Dart boards and mismatched chairs do not a dive make.

By Justine Sterling
Updated May 23, 2017

Recently, I went out for drinks at what my friends had described as a “dive bar.” When I got there I was greeted with a menu of $10 drinks, plush leather seats and tastefully dim lighting. It was a lovely place, and it was definitely not a dive bar.

It's true that in major cities, skyrocketing rents have driven many legitimate dives out of business. But they do still exist. Why can't people correctly identify them? I have a two-part theory. Part one: After years of speakeasies and classy cocktail dens, the bar industry is experiencing a backlash. New bars aim to be overtly casual, and lately there's plenty of kitsch: beer-and-a-shot deals, perhaps a stuffed raccoon perched next to the $90-a-glass Pappy. Part two: Having only ever experienced fancy craft cocktail spots and Irish pubs, late-blooming millennial drinkers are classifying them as “dives.”

I have nothing against this new breed of bar where you can get a good pint as well as a well-made Americano, but we have to stop calling them dive bars. Dart boards and mismatched chairs do not a dive make. So, I've come up with some guidelines. Here, nine ways to tell if you’re in a real dive bar.

1. There’s no menu. Look at the taps, glance down into the fridges below the bar, check the liquor lineup—that’s your menu. As far as cocktails go, stick to straight booze.

2. The most expensive beer is $6. If it’s a really great dive bar, you should be able to get an entire pitcher for less than the price of one beer at a standard pub. You should also be able to order said pitcher for yourself without anyone blinking an eye.

3. The lighting is too bright or too dark. Dive bars have two settings when it comes to lights: on or off. It’s either so dark that you can’t see to the other end of the bar or as bright as a seventh grader’s basement birthday party after mom or dad has come down to make sure everything is on the up and up.

4. There’s at least one elderly regular present at all times. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, every dive bar needs at least one grizzled old man posted up at the bar. He might be friendly, or he might growl every once in a while. It doesn’t matter; he just needs to be there. Think of him as ambiance.

5. The seats are held together with duct tape. Dive bars don’t spend money on upholstery. How do you think they pour well gin and tonics for $1.75? Duct tape does the job just fine.

6. You’ll only use the bathrooms if it’s an emergency. It’s an unfortunate but necessary quality of a great dive bar. The walls should be thick with graffiti, the floors should be slick and the toilet paper should be nonexistent.

7. There’s a hand-written sign instructing you on the correct vomiting etiquette. The bartenders have tired of giving the same speech night after night. “If you’re going to vomit, don’t do it in the sink. Do it in the toilet, like an adult.” Yet another reason to avoid the bathroom.

8. There’s no food, or at least none you'd want to eat. There might be peanuts, some leathery hot dogs or, if you’re really lucky, a jar of pickled eggs, but you don’t go to a dive bar to eat. You go to drink.

9. The most exotic thing on the back bar is a bottle of peach schnapps. Sorry, Negroni lovers, you won’t find Campari at a real dive bar. You’ll find lots of whiskey, some vodka and gin, and a few very dusty bottles of sticky liqueurs—probably relics from the 1980s.