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What makes a good dive bar?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

by Joe Donovan


Let’s say you’re at a dive bar, and someone asks, “What makes this place good?” It’s a fair question considering the bathrooms are practically outhouses and the carpet still smells like stale cigarettes almost nine years after the smoking ban took effect. I overheard this question recently at Low Brow Lounge, which is a short walk from Watershed’s Portland office. A man in a trucker cap pointed to the cardboard gorilla situated below a fake palm tree and the four-dollar microbrews during happy hour, “The best dives are weird and cheap and old. That’s all they need. Period.”

That didn’t seem right to me, and plus everyone at the bar seemed bored by the question. We just wanted a good place to drink cheap beer and not fret about reputation or aesthetics. But his “weird and cheap” response stuck with me for a while because it suggested that producing something authentic was a problem to be solved or something that was obtainable by simply checking all the boxes. We know that’s false. A chain restaurant bar could have both cheap beer and strange flora. Chains are definitely not good dives (but sometimes not a bad place to drink). It was an impossibly huge question, along the same lines as trying to explain what makes good art, or what it means to be authentic. It’s complicated. Dive bar definitions are elusive, and the more you try to define it, the more shape-shifty it gets.

The question, what makes a good dive, has been bandied about by many publications. Especially now, as craft beer is moving into the mainstream consciousness, and many beer enthusiasts are retreating to more ‘authentic’ places like Low Brow. Dives now have accumulated a kind of fetish-like interest by many beer people. Draft, Vice, and Huffington Post have all asked this question in the past year, and their answers vary greatly. Some say the best dives are inaccessible. They have no drink list and no sign out front, and they probably don’t care about the latest beer trends unless it involves Coors. Others have focused on décor. They believe that dives are like neighborhood museums that display all sorts of antiquated kitsch like taxidermy and a jukebox that rotate through the best of 80s glam pop. And still, for others, the answer is “who cares?” Dives are associated with working class, and if you’re bothering yourself with this question you’re only interested in a cultural tourism way, and that seems wrong. If you’re asking this question you’re after the aesthetic minutiae of dives and not the people who frequent them. Dives, for this third group of people, are just simple watering holes, a no-frills kind of place where people of all walks still go for good conversation.

So, what makes a good dive is really a question about authenticity. Weird, cheap, and old do seem like important qualities. And yet, Low Brow is not actually that old. The place opened in 1998, about the same time major developments in the Pearl were already underway. Even so, 1998 was a different era in Portland. And, even though it’s not really a relic from Portland’s past, Low Brow does seem consistent no matter the time or day or year. Maybe that’s what matters. Dives are authentic when the dollar bill you stick to the wall will still be there next time you show up. Fifteen years ago, people could have gone here and sat next to the palm tree and cardboard gorilla. And that’s a comforting thought.

And anyway, it’s best to not get too theoretical about dive bars. Sometimes we just want a low-key place and a bartender who’s happy to pour a G&T with well gin, bitters, a twist, and extra ice.

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