sits in a dicey area near the DMV, but that hasn't stopped it from being a favorite among locals and A's players. The ceiling's so low you practically have to duck to get inside, and even then you risk getting wet from the leaky roof. That'll help you cool down during an intense shuffleboard game, where you'll get schooled by an old-timer who likely hasn't left since the bar opened in the '20s and has subsisted on free popcorn for decades.
The 5 Point Cafe (Seattle, WA) Don’t be fooled by the fact it’s surrounded by some of Seattle’s nicer hoods -- this boozer predates all of that niceness: its motto is “alcoholics serving alcoholics since 1929”, they’re pretty mean to anyone wearing a Google Glass (they were the first bar to ban ‘em months before they came out), and every morning from 6-9a they (rather subversively) serve up bacon pancakes and quick-fried mini donuts, plus cheap wells, and $2 drafts during their morning happy hour, all of which actually make it, despite its black-and-white checkerboard interior, a pretty nice place to grab a drink -- or five -- at dawn.
Poor Red’s Bar-B-Q (El Dorado, CA) Maybe you’ve heard it’s just outside Sacramento, and that’s true if by “just outside” you mean an hour into the Sierra Nevada foothills. You may have heard they invented the Golden Cadillac (yup!), and that they make so many of the icy concoctions that they buy more Galliano than anyone else in the country (maybe). Or maybe you read about the owners’ rather cavalier attitude toward paying taxes (allegedly true). What we can say for sure, though, is that this narrow, almost windowless boozer is all but filled by a U-shaped bar surrounded by elevated stadium-style seating, and a few scattered tables where they’re serving some seriously good Q, and a chop-house menu so good it still draws locals despite the fact that tourists drawn by all those rumors fill the barn next door nightly.
Earnestine and Hazel’s (Memphis, TN) Yes, they have one of the best burgers in the country and a list of rules that includes “no free loden”. And yes, they have one of the more classic jukeboxes in Memphis, filled with funk and blues in lieu of Five For Fighting or City High featuring Eve. And, of course, it used to be a brothel and the sign still calls it a “sundry store”, with old rooms upstairs you can explore that tingle with past and look like they haven’t been touched since the ladies of the night ran the joint. But the best part about a trip to E and H’s is that -- no matter who you are -- you’ll be greeted with just the right amount of friendly indifference. Do your thing, they seem to be saying, because we’re damn well doing ours. And, though it recently faced a tragedy when the owner died in the bar, the rumor is that the bar -- like its burger, and brothel ghosts -- will live on for a long damn time.
The Turkey's Nest Tavern (Brooklyn, NY) When the hipsters took over Williamsburg like a tight-pantsed zombie horde, they couldn't lay a finger on the awesomeness of the Turkey's Nest. A narrow room with Big Buck Hunter and pool, it's a place where the hip mingle with the unironically mulleted blue-collared folks and Polish-accented lushes, all sharing their love of drinking stiff drinks and cheap beer from styrofoam cups in the dark. Those cups come in handy if you want a to-go frozen margarita or absinthe slushy to take on a stroll in McCarren Park, or to slurp as you navigate a street full of jugglers and clipboard-wielding canvassers.
The Torch (Flint, MI) A lot has changed in Flint Town in the past 50yrs, including that whole going-from-a-paragon-of-the-American-dream-to-a-ghost-town thing. But one thing hasn't changed: The Torch. The loft overlooking historic Buckham Alley still looks like a snapshot of the '60s. The ceilings and lights are low, the barroom's impossibly cavernous, the burger's one of the Mitten's best, and the clientele -- from the hipsters to the old blue-collar regulars -- are a picture of a new Flint mentality, where pride stubbornly thrives in the face of adversity… especially when it's fueled by super-cheap local microbrews and fried pizza rolls.
Tiki Ti (Los Angeles, CA) This teeny-tiny LA institution (it's been there since 1961) has only 12 bar seats and just a couple tables amid all sorts of crazy Hawaiian-themed memorabilia behind the bar, which's really where the magic happens; they've got 92 crazy-sweet (and crazily sweet) specialty drinks that'll make you feel as if you're lounging while getting diabetes on an island somewhere, rather than sitting on a stool atop a small, dusty hill off of Sunset Blvd. Which you are. You can tell by the screenwriter teetering on the stool next to you.
The Sip 'N Dip Lounge (Great Falls, MT) Montana bars are typically known for poker machines dominated by Marlboro men, big steaks, and cheap beer. In the unassuming town of Great Falls (whose falls are pretty underwhelming), the Sip 'N Dip is known for its mermaids, who swim back and forth across a window behind the tiki lounge's wraparound bar. The cowboys are still here, only they're drinking neon-blue cocktails out of fishbowl glasses while listening to an elderly woman play piano in lieu of the usual Waylon Jennings. Also, mermaids.
Santa's Pub (Nashville, TN) 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 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 3a nightly, just about the time you'll start craving milk and cookies, and maybe a pillow.
Burt's Tiki Lounge (Albuquerque, NM) 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 Friday's that married a dive bar in Oahu, then wandered off into the desert to raise their weird kids.
The Silver Fox Lounge (San Diego, CA) Silver Fox isn't just the name of this crazy-friendly bar… it also describes a good 75% of the regulars at this SD mainstay, which rocks a 6-10a (!) happy hour daily, plus U-Call-It shots on Thursdays. The breakfast crowd also gets $2 Bloody Marys and screwdrivers at dawn on the weekend at this wonder, which, also like its clientele, rocks cheetah carpet (hey-o!). And, if your wife leaves you because you spent too much time in its dark walls, fear not. The owner is also a great chef, and she cooks holiday meals for her loyal patrons with nowhere else to go.
Big Al's Country Club (Post Falls, ID) If you're expecting to charge anything to the Underhills, you've got another thing coming. Big Al's ain't that kind of country club. You will, however, get to slam cheap beer in a bar that looks like a bull pen. You will be called a homophobic slur if you drive up in a Kia. You will see girl get carried out by her sleeveless man and get tossed into the back of a mud-covered F-150. And if you're extra nice, you might have a guy named Gator in Tasmanian Devil shorts buy you a Jell-O shot while a local country band does its best to transform Big Al's into the set of Roadhouse.
Saloon #10 (Deadwood, SD) The Deadwood of today is full of tourists, gamblers, and bikers en route to Sturgis. Saloon # 10, established in 1876, is dedicated to preserving the city's past of rowdiness. The gigantic bar's actually a museum, with old guns strewn about, and more taxidermy than Norman Bates's office. Sure, there's some cheesiness -- the dudes who run the poker tables dress as cowboys -- but the place preserves the bar's rowdy roots… right down to displaying the chair Wild Bill was drinking whiskey in when he got shot in the middle of the bar.
Mayer's (Cape May, NJ) Mayer's is an oceanside scallopers' bar, and on days when the weather's too bad for boats to hit the water, the salty dogs occupy their time fighting and putting their livers through endurance tests via the ultra-cheap beer. Just remember, this is a local's bar, so treat it with one respect: on a trip to the bathroom, one out-of-towner reported to us that, while at the urinal, a fisherman asked him where he was from. After a pause, he said, "You'd better watch your back around here". It was friendly advice, not a threat.
Thursday's Lounge (Akron, OH) University of Akron isn't exactly known for being a hardcore party school, but kids minoring in barfly sciences know to flock to Thursday's, where punk rock blares, the bathrooms smell suspiciously like Bob Marley's ghost, the patio is full of more smoke than Selma Bouvier's lungs, and a trip to the parking lot could result in a stimulating convo with a hobo seeking $5 for a pitcher of Natty Lite. That's a hell of a transition for a place that, a mere 30yrs ago, was referred to as Zip's Varsity Club, and a testament to the fact that a badass dive can pop up in even the most unlikely of places.
The Hideaway (Waikiki, HI) Nobody's gonna put a lei around your neck or sing "Don Ho" to you at this dive in Honolulu, because it's where the locals go when they stop pretending paradise is all ukuleles and coconut bras. Paradise, here, is a dark shack with a gigantic wraparound bar that takes up 80% of the area, super-stiff drinks, and a ton of beautiful people cutting loose with Cinnamon Toast Crunch-flavored shots. Enough of those suckers, and you might lei-ed after all. Or laid-out by the dude whose girlfriend you keep calling "Don Ho".
Mac's Club Deuce (Miami, FL) Despite Miami Vice having its wrap party at the Deuce, this is not some shiny hideout for white suits. Happy hour starts at 8a, and you can literally sit in this landmark dive all day, hiding from the sun, and not realize you've been there 12hrs. Never mind the 3-4 washings to get the Newport smell of "The Deuce" out of your hair or the off-duty working girls hanging at the bar, this place is Miami Beach locals' collective, neon-lit middle finger to the super clubs and ultra-lounges… though they still don't seem to have a problem charging you $7 for a beer.
Saturn Bar (New Orleans, LA) If anyone tells you Saturn’s just a few minutes walk from burger joint Port of Call, don’t listen. It’s more like 25. Or maybe an hour, and, in any event, you’ll probably be murdered. Then again, even if you are murdered, it’s totally worth it to booze at this funky, middle-of-nowhere classic whose original owner piled up flea-market junk floor to ceiling for almost 50yrs. It’s been tidied up a bit, and apparently has become a magnet for “hipsters”, but who cares -- if hipsters are willing to risk a terrible neighborhood to drink at a bar where, no bulls*it, a Thrillist editor once saw a man walk in off the street and trade a car battery for a hot dog, then God bless hipsters.
The Spare Room (Portland, OR) Were you simply singing karaoke in this converted bowling alley lit like somebody's idea of a Rat Pack hangout from decades ago, it would be wonderful enough. But then, as you belt out "Careless Whispers", something magical happens: the KJ, Danny, whips out a sax, jumps off the stage, and starts playing along while his buddy, Rockin' Raymond, plays a fake guitar and dances in a sequined vest. That's even more mind-blowing if you fuel up at one of two bars on site, where you can roll a die for a mystery shot, which is poured from a paper-bagged bottle and is probably blackberry brandy... which will inspire you to sing "Brandy" with live sax accompaniment.
Croke Park/Whitey’s (Boston, MA) No one ever calls it Croke Park. It’s Whitey’s, and no, not that Whitey, either. If you’re envisioning a Southie bar from a movie in which Casey Affleck plays every role, you’re likely envisioning this place. It has the cheapest strongest mixed drinks in the Hub (nay -- the world!?! TIP YOUR BARTENDER!), it has a jukebox just as likely to play the Clancy Brothers' “Patriot Game” as it is to play Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar”, it has free pool you will lose at immediately to the courteous townie hustling in his pool gloves, it has perilous bathrooms abused in ways so incredible as to basically be awesome, it has a g'damn microwave in the corner for people who want to bring their own Pizza Rolls, and it serves booze about an hour and a half after every other bar in Southie, so late nights can feel like Town Hall meetings, except no one is responsible enough to take minutes. So yeah, it’s basically the perfect bar.