The Elusive Definition of a 'Dive Bar'

Norms change, laws are repealed or added, and patron demographics shift, but somewhere, the true dive remains.
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Norms change, laws are repealed or added, and patron demographics shift, but somewhere, the true dive remains.
(Photo: mendrakis/Flickr)

(Photo: mendrakis/Flickr)

Christmas is a beloved time of year for some of our most wondrous activities. For families, it's time to unite for starch-filled dinners and the resumption of old resentments. For parents, it's time to witness the joy in their children's eyes as they open the toys they've been waiting for, and the disappointment when they don't. For splintered friend groups, it's time for the obligatory rehashing of asinine and religiously fueled political views.

By which, of course, I mean, it's time to drink, and to drink hard.

My favorite trip of the season is to wash all that down with a mid-evening retreat to a local dive bar for a few, blissfully alone pulls from the old tap. But even that simple sentence can conjure up a wide range of images for different people. Just what, specifically, is a "dive bar?"

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According to the definition laid out by the Oxford English Dictionary, a “dive” is a “shabby or sleazy bar or similar establishment.” Merriam-Webster says "a shabby and disreputable establishment (as a bar or nightclub)." But both definitions are obtuse, purposefully so. Shabby and/or sleazy according to whom? Your posh grandma who won't step foot outdoors without her pearls? Or the drunk who actually visits the dive? To find a better working definition, I asked a handful of friends on Facebook.

The answers ranged from specifics regarding alcohol offerings (“Inexpensive American domestics,” says Mike Davie), architectural quirks (“No windows,” says Angi Lenhart), the hours of operation (“open at 6 a.m. and serves breakfast for graveyard shifters,” says Jessi Phillips), the culinary offerings (“Snack sized bags of chips as only food, maybe Hoody's peanuts,” says Nathan Carballo), to personal stories of betrayal (“Week old gravy and a gum ball machine that keeps taking my damn quarters,” says David Przybyla).

“Effort,” Knoefel Longest writes. “You see, your true dive bar is not really making one. Or much of one.”

My old working definition includes much of the above, with the addition of beer in pitchers, dark lighting, and a clientele that skews well past midlife crises. Having a pool table or dart board—one in utter, yet still technically playable, disrepair—is on the list too. But there's another component to my definition which hints at the slipperiness of what constitutes a true “dive”: cigarette machines.

During my first exposure to bars in the 1990s and lingering well into the aughts (before indoor smoking bans made their usage obsolete), these blocky, knobbed beauties were the norm. While there is no American law on the books expressly outlawing them—they are legal as long as they're placed in establishments that don't allow patrons younger than 18 years old—their quick extinction came via the cold hand of capitalistic Darwinism; they didn't make money, so bars decided to use the space for something else. (That said, I did recently see a hold-out in a Mendocino dive bar; though, it looked more broken antique than working machine.) While cigarette machines were once a tell-tale sign, they no longer are.

In fact, even the word "dive" is outdated. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first official use of “dive bar”—meaning a disreputable drinking establishment—comes from America in 1871. (A post on Chowhound claims that it first appeared in a 1871 edition of the New York Herald.) The “dive” part most likely points to the fact that these kinds of establishments were relegated to basements, so patrons had to duck to get in. Clearly, that's no longer the case. I can't remember the last underground bar I attended that didn't have an obnoxious list of $10-and-up cocktails. And that's the difficulty of trying to pin down the exact definition of a “dive bar": Norms change, laws are repealed or added, patron demographics shift, "street tough" locales are cleaned up and co-opted by those trying to pose as such. This last trend is what has befallen many of our beloved dives.

While listings on Yelp are not exact science, there are more than a few "dive bars" I've visited that serve expensive pints of craft beer and overpriced trios of Angus beef sliders, and have a shiny new pool table that's recently been re-felted in the corner. Some actually hold last call at midnight. The only thing I can figure that makes these "divey" is they have dark lighting. This seems like a nationwide epidemic: A Google search for "dive bar death" offers more requiems than those bemoaning the death of Google Reader.

In terms of linguistics, this is called a “semantic change.” A word that once meant one thing now means something else. Sometimes these can be enormous shifts between original intent and current usage (for instance, “awful” first meant “full of awe and wonder,” and now means something entirely different; also, recall that adorable stretch in the '90s when adults were confused when the teens said “that's bad”), but usually, the slight tweaks are a little more insidious and gradual over time.

Thus, despite the same word being used, a dive bar in 2015 is a whole lot different from one in 1975 or 1905. Local cultures muddy the concord even further: A dive in San Francisco isn't the same as in suburban Chicago or in the Deep South. And as the wave of urban gentrification continues to take the nation by storm, our classic dives of old—those poorly-lit, sawdust-laden, narrow spaces guarded by lone, grizzled bartenders with eyes on their billy clubs—are disappearing. In their place, with the same architectural footprint, are polished copycats with more beers on tap: with a pint going for $7 or $8 as opposed to the $2.50 of yore. Soon enough, even that's going to change. What we thought were dives will be definitionally wrong by the time the next generation of youngsters can drink.

Can we ever reach a long-lasting definition for a dive?

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Frank Kelly Rich, editor of Modern Drunkard magazine, attempted such by detailing the “seven essential elements” that make up a dive. They are, in order: History, Dankness, Eclectic Decor, Drinks Strong and Cheap, Old Men Sitting at the Bar, The Bombed Out Restrooms, and Highlights and Lowlifes. (He closes with tips for outsiders thinking about dipping their toes into the dive scene: “Don’t stand out, blend in,” Rich writes. “Don’t try to impress your wonderful personality on the place.”) While these elements are technically right, there's a problem with them, namely their inherent murkiness.

A dive bar should be a historical venue, definitely. But does the King Eddy Saloon in Los Angeles—open since 1933, Skid Row adjacent, and a “Bukowski haunt”—still count after it was purchased by an organization called the ACME Hospitality Group? Does New York's Subway Inn—forced to move two blocks from its original location after facing eviction—still hold claim to the history of its old building? “Bombed Out Restrooms” get cleaned every once in a while. And what counts as “cheap” is a moving target, depending on inflation and a customer's socioeconomic status.

Rather, to develop an accurate and long-lasting description of what constitutes a “dive,” we need to find a noun that has a less specific definition.

Luckily for me, one already exists, and is outlined in a fascinating essay over at Eater, titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Dive Bars.”

“Effort,” Knoefel Longest writes. “You see, your true dive bar is not really making one. Or much of one. Or, perhaps a bit more generously, is not making much of an effort beyond the minimum required to service its guests with drinks. And that is it. That is the single, all-purpose litmus test definition for whether or not a bar is a dive.”

Effort. That word is mostly enough for me. For a dive to be a true dive, it has to lack that lone attribute. Everything else will follow suit. That should stand the test of time.

But I'd like to add one more, that may even distill it more clearly: home.

Not just in the calming, friendly sense, although there is comfort and familiarity at a dive. But home, warts and all. Maybe it's not always full of your favorite people—you must invite your cousins to family gatherings, no matter how obnoxious—and some may even fight. But the true dive understands they're just blowing off some steam; they can come back when they've re-gained their composure and a glass will be waiting. But mostly, the dive isn't playing games: no showing off with a fancy dress code, no thumping club music designed to get patrons to drink more. The dive is there because people need a space to gather, just like home. It just happens that there's alcohol on tap.

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The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.

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