"In some ways it's that Supreme Court definition of pornography—you know it when you see it," said cocktail scholar David Wondrich over the phone about what characterizes a dive bar. Certain hallmarks, of course, give us a general sense: the aroma of stale beer, "maybe a tang of urine," or years of "deferred maintenance"; a beat-up jukebox, cheap shots, and macro beer are par for the course. But the glory of a dive is more nuanced than well liquor or signs of structural decay.
For Wondrich, a dive—compared to the neighborhood bar, which is more of a closed shop for locals—seems to have "a higher ambition." "It's that sense of instant community. Everybody's there because they know anything could happen," he laughed. "Dive bars are portals to possibilities. Often you'll just go in, have your drinks, and leave. But that's not always the case. I've gone and done more crazy things with people after hanging in dives. You'll go on a quest at two o'clock in the morning; you're on a night train to Drunkistan."
“In some ways it's that Supreme Court definition of pornography—you know [a dive bar] when you see it.”
Those types of nights are the ones that keep us coming back, even if adventure is not promised upon every visit. To that end, the aura of a dive cannot simply be fabricated on command. It builds gradually over time. "It's not something you can take out of a box and nail on the wall and suddenly it's a dive," said Wondrich after talking about impostors you might find in places like Williamsburg. "Many of the best dives never set out to be dives. Some of these fancy bars, if they stay open, are going to end up as dives. There will be mismanagement, the crowd will get older, and new people won't come in. Next thing you know that fancy faux speakeasy is an actual dive. You can't jumpstart that really."
That's a blessing in disguise, as the dive bars have been decimated due to greedy landlords more interested in turning a profit than preserving a neighborhood institution. From the looks of it, the dive bar continues to evolve—losing its tobacco perfume, gaining Lagunitas taps, and thereby challenging our idea of what constitutes one. That definition changes depending on whom you talk to, which is why we asked the following writers, chefs, and barflys to set their own terms when recommending their bucket-list dive bar:
- Besha Rodell, restaurant critic at LA Weekly (@besharodell)
- Rebecca Flint Marx, senior editor at San Francisco Magazine (@ediblecomplex)
- Edward Lee, chef/owner of 610 Magnolia (@chefedwardlee)
- Tim Carman, food columnist at The Washington Post (@timcarman)
- Regan Hofmann, food writer based in NYC (@regan_hofmann)
- Dave Cathey, food editor at The Oklahoman (@thefooddood)
- Richard Parks, writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles (@reechardparks)
- Gabriella Gershenson, food writer and editor based in NYC (@gabiwrites)
- Naomi Tomky, food writer based in Seattle, founder of GastroGnome (@gastrognome)
- Suzanne Loudermilk, restaurant reviewer at The Baltimore Sun (@lsuzanne)
- Andrew Bohrer, writer and bartender consuming and imbibing as much as one can (responsibly) in the perpetually damp Pacific Northwest (@andrewbohrer)
- Chris Hannah, head bartender of Arnaud's French 75 (@thefrench75)
- Brian Lauvray, New York-based producer with roots in Toledo, OH (@brianyarvual)
- Edmund Tijerina, food and drink editor at San Antonio Express-News (@etij)
- Khal Davenport, senior editor at Complex Pop Culture (@khal)
- Aaron Goldfarb, drinks writer based in NYC (@aarongoldfarb)
- Matthew Dekneef, deputy editor at HAWAI'I Magazine (@mattdknf)
- Jan Warren, bartender based in NYC
- Joe Ricchio, food, drink, and travel writer based in Maine (@joericchio)
- Sean Evans, Complex news anchor, host of Hot Ones (@seanseaevans)
Here are 19 bucket-list dive bars to try before you die.