We still like to call them just “dive bars”, but that isn’t the correct term. “Dive bar” is supposed to mean rough, working class, gritty. The neighborhood should be down-and-out, not up-and-coming. The clientele should be a mix of derelicts and drunks and the bartender should be indistinguishable from their patrons. A true dive has no attractive, young people anywhere in the vicinity. When people our age describe a bar as a “dive,” they’re probably using the word incorrectly. For our generation “dive” is used as an umbrella term to describe a bar that’s neither sports bar, brew pub or danceclub, where there is some sort of cheap American beer on tap (PBR, High Life, Olympia, Rainier, etc…) and where a good portion of the patrons/bartenders dress and act and are tattooed like hipsters. I don’t like the term “hipster” and I don’t like misusing the term “dive,” but I know that when I describe the bars that have always been my favorite bars as “hipster dives,” you probably know what I mean.
I mean the bars with veteran bartenders, whose only life accomplishment is figuring out how to only work 18 hours a week for the past fifteen years. Where sharpie-graffiti has been scrawled on every visible surface. Where the bathrooms are so disgusting it’s almost admirable. And where the cheapest beer is always the most popular. For my last 13 years of drinking, I’ve preferred drinking at these types of bars, romanticizing their applied shittiness, knowing that I had a better shot with the girls who would drink here as opposed to more bourgeois watering holes in whatever city I was living in. But now, as I grow older and wiser in my drinking, more susceptible to hangovers, more picky and prickly about where I drink, I’ve fallen out of love with my old favorite watering holes. I wanted to take a look at why I liked these bars then, and why, as I become an adult, they become less of the place for me to be.
2001- 2005: Le Biftek – Montreal, Quebec
Biftek is the bar I’ve compared every other bar in my life to. It’s like that first girl who breaks your heart, hovering over every future relationship. An institution in Montreal, when I drank there regularly, from 2001-2005, it was a smokey, dirty, dark divey oasis, nestled in-between mid-St. Laurent’s gimmicky nightclubs (Club Go-Go, anyone?). Biftek had everything a great dive bar should have. Cheap drinks, as in pitchers of Canadian swill beer for $8 and a tray of five whiskey shots for $10 (!!!). There were the pretty, slightly older waitresses, with intimidating tattoos. Then there were the surely bouncers, who would only deem to act like they remembered you after your 100th visit. The bar was dark, day or night. The pool table was warped. The pool cues cracked. They had weird, cheap art on the wall, garage sale paintings of cowbows and hockey players. There was free popcorn you could serve yourself, which, of course, was stale.
There were also a few fun idiosyncrasies that made Biftek all the more charming. There was a “DJ” on busy nights, but the only stereo system was a tape deck, which meant the DJ had to fast-forward through his tape collection to find the tracks he wanted. The crowd was also decently mixed between English and French speakers (St. Laurent is the historical dividing line between French and English Montreal), so when you struck up a conversation, you never knew if someone was going to understand you. But it was still the kind of bar where you could strike up a conversation with anyone. I doubt there was a week in my four years of university where I didn’t go to Biftek at least once, and there were probably some days where I went every single day of the week.
I do remember a short period of my tenure where one of my roommates was banned from the bar, after slapping the glasses off of the bouncer, for no apparent reason. That left us adrift in Montreal’s nightlife landscape, trying the other dives in the neighborhood, but none fit (it’s strange to think that while there were certainly people who dressed like hipsters in Montreal in the early ‘00s, the term wasn’t commonly used, so we couldn’t classify these bars as “hipster dives”). Roy Bar was too French. Barfly was too rockabilly. Copacabana just wasn’t dark enough. In the end, we often just ditched our friend to return to our dive of choice and eventually, the bouncer’s ban on him was reversed. I seem to remember that he just stood outside in the snow, smoking, looking in with puppy-dog eyes as his friends drank and laughed, until the bouncer finally decided he was harmless. I could be wrong.
Like I said, Biftek was the original.
2005 – 2007: Little Joy – Los Angeles, California
When me and two of my college roommates moved to Los Angeles, to make it big as a hip-hop fusion band(!!!), we wanted to try to create an approximation of our lives in Montreal. It was the only city life we knew as almost-adults. We moved to Echo Park, a hip, gentrifying neighborhood that seemed like a good equivalent to Montreal’s vibrant Plateau district. And we found a seedy little dive that felt a lot like Biftek. The pool tables were even shittier, with duct tape keeping together the multiple holes in the felt. Every surface of the walls was scraweled with graffiti and dated posters for freakfolk bands. And where Biftek had been 30% Francophone, Little Joy had a contingent of neighborhood Latinos, sipping Tecates. A couple intimidating dudes who would haunt the back pool table were known to sell cocaine out of the bathroom. It felt like we were home.
There were also some things about the place that were decidedly more LA. The manager, a chubby Steve Martin-lookalike in his late 40s, would wander in wearing disco sunglasses, seemingly coked out of his mind, shooting his finger guns at the pretty girls. The odd celebrity would make a brief cameo, Jason Lee or someone equivalent. On weekend nights, the place would swell with non-neighborhoodies (the LA equivalent of bridge-and-tunnelers), and there’d even sometimes be a line to get in, filled with castoffs from the much more popular Shortstop up the block. And there was a more stand-off-ish, strike-a-pose vibe among some of the hipper-seeming regulars. Not everyone was as friendly to the shabbily-dressed (in an actual shabby way, not, like, a LA-pretend shabby way), wide-eyed 23-year-olds as we were to them. Innocuous conversation starters often were returned with blank stares. But we didn’t really notice. The bartenders seemed to like us, the beer was cheap and our apartment was walking distance, a true luxury for LA.
2008 – 2011: The Uptown – San Francisco, California
Upon moving to San Francisco, I’d been drinking in city bars for about seven years and felt like the old pro when it came to finding a divey-watering hole, an attraction San Francisco is thick with, especially in the central parts of the city (i.e. the greater Mission area). 500 Club, Molotovs, Doc’s Clock, The Attic, Pops, The Phone Booth or Argus Lounge (RIP) all could have competed for a spot as my favorite dive. They all had many of the Biftek-ish features I’d come to think I’d wanted in a bar, but Uptown won out because it had the cheapest drinks ($3.50 wells, $3.00 High Life), the best jukebox (‘Def Jam’s Greatest Hits’ discs 1 and 2), those hilariously gross couches with cushions that have collapsed into themselves, and I always seemed to bump into people I knew there, which was the greatest feature of a favorite bar.
I had my 25th birthday here, and twenty-odd my friends helped fill the place to capacity, and I felt like a king. And I remember many times, when an out-of-town friend came through to visit, and I wanted to show off that I could get a nod of acknowledgement from the bartender at a bar filled with cute, twentysomething girls, Uptown would be the first place I would take them. It was the default. Once again, I was at home at what felt like the hippest bar in the coolest hood in an awesome. It felt like it would never stop.
2011 – Present: No Favorite Dive Bar
I don’t go to Uptown very often anymore. Here’s what I think happened: First of all, I got a serious girlfriend, and the selling point of a bar where I could meet intriguing women no longer sold me. Secondly, I started making a little bit more money, so the appeal of the cheapest possible beer no longer held as much appeal. Nowadays, if I order a High Life, it’s because I want a light, slightly sweet American beer which will make me look “authentic”, not because it’s the cheapest thing available. Thirdly, and this is a big one, my tastes have actually matured. As a bargoer, I can discern between a middlebrow bar that has a bit of character and appeal and one that’s absolute shit. My palette for places to drink wasn’t quite as nuanced back in the day. Finally, the opportunity to run into friends presents itself less and less. If I see a friend at a bar, it’s because we planned to meet there.
I guess I’m also a different kind of drinker, less willing to brave the weekend crowds at popular bars, so if I go someplace cool, I’m going on an off night. Last night, me and a couple friends had a late-ish night at Local Edition, a fancy, giant downtown cocktail bar that is packed to the point of TERRIBLE during happy hour and weekend nights. But it was relatively quiet at 9pm last night, maybe 50 people in a large space that can accommodate 300. We enjoyed the overpriced but excellent cocktails and the space itself, a very impressive (and expensive) new bar built in the old printing room for the old Hearst daily, is objectively a very cool place to be. It was a pleasant night with friends, not an adventure with a pack a drunks looking for trouble.
A consolation is that as I’ve changed, so have the bars I used to love. Biftek’s grimy appeal suffered tremendously from Montreal’s smoking ban (ultimately, a good thing, I admit). When I went last summer, it felt less dark and dank. Also, the addition of flat screen TVs, ostensibly for hockey games, have made the place feel more generic. And the student crowd (which was only half the people who drank there), once so artsy and all-black-wearing, now seems to be a little more stereotypically bland student. Baseball hats and hoodies with their school name on it. And then Little Joy has been overhauled to the point that it’s unrecognizable from the bar I remember. The owners fired the old staff for all being cokeheads, and then came in and re-did the bar to look like a generic LA shit bar. Gone is the graffiti. In is the DJ who spins top 40 on weekends. I felt sick to my stomach the last time I went in there. So maybe that’s not a consolation at all.
Here’s the conundrum for myself, and I think a lot of serious drinkers in their late 20s/early 30’s. I still want a dive I can be a regular at, where I can bump into friends every time I go and get to know the other regulars and the staff. But there’s nothing in my neighborhood that feels right (a lot of wine bars, a cool-looking but actually miserable -feeling old neighborhood pub, a beer bar frequented primarily by beer bros, etc…). I just want it to be just little less dive-y than the bars I used to go to. Or I just want to be 22 again. I was gchatting with a friend who asked if I’d actually given up on dive bars, and the answer is no, I haven’t. But a cool dive bar feels like an old jean jacket that I KNOW is still cool, but just doesn’t fit right anymore. Still, I can’t bring myself to throw it out.
Henry Goldman is founder of yr an adult and is currently sobbing into his beer.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Oliver Lavery, used under CC license