There's nothing quite like good, old-fashioned dive bars. Sure, they're seedy, shabby and filled with wobbly undesirables, but they're also the beating heart of any true American boozehound. They've been there for us through birthdays and breakups, triumphs and perils, greeting us with a cold(ish) beer, a stiff shot and a handful of reliable drinking buddies. They're simply, perfectly ours.
As a food and drinks writer (aka professional imbiber), I'm all for fancy cocktail lounges and highbrow cuisine. But the drinking dens that have impacted me most over the years are truly some of the dingiest and dankest the country has to offer. Who doesn't like a bar with a little character—a timeless glimpse into decades of lives lived, loves lost and cans crushed?
Admittedly, this roundup was difficult to compose, because these lovably gin joints are defined by deeply personal connections. And that's exactly why I asked the folks who know them best to give me the dirt on every major American city's absolute deepest dive.
Consider this a love letter to the neighborhood watering holes that touch our souls and tickle our livers. May they never, ever give up the ship, and may they continue to make cameos in all fictional works of pop culture genius that have permanently shaped our everyday lives (see below for evidence). Because, at the end of the day, people are all the same. We just wanna go where everybody knows our name.
Baltimore: Venice Tavern
Legend has it the term dive bar originally referred to a drinking establishment that was tucked away in a subterranean basement, since patrons had to sneakily dive down into it to get their buzz on. This definition has fallen by the wayside over time, of course, but Charm City's legendary Venice Tavern is still fighting the good fight from below. And everything else about the place, from its low-slung pressed tin ceiling and creaky pool table to its ridiculously low prices ($3 for a fresh craft pint) and signature "coddies" (an old-school potato-crab cake mash-up snack native to the area) remains staunchly cemented in its midcentury heyday. There's even a photo of President Roosevelt tacked up behind the bar—a nod to the man who famously repealed Prohibition. Now that's dedication.
New York: Billymark's West
"Prolific New York Times drinks writer Robert Simonson once called this stalwart Chelsea neighborhood go-to 'a dive dive,'" TT managing editor Jane Frye, who loves dive bars almost as much as I do, says. "And, sadly, it's the last of a dying breed. The owners, brothers Billy and Mark, took over the 1956 hideaway back in the 90s and have been presiding over locals and tourists alike who stumble in for a beer and shot ever since, asking only that everyone abides by their motto: Love This Bar. Don't forget to bring cash for all those strong mixed drinks and Miller High Lifes waiting inside."
Photo: Tasting Table
Los Angeles: Tiki-Ti
If we're talking West Coast dive bars, it's only right that at least one tiki joint make the list—and Tiki-Ti fits the bill. Perched on the edge of Los Feliz, this Sunset Boulevard oasis is, naturally, filled to the brim with Polynesian knickknacks and enough neon-hued concoctions to ward off 1,000 diabetics. Tiki-Ti's been doling out the sweet stuff since 1961, when Ray Buhen, a beloved, 27-year veteran of the tiki business, decided to break out on his own. Buhen's résumé was insanely impressive, boasting a 1934 stint behind the bar at L.A.'s trailblazing Don the Beachcomber. And though the boozy mastermind passed away in 1999, his top-secret Zombie recipe remains totally unchanged, instantly transporting sippers back to the kitschy days of yore.
Houston: Warren's Inn
"That place is magic," raves Houston native Adam Chandler, a writer for the Atlantic, raves. "It's survived oil booms and busts, floods, hurricanes, droughts, gentrification and, yeah, Rick Perry." Located on a historic downtown street, Warren's cheery turquoise facade is a welcome sight among the city's rapidly growing lot of high- rise condos and generic office buildings. And despite the shadow this urban construction boom has cast over the kitschy yet sophisticated Market Square landmark, the bar's managed to keep attracting loyal crowds like bees to (boozy) honey. Inside, it's all old- world cool, with dark wood paneling, exposed brick, floor- to- ceiling mirrors and an antique jukebox stuffed with everything from '80s power ballads to mid-century jazz greats. While Warren's is arguably this list's classiest member—it specializes in martinis—it's just grubby enough around the edges to make the cut.
Chicago: Rainbo Club
Among the perpetually empty clamshell stage set behind the looping central bar (said to have hosted burlesque dancers back in the 30s), old-fashioned photo booth, bevvy of surly-sweet bartenders and the fact that it served as the backdrop for John Cusack's super-depressing marriage proposal in High Fidelity, Rainbo is one of my top local dives, ever. Cozy (duh), dimly lit (double duh) and reliably filled with every Chicagoan I know. Walking into Rainbo is a lot like walking into a sweaty, Malört-soaked hug—in the best way possible, of course.
Boston: Old Sully's
Forget those touristy walking tours. This dive has all the Beantown history you need. "If you're looking to hunker down at Boston's finest, you're going to have to earn it first," Frye explains. "Only the trained eye (or fans of The Town) could spot this signless Union Street corner establishment. Mixology be damned; this is the kind of place where you can catch a good beer buzz for under $20 while trying to win over the bartender. And if you're lucky, you might get to hear one of the many stories that live inside the walls. As one review of the joint aptly states, 'It doesn't get more Boston than this.'"
Leilana (Winona Ryder) and Vickie (Janine Garafalo) living the grunge life in Reality Bites (1994) | Giphy
Saint Louis: Mike Talayna’s Juke Box Restaurant
"The signature characteristic of any great dive bar is not taking itself too seriously," DINE App editor and illustrious food blogger Aaron Hutcherson, who frequented this STL dance club during college, says. "And decked out with mirrored walls, silver tinsel, rows of disco balls and lighting that blankets the room in a purple haze, this place certainly fits the bill. Talayna's, as it's known around town, is a late-night favorite for anyone who wants to sing their lungs out at karaoke and/or drop it low on the dance floor."
San Diego: Chee Chee Club
"Situated across the street from a now-defunct strip club, Chee Chee has the usual SoCal dive setup: a decent jukebox and a decent pool table," TT art director Nikhil Shah, who spent three years as a permanent fixture there, says. "It's large enough to throw your own ad hoc party in without disturbing the good mix of seedy (but friendly) locals and drunk out-of-towners who somehow managed to wander away from the Gaslamp quarter." Lined with inviting leather banquets, the long bar aglow with white Christmas lights, this semi-gay, mostly-everyone bar is one of the oldest in Downtown SD and has no problem showing its age—especially when it comes to prices. "The well liquor is dirt cheap," Shah adds. "Like two to three bucks, if I remember correctly."
Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) strutting into The Volpe in Mean Streets (1973) | Giphy
Albuquerque: Silva's Saloon
The last time I drove down Route 66, I wasn't quite old enough to (legally) saddle up to one of the ancient Western saloons that tempted me every 20 miles or so, but one look at Silva's timeless facade, and I knew it was worth a try. Stationed about 25 minutes north of Albuquerque in a town called Bernalillo not far from Albuquerque, this classic family-run dive officially opened its doors the day after Prohibition's repeal and has been busy accruing its impressive collection of knick knacks, newspaper clippings, dusty liquor bottles and whiskey-sipping diehards ever since. They've even got a moonshine still, once operated by original owner Felix Silva, Sr., on display. Our requests for beers might have been denied, but I still consider the attempt a mission accomplished.
"Mary's is a neighborhood dive that happens to be a gay bar," part-time Atlanta dweller and full-time dive aficionado/graduate student Emma Beck explains. "It's inescapably smoky inside, dark with weird art everywhere, 70s porn videos playing on a loop, the best karaoke night in town and an adorable back patio. The crowd is really diverse, chill and mostly older during the week, with younger folks pouring in for weekend drag shows." According to Beck, the bartenders are so friendly they even oblige every time she orders an overly complicated drink. "Even though they tease me relentlessly for ordering a classic Hemingway Daiquiri from a dive bar, in the end, they always oblige."
Minneapolis: Matt's Bar
Several years ago, I found myself on a two-hour layover at the Minneapolis airport. So, naturally, I convinced a friend to pick me up, drive me across town to Matt's for a Jucy Lucy and a quick pitcher of Grain Belt, and drop me back off just in time to catch my connecting flight. That last leg to SFO might have been a little rough on the stomach, but I regret nothing. Why? Because with its barebones, 70s-basement-like ambiance; dependably cold beer; and, of course, world-famous burger (a fat beef patty, perfectly seared and stuffed with molten cheese), Matt's is king.
The 'Simpsons' gang downing beers (some more successful than others) at Moe's Tavern (1989) | Giphy
Seattle: Al's Tavern
"Al's is a cash-only living vestige of the Seattle we all miss," graphic designer, Washington State native and Al's Tavern lifer Logan Sayles says. "It's about the sort of place where you might bump into Dave Matthews (he lives in the same suburb), while listening to Four Tet and downing some beers. They have a few adorable oven-heated snacks, but the food isn't really the point—it's much more about contributing to the erosion of the well-worn seats while making friends with neighborhood folks over a few cold ones." Sounds like a pretty good deal to us.
Phoenix: Coach House
OK, so this 58-year-old Scottsdale tavern isn't technically located in Phoenix, but its Christmas displays alone are reason enough to eschew pesky things like city borders in order to give credit where credit's due. Though a few strands of twinkling lights remain affixed to the sprawling structure's rafters and log cabin-inspired porch all year round, things really get going around November, when the place transforms from a friendly, laid-back Western saloon into a Technicolor bundle of blinding neon and stays that way well into February. The annual light show attracts slack-jawed Arizonans from all over, clad in their festive ugly sweaters and thirsting for Jäger Bombs. Let's just hope the tips flow as freely as the liquor—I can't even begin to imagine that electric bill.
"Ego's lounge has everything your grimy, karaoke-loving heart desires: dim lighting, great live music, a crowd of loyal regulars and the cheapest of cheap drinks," Michelle Natal, a dive bar enthusiast and frequent visitor to the Lone Star State's capital city, tells me. "The bar is admittedly a little tough to find—it's stashed away in the basement below a nondescript office building—but it's definitely worth seeking out. Just make sure you come ready to belt out some power ballads."
Rob (John Cusack) delivering his joke of a marriage proposal in High Fidelity (2000) | Giphy
San Francisco: Zeitgeist
Every San Franciscan worth their artisanal coffee beans knows that if you've never been kicked out of Zeitgeist, you really haven't lived. And while things have settled down measurably over the decade since I lived down the street on Valencia, the staff remains solidly gruff. But with a steady flow of surly, leather-vested metalheads; tattoo-covered punks; can-crushing college kids; and a whole new flock of computer nerds-turned-eligible bachelors, who could blame them? The beers are refreshingly on point, the crowd is noisy, the Bloody Mary is phenomenal and if the sun ever breaks through the fog, the enormous biergarten automatically becomes every cramped apartment dweller's backyard.
Cleveland: House of Swing
When they're not busy worshipping LeBron or cursing the Cubbies, the hardworking residents of Believeland have been known to enjoy a fortifying drink and a lively tune or two at House of Swing. As its name implies, this storefront bar is dedicated to all things music, reportedly housing one of the country's most extensive collections of blues on vinyl (and, judging from the impossibly cluttered walls, probably one of the most extensive ephemera collections, too). Local blues, rock and jazz bands play regularly, much to the delight of the toe-tapping customers seated around the long bar. Don't be deceived by the Party City-esque music note cutouts in the front window. It might look like business in the front, but it's all party in the back.
New Orleans: Snake & Jake's Christmas Club Lounge
"There are plenty of spots to grab a drink in New Orleans, but only one that glows red with Christmas lights all year long," says Russell Sheaffer, a California-based experimental filmmaker who spends several weeks out of the year in New Orleans and never misses a chance to swing by Snake & Jake's. "It's a bit of trek from the touristy areas, so it’s the perfect spot to grab a cheap beer and a shot, and bask in weird holiday nostalgia."
A woefully underage Tim Riggins peering up from the bar in Friday Night Lights (2006) | Giphy
Memphis: Earnestine & Hazel's
What's a juke joint exactly? Picture a century-old brick building, flickering red neon in the window, peeling paint on the walls, greasy burgers, buckets of beer and, yes, an amazing record selection. But at E&H's, those 45s aren't the only things loaded with soul. This brothel-turned-bar is notorious for its collection of resident ghosts, known to tinker with tunes when you least expect it. I've never witnessed a wandering spirit myself, but the bar's undeniably eerie vibe is a great excuse for loading up on as much liquid courage as you can handle. And even if you're not sold on the whole supernatural thing, there's one thing you can trust: If it's midnight in Memphis, everybody and their (long- departed) great aunty can be found boogying away inside.
Miami: Mac's Club Deuce
"Despite the Miami Vice vibes, stepping into Mac's Club Deuce is a quick way to forget you're really just a few steps from one of the most iconic beaches in the country," Zach Mack, owner of New York's ABC Beer Co. and big-time Mac's Club Deuce fan, says. "It's lit with a bunch of neon lights bent in the shape of a naked lady, the bar comes up chest-high and it kind of smells funny. The owner, Mac Klein, was a local legend. A friend actually told me he died recently at the young age of 101. Regardless, this was one of the first bars I went to soon after turning 21 and the first bar I get back to whenever I find myself back in Miami."
Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) enjoying a cigarette at Eva's River Club in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) | Imgur
Detroit: Tom's Tavern
Here's the thing about Tom's Tavern: It looks like it's about to fall apart, literally. The 89-year-old roadside shack is nothing more than a heap of white washed plywood, tar-stained siding and a crumbling, rusty metal sign. But behind its shabby exterior lies one of the warmest Motor City pubs on record. OG proprietor Tom Lucas himself has since passed, but the community he built inside his shoddy structure lives on, tossing 'em back under the loving gaze of now proprietor, Ron Gurdjian. If the sloping floor, sketchy 'hood or precariously perched memorabilia makes you nervous, don't worry—this gem has withstood Prohibition, fires, multiple break-ins and even a massive car crash, always coming out (mostly) intact.
Washington, D.C.: The Raven Grill
"In a town full of bros and networkers, it's nice to go to a place where the daytime bartender doesn't even bother look up from her novel," part-time D.C. resident Chet Mallay, a government worker who often sought out the Raven for a post-Hill escape, says. Unlike the District's many stuffy cocktail lounges and cigar bars, this crumbling haunt (it's well over 80 years old) is too dingy for pantsuits. All this dark, comfortably cramped Mount Pleasant space has are dirt-cheap shots and questionably safe wooden booths, crammed full of laid-back twenty- and thirtysomethings winding down their days. Bringing a date here is a fantastic test of character. (I once came by with someone who tried to order an old-fashioned with a twist. We lasted just another two weeks.) A word to the wise: "Don't come looking for food, though," Mallay advises. "The Raven Grill does not, in fact, have a grill or offer anything beyond corner store potato chips."
'Joliet' Jake (Dan Ackroyd) and Elwood (John Belushi) attempting a play at Rawhide in The Blues Brothers (1980) | Giphy
Holding it down as the oldest dive in a city synonymous with sawdust-strewn honky-tonks and world-class karaoke bars is quite a feat, and Dino's lives up to its esteemed title with all the grace, whimsy and down-home Southern (C)omfort I've come to expect from a respectable Dixieland gin joint. I'm talking wood-paneled walls, a corrugated tin counter lined with worn barstools and Christmas lights, a sunny back patio littered with local riffraff and loose gravel, $3 Coors Banquet on draft, and a full menu of greasy favorites like Frito pie, cheeseburgers and, yes, even some very legit Nashville hot chicken. And if that palate-scorching bird has you parched, I'd recommend going all in on an ice-cold 40-ouncer of Colt 45—trust me, as someone who's made it into Dino's hallowed doors on more than one fiery occasion, this is good advice.
Salt Lake City: The Garage
Unless you've spent time there, you probably don't associate this Mormon stronghold with drinking. But while Utah's liquor laws are some of the strictest in the country, that's never stopped those who do indulge from creating one of the liveliest bar scenes in the U.S. Holding court in the shadow of a powerplant down a desolate road, this airy, tin-walled blast from the past is an integral part of that boozy fabric. "We love this bar because of the postapocalyptic backdrop—it feels like Mad Max crashed into Marty McFly, the kind of place where you can behold 20th-century industrialism's horrible underbelly, pint in hand," Bryan Walsh, a PhD student and SLC local who first introduced me to this diamond, says. "It burned down a few years back because of that effing powerplant but was promptly rebuilt. Some things never change."
Denver: Star Bar
If you're looking for excellent craft brews in a verifiably snob-free environment, this one's for you. "Conveniently located directly across from Downtown's Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs, Star Bar is a trip back in time amidst a future-forward city," Frye says. "This joint, around since 1959, has it all: a Rolling Stones pinball machine, sticky vinyl booths and a killer local beer selection. Want to kick the night up a notch? Ask for the 'shark shot' and make sure they hand you the original blue shark they keep in the back. Unsanitary? Probably. Amazing? Definitely."
Oklahoma City: JJ's Alley
Warm, homey and oozing personality, JJ's embodies the very notion of a solid neighborhood tavern. There's a small stage area for live music, stiffer-than-stiff drinks and a smattering of strange objects (mismatched wooden clogs, antique grandfather clocks, vintage model planes, a parachuting clown puppet) suspended from the high ceilings, as well as a literal alleyway, which acts as a quaint patio complete with rocking chairs for whiskey-sipping smokers. Not to be overlooked, JJ's also offers approximately 1,000 Long Island Iced Tea variations, each boozier than the last. All in all, it's basically an extremely lit TGI Friday's minus all the phony suburban strip mall flair.
Charlie (Charlie Day) and Mac (Rob McElhenney) behind the bar in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005) | Giphy
Portland: Reel M Inn
"Writing your name on the walls is actually welcomed," former Reel M Inn regular (and current TT associate food editor) Kristina Preka says. "They've also got delicious JoJo’s (like steak fries but better) and the best fried chicken that’s ever scorched the roof of your mouth. The place is small, almost too small, and usually understaffed, with just one person tending bar, making food and keeping everything in check. But no one ever seems to mind. In fact, it's always full of loyal patrons who tip well, never complain and always, always come back. Maybe it has something to do with the bar's clever name."
Patrick Swayze as Dalton, the legendary butt-kicking bouncer from Road House (1989) | Giphy
Las Vegas: Dino's Lounge
As the old saying goes, not all stellar dives are called Dino's, but all dives called Dino's are absolutely stellar (or something like that). Despite the fact that its exterior seems to be constantly lit up like Times Square on New Year's, this neighborhood joint is a far cry from all the wallet-busting bottle service most novice Vegas-goers experience. Originally called Ringside Liquors, this 55-year-old family-run bar was first opened by local mobster Eddie Trascher, who used the low-ceilinged, red-lit space as a meeting place for his infamous crew. Though the goings-on inside this windowless outpost might be substantially less illicit nowadays—shots and beers, games of pool, karaoke—it just can't shake that old, seedy allure.
Charlotte: Smokey Joe's Cafe
"Hidden away just outside downtown Charlotte, there's more than a few ways to get your buzz on at this classic roadside favorite: taking in the scenery from one of the porch swings, bellied up to the bar listening to live music or dipping your toes in the sand (yes, sand) as you play a little ping-pong," Frye says. "And if you time it right, you might catch someone firing up the grill on special occasions. Chock-full of kitsch, including a waterfall flowing from up in the rafters, this modest-on-the-outside, lavish-on-the-inside establishment will welcome you with all the Southern charm you could ever desire."
Henry (Mickey Rourke) tossing back a whiskey shot in Barfly (1987) | Tumblr
Louisville: Bambi Bar
To be honest, I've always been a little weary of "dives" overrun by college students. Bars of this ilk always seem to miss the mark—their graffiti too fresh, their clientele too wet behind the ears, their wear and tear the result of youthful frat spats instead of hard-earned decades of strife. But if any collegiate haunt is going to make this list, it's going to be the Bambi Bar, a ranch-style hideaway stocked with vintage video games and weathered baseball caps hanging from the rafters. The Highlands' top Wildcat stronghold rules the roost for three reasons: the curiously titled Almost Famous Bambi Burger, a lovable grease bomb loaded with all the requisite fixins and served with an optional side of spicy cheese balls (don't ask); its racks of bargain booze; and, finally, because it's the trailhead for the Bambi Walk, a daylong pub crawl that's left countless livers quivering in its wake. Proceed at your own risk, but definitely do proceed.
Philadelphia: Bob & Barbara's
At Bob & Barbara's, anything goes—seriously. There're dudes banging out self-proclaimed "liquor-drinking music" on an original Hammond B-3 organ, a Thursday-night drag show that routinely draws the best queens in the country and something called the Citywide Special, Bob & Barbara's now-ubiquitous PBR-and-Jim Beam boilermaker pairing (it started here first, folks). Fittingly, the crowds are just as diverse, with folks of all races, ages, genders and orientations rubbing elbows and clinking glasses under this boxy, red-lit bar's crowning disco ball. If you're going for a show, be sure to get there early, because this celebrated joint packs it in fast (unless, of course, you prefer snuggling with your fellow drinker's armpit all night long).
Photo: Jeff Alworth/Flickr
Milwaukee: My Office
My Office is the kind of bar that gets packed with service professionals after the restaurants close. Bartenders, waitstaff, kitchen staff—they all go there to bitch about their day. The bartenders are friendly; the wings are great; the decorations are cheesy. Everyone knows each other, and everyone goes there to play bar dice," TT video producer Vance Spicer, who calls Milwaukee his home away from home, remembers. "Bar dice is a local game where you shake six dice inside a cup—everyone has their own shaking style—then you slam it down, trying to get matching numbers. We all drink Riverwest Stein and do shots at the end, and the loser pays."
Kansas City: Zoo Bar
If a bar's motto is, "Don't feed the animals. It kills their buzz," you know it's not messing around. And this standout KC dive, with its $2.25 PBRs, fully loaded jukebox, graffitied walls, taxidermy, Jell-O shot deals and constant stream of patrons using the bar as a dance floor, certainly does right by its wild moniker. A KC institution since 1982, the place somehow survived on a daytime-only schedule until 2007—which, when you think about it, is completely insane. A down-and-dirty dive that got by strictly during daylight hours? For 25 years? Amen.
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