The Anatomy Of A Good Dive Bar

03/26/2015 10:13 am ET | Updated Mar 26, 2015

Good dive bars are invaluable. Sticky, grimy and dark, they are incomparably disarming. Whether you've been frequenting the same one since before you were legally allowed to be there, or if it's your first time in a new haunt, you will instantly feel at home in a dive bar. There's just something comforting about an old-timey jukebox and the obligatory kitsch you'll inevitably find no matter where you are in the world.

Truly great dives have regulars. They have sassy bartenders and excellent drink specials. They're inconspicuous and will never be trendy. They're stale in every way. John Waters describes his ideal bar this way: "a good one that isn't ironic, that isn't infected with expensive coolness."

While the soul of a dive bar is intangible, certain tangible qualities -- like year-round Christmas lights -- are important indications of a solid establishment. Here are 16 signs of a great dive bar.

  • 1 Neon Signs
    Alison Spiegel
    Inside and outside.
  • 2 The Right Level Of Grime
    Rob Smith Photography via Getty Images
    It's a perfect balance between comfortable and gross.
  • 3 Bathrooms You'd Rather Not Use
    Marco Richter via Getty Images
    But you use them anyway.
  • 4 Dim Lighting
    Alison Spiegel
    To cloak your shame, hide your sorrows and help everyone's cause.
  • 5 A Good Beer And Shot Deal
    pkripper503 via Getty Images
    What else are you ordering?
  • 6 A Jukebox
    Fotopic via Getty Images
    When you're drunk and even when you're not, there is not a more fun way to play music.
  • 7 Buybacks
    Jack Andersen via Getty Images
    You've earned them.
  • 8 Regulars
    Ingolf Pompe / LOOK-foto via Getty Images
    They'll be there before you and stay after you go home.
  • 9 A Dart Board
    ryan haag via Getty Images
    For showing off your skills.
  • 10 Kitsch
    Austin Bush via Getty Images
    Whether it's an old beer sign or a fake mounted fish, there needs to be kitsch decorating the walls. There could also be drink umbrellas. Best of all are Christmas decorations all year round.
  • 11 Bar Games
    Ron Chapple Stock via Getty Images
    The older, the better.
  • 12 A Stalwart Status
    Roger Gaess via Getty Images
    The neighborhood changes, but they stay the same.
  • 13 A Sassy Bartender
    If you get on her good side, you're golden.
  • 14 Sticky Floors
    Asbestos Bill/Flickr
    They keep you from slipping and falling, or something.
  • 15 A Wrap Around Bar
    Lehigh Valley, PA/Flickr
    Great for people watching and for befriending that sassy bartender.
  • 16 A Pool Table
    Cameron Whitman via Getty Images
    For playing games and starting fights.

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  • The Holiday Cocktail Lounge, New York, NY
    Poets, intellectuals and artists found safe haven in this East Village Ukrainian dive that opened in 1965. The hidden charm behind the scrappy, dark-cornered den? Longtime owner Stefan Lutak, who tended bar until the age of 89—and would occasionally break into song in his native tongue. Lutak recalled regulars like W.H. Auden (who lived next door and downed full bottles of cognac while writing by the window), Allen Ginsberg and Frank Sinatra, and some say Madonna named her song “Holiday” after the bar.
    Recognized by the ancient phone booth and frayed stripes of duct tape holding the place together, the Holiday was a humble tribute to the art of heavy drinking. It attracted decades of loyals with its unhurried hospitality, and its closure in 2012 following Lutak’s death marked the end of an era on St. Marks Place. blogspot.com
  • The Attic Club, San Francisco, California
    $2.50 beers are common fare at any dive worth its grime, but $2.50 Martinis and Manhattans? That’s a dive deal of another stripe. Having long endured as one of the choice spots to find a cheap drink in the Mission, the Attic’s happy hour was topped only by its frenetic dance scene. Nightly DJs packed the house spinning tunes from punk to yacht rock, and the regulars were never deterred by smelly bathrooms or questionable structural integrity. But the Attic’s calling card was also its downfall, as the late-night dance sprees led it straight into a lawsuit with its neighbors. Faced with noise complaint fines and crumbling walls, the lively, sweat-inducing dive finally succumbed in 2014, leaving no trace of its former self—not even the vintage sign. thebolditalic.com
  • Hawk ‘n’ Dove, Washington, D.C.
    One place where congressmen and college students could share a drink as equals? At the beloved Hawk, planted squarely in the shadow of Capitol Hill. A drinking institution since 1967, the Hawk was opened by Stuart Long, who ditched a law career to helm the iconic dive. He happily held that job for 44 years and amassed a family of regulars who embraced the bar’s gritty familiarity. The Hawk’s legacy would have marched on, but Long lost his lease to a competitor in 2011. Though the name still hangs above the door, the bar’s original artifacts were auctioned off, and the tattered political posters and decoy ducks have been replaced with the shiny substitutes of new ownership. washtimes.com
  • Jackie’s 5th Amendment, Brooklyn, NY
    In the grand tradition of “old timer bars,” Jackie’s catered to the working-class crowd who preferred cheap, sturdy drinks. Plenty of them. The early morning happy hour pleased barflies on the night shift, and the saloon stubbornly rejected Park Slope’s rapid gentrification with its “six nips for nine bucks” deal: dirt-cheap beers served in a bucket. Jackie’s boldest display of defiance? The time the bar started a petition to legally secede from its yuppified Brooklyn neighborhood. Proud till the end, the 75-year-old joint (occasionally referred to as “Hell’s Waiting Room”) outlasted countless other dives in the area. No victim of rising rents, Jackie’s closed voluntarily in 2013 due to the owner’s declining health. A noble end for a respected dive. flickr.com
  • Power House, Los Angeles, California
    You know you’ve sold your share of $3 brews when Pabst Blue Ribbon offers to sponsor your bar’s softball team. Power House, Hollywood’s last true dive bar, unplugged in 2014, but its legend lives on. Blue-collar workers and celebrities alike gravitated to the bar, and next to a studio camera assistant you’d have found the likes of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. In 1965, the Beatles staked out their own booth multiple nights in a row. What gave this watering hole its star power? Perhaps the Old Hollywood ambience or the extra-cheap drinks, both rarities in today’s L.A. bar scene. The dive is set to be renovated and reopened as a trendy club, but regulars will remember it in its original form, when all patrons were equal and the PBR flowed freely. guestofaguest.com
  • The Quiet Man, Boston, Massachusetts
    The epitome of a basic Beantown “bah,” The Quiet Man reeked of sweat and spilled beer. That beer was served in bottles only—no freshly-tapped brews here—and to outsiders, the pub was likely dismissed as a “bucket of blood.” It’s true that The Quiet Man hosted its share of barroom fisticuffs, but it was also a dedicated hangout for the local working-class Irish community, especially as the Southie neighborhood became increasingly gentrified. As the area developed, The Quiet Man and other Irish dives were eventually forced to make way for new real estate ventures, and the bar was demolished in 2011 for massive condos. Gone were the beers in plastic cups, the ruddy regulars and the bar’s greatest claim to fame—the legendary steak tips. thephoenix.com
  • Marie’s Rip Tide Lounge, Chicago, Illinois
    Marie was a character. Most nights, you could find her crooning along to the jukebox while swigging Jägermeister, her trademark pouf of white hair bouncing to the beat. Her landmark bar began as a gathering place for the local Polish crowd in 1961, but adapted to the changing crowds each year, eventually attracting major celebs like Bill Murray, John Belushi and Vince Vaughn. Though the clientele grew, the 120-year-old cash register, electronic skeet shooting game and white leather booths all remained unchanged during Marie’s reign. After her death in 2011, Marie willed the bar to a longtime friend who kept it running for another two years. But like all the best dives, it seems the magical component was the owner herself. Marie was the supreme matriarch, and at her bar, everyone was welcome. chibarproject.com
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