The real challenge in compiling a list of America’s best dive bars comes in defining just what a dive bar is and isn’t.
Like “speakeasy,” “dive bar” is a term whose meaning has evolved over time. A speakeasy used to be a strictly illegal drinking place, whether high-tone or lowbrow, whose patrons were subject to arrest if they were discovered (and possibly to poisoning from bathtub gin if that’s what they drank); today, it seems to just mean any place with a hidden entrance, and possibly with bartenders sporting bowties.
As for dive bars, they used to be notoriously disreputable, dirty, and possibly dangerous — the kinds of places where strangers weren’t welcome and where, if you weren’t a stranger, you were very likely to be disreputable, dirty, and possibly dangerous yourself.
Today, “dive bar” is used increasingly to mean simply a bar with character, someplace not too fancy, an establishment with a personality of its own — maybe a little ill-kempt but rarely worrisomely unclean or in any way threatening.
But if a dive bar is to be differentiated from any other neighborhood watering hole, or from all the trendy new places with dive bar pretensions, there ought to be some agreed-upon definitions.
Here are attributes that a true dive bar should have: A regular clientele with regular bar seats — the kind of people who might turn to look at you when you walk in, but then turn back to their beers, minding their own business and expecting you to mind yours; graffiti on the walls (or, at the very least, on the restroom walls); an old-school jukebox (not the internet variety; extra points if it takes quarters or dollar bills), tuned a little too loud; at least one pool table; and furnishings repaired with duct tape.
The real thing also needs: Daytime hours (a hardcore dive bar opens as soon as it’s legal — 6 a.m. in some states); beer in cans, including PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon), as well as in bottles (taps are optional); a light level that’s either too low or too high (ideally there are no windows); bartenders who are either really friendly or really surly — nothing in between; and cheap drinks.
Many dive bars have proven remarkably resilient and resistant to change. Sometimes they’re among the most ancient saloons and taverns in their region. These are the oldest bars in every state.
Here are some signs that a place is not a real dive bar: It’s called “Dive Bar,” with or without modifiers. It serves fancy cocktails with ironic names. It offers too many craft beers. It has a wine list. It serves salads and/or the kinds of steak that cost more than $10. It has a happy hour. People come in wearing neckties and never take them off.
Of course, all these definitions apply to the ideal dive bar, and the ideal is hard to find. Nonetheless, 24/7 Tempo, with the help of reviews from Yelp, has put together a roster of true dives across the country, all of them fulfilling at least some of the above requirements.
A few caveats before you head for one of these places: They’ll be filled with cigarette smoke in any state or city that permits indoor smoking (and even some that don’t). Many of them are cash-only (though most that are will have an in-house or nearby ATM). With only occasional exceptions, they’re not places where you’d want to eat anything fancier than a bag of chips or a frozen microwaved pizza. And some don’t serve liquor — just cheap bulk wine (maybe) and lots of beer. You might be surprised to learn how much beer people drink in every state.
On the plus side, dive bars are often friendly, surprisingly welcoming hangouts; the bar tabs tend to be modest, even for a full evening of drinking; and you’ll almost certainly have more fun and more interesting experiences overall than you would if you’d gone to some swanky uptown place.
To assemble this list of the best dive bar in every state, 24/7 Tempo began by consulting ratings and reviews of establishments identifying themselves as dive bars, in whole or in part, on Yelp. Many of these were disqualified because they were primarily restaurants, sports bars, or chain operations, or because they were judged editorially to lack essential dive bar characteristics. (Some dive bars chosen have low Yelp scores, because the things reviewers criticize are sometimes the things that define good dive bars, like surly service or dingy atmosphere.) We also consulted numerous roundups of dive bars, ranked and otherwise, from a variety of websites, including those of Thrillist, Eater, Tasting Table, Foursquare, Complex, Mental Floss, The Daily Meal, and Trekbible, as well as numerous local and regional sites and both websites and Facebook pages belonging to some of the bars under consideration. Most quotes were taken from reviews by Yelp users.