What constitutes a great dive bar? I’ve read articles and watched television shows dedicated to the topic. Does a dive bar by definition have to be at least 10 years old? Can a dive bar serve delicious food? Is a dive bar allowed to remodel anything? What if it gets “discovered” – still a dive bar? Who knew it could be so controversial.
I’m no expert. The older I get, the more I gravitate to places not too crowded but lively, not too expensive but with a decent menu, not overly-stylized but with clean facilities. Yet I can think of a few dive bars that have been special to me in the past.
Deddens in Louisville – One of the first dive bars I ever had the privilege to visit, Deddens was a favorite of my clique during college years. It’s full, rather poetic name was Deddens Highland Fling, and it is no longer around. One long, dark room intersected with pool tables. Sketchy bathrooms in the back. The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty were popular on the jukebox, and the air was dense with cigarette smoke. The bar was in front, where the proprietress Ms. Deddens was a constant fixture perched on a high stool, except when she would move warily between the most basic of tables and unsteady chairs collecting glasses. She appeared stern yet tolerant of the indie rockers, frat boys and all manner of eccentrics in-between. The drinks were inexpensive, and I don’t remember Deddens selling any food, except maybe bags of chips. It was the scene of meeting your friends before going out, or meeting your friends after going out, or maybe it was the whole evening where you punched in $2 worth of songs and played pool and waited for your crush to walk by and drank Falls City cans or amoretto sour cocktails because you didn’t know any better.
Tune Inn in DC – There is a legitimate debate among residents whether Tune Inn is an actual dive bar. I haven’t been there since Guy Fieri visited and supposedly found something worth eating. When I used to patronize Tune Inn during my early years in DC, it was all about cheap pitchers of beer and maybe a grilled cheese or jalapeño poppers (frozen). Once Jack ordered nachos – which was a disappointing 15 or so chips and a slice of Velveeta cheese microwaved on top, draping over 4 of the chips, with the rest of it hanging off the plate. But Tune Inn had old school plastic booths where we could crowd in with friends and fellow restaurant workers and actually afford to pick up the whole tab once in awhile. The walls were covered with photos of smiling politicians and trophy deer heads, the condition of the bathrooms was dire, the clientele hard to categorize. And the Tune Inn bartenders were sharp, the bar stayed open super late, and it was the perfect setting for post-Halloween party shots with my cousin when he was in town.
The Ida Noyes Pub in Chicago – Perhaps not exactly a dive, this bar is located in the basement of Ida Noyes Hall on University of Chicago’s campus and you need someone with a school ID to get in. I say it counts! Everyone talks about nearby Jimmy’s on Woodlawn and how they kept reference books behind the bar to settle arguments – and I liked Jimmy’s OK. But Ida Noyes Pub was a few buildings down the street from where I lived. Easy access to a pub during Chicago winters is no small thing, and I knew I would usually see my mates from the International House there, so Ida Noyes was my go-to. There were pool tables, darts and a jukebox. The decor was sparse, nerdy by most bar standards, but so convenient. In the evening hours you’d convince yourself that you could walk down to Ida Noyes, have a quick beer, and get back home with plenty of time to study. And in theory, you could. The pub was a hit with my sister April and aforementioned cousin when they visited me at school. Just as my sister April and aforementioned cousin were a hit with my pals hanging out at the Ida Noyes Pub.
Fin de Siglo in Madrid – Jack adores this bar, which we found during our second trip to Spain. It sparks his imagination, which could be an overlooked characteristic of a dive bar. It is small, unadorned, strangely lit. There is an air of seriousness when you order a drink (or maybe the bartenders are trying to understand our Spanish). No tapas on the counter – perhaps one of the few places in Madrid where you aren’t offered a tray of olives with your beverage. Jack pictures Orwell or Hemingway as past patrons stopping for a drink and to write a few lines at one of the isolated tables, or maybe the bar was witness to dramatic events and discussions during the Spanish Civil War. If walls could talk, right? We actually don’t know how long Fin de Siglo has been open, but it does have a certain mystery and is the opposite of trendy – or was the last time we visited. It’s possible someone would take a notion to renovate. Years ago we brought my parents here and Mom was a great sport, and Dad thought it was funny that Jack’s order of Four Roses bourbon on the rocks was filled 2/3 of a pint glass. Favorite dive bar indeed.
Do you have a favorite dive bar? Do tell!