Try as you might to describe what turns a bar from a regular old watering hole into a dive bar, you’ll never quite hit on a definition that does it justice. But that’s not a bad thing—because once you’ve visited enough drinking establishments, you’ll just know when you walk into a good dive.
Maybe it’s the musty smell, the kitschy decorations, the scuffed-up pool tables. Maybe it’s the rotating cast of characters that gives real life to any bar. No matter what it is that makes a dive a dive, I know I love them. And I’m happy to share my choices for the 12 most iconic dive bars in America, all of which I can say I’ve had the privilege of visiting.
Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge
New Orleans, LA
The first time I visited Snake and Jake’s in New Orleans, someone was passed out right in front of the bar. I’m not talking about being waylaid somewhere in the vicinity of the front door—I mean they were catching some z’s directly in front of the entrance. My date handed our IDs to the door guy, and we carefully stepped over the sleeping drunk to get in. Once inside, the wonders did not cease. The bar’s ceiling looks to be holding on for dear life, every single patron could have been the subject of a dozen novels, and at least one person tested the theory that the bar would let you drink for free if you came in naked. Among the many, many excellent dives in New Orleans, Snake & Jake’s is easily my favorite.
New York, NY
A peek inside Montero’s Bar in Brooklyn Heights might have you thinking that the decorator had a little too much fondness for seafaring themes. You’d be right, but for the wrong reasons. This bar was established in 1939 as a longshoreman’s bar, and it has kept every single nautical touch of its original purpose. Inside, you’ll find a dedicated crowd of regulars who are thankful that the place has resisted a half-dozen attempts at buyouts, making it one of the oldest dive bars NYC has to offer. It’s the type of dive bar that just might save your social life now that it’s weathered the Covid storm and is back open for business.
My Father’s Place
Among Portland’s rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods, the Southeast sector is a holdout in many more ways than one. Long-time residents have no intention of leaving, and housing values have stayed relatively steady compared to trendier areas. The generally industrial, grungy, old timey feel of the Southeast is on full display at My Father’s Place, a family-owned bar and restaurant that’s been around since 1978. You’ll meet a rotating cast of characters from every walk of Portland life, from the white collar office worker to the starving artist to the tech gurus and students trying to make their way in a competitive work environment. And somehow, magically, they’re all blended together in good conversation through the power of cheap booze and greasy food.
The White Horse Trading Co.
Located in the midst of Pike Place Market in Seattle, stepping into The White Horse Trading Co. is like entering into a very small, very British alternate reality. I’ve had people argue with me that it’s not a dive bar—the small selection of beers is too good, the floors are too clean, the lights are too bright. But every time I’ve been, the convivial atmosphere, comfy seating, and cash-only payments have confirmed that I’m in the right place. It’s home to a small selection of old books for sale, too, earning it extra street cred in my book.
The Map Room
Billing itself as “A Traveller’s Tavern”, The Map Room is far from being a venerated Chicago dive. In fact, it’s only been open since 1992. But step in for coffee as soon as they open (at 6:30 a.m., no less) and you’ll see that this is the sort of place you’ll want to plop down, drink all day, and make a dozen or so new friends. Their fantastic selection of beers is served completely without pretense by friendly bartenders, and the walls are lined with hundreds of old issues of National Geographic to peruse.
Bob & Barbara’s Lounge
Making a name for themselves with free live music paired with cold beer and cocktails, Bob Porter and Barbara Carter have been serving Philly natives since 1969. Their eponymous Bob & Barbara’s Lounge is still a go-to for cold drinks and great music, and “The Special”—a shot of Jim Beam and a can of PBR—still costs just $4. If you’re going to go on any day, make it Thursday for their award-winning drag show. And be sure to bring cash, because they still don’t accept cards here (and likely never will).
The Raven Grill
The Raven Grill, proud owner of Washington, D.C.’s oldest liquor license, doesn’t grill a darned thing. Neither do they make cocktails, in spite of the prominent and flashing neon “cocktails” sign out front. What they do serve up is a healthy dose of casual hospitality in an increasingly pretentious dining and drinking scene. That combined with its cheap drink prices makes the bar a favorite of longtime residents, first-time visitors, and broke college kids. Take a date, order a couple boilermakers, and enjoy watching the real D.C. unfold in front of your eyes.
2 Way Inn
The 2 Way Inn lays claim to being Detroit’s oldest bar. Established in 1876, it’s weathered every event that threatened to tear the city down. During tougher economic times (cough cough Prohibition cough cough), it’s doubled as a dance hall, a brothel, and even a jail. Everything in here is as old as the building itself, with worn wooden booths and a long, venerable bar. Bartenders don’t take shit from anyone, the owner still hangs around the joint, and patrons represent a cross-section of everyone that’s ever lived in or visited the Motor City.
St. Louis, MO
25-year-old CBGB, named for its founders Cindy and Guy Bour, is a near-perfect blend of anarchic punk influences and neighborhood bar friendliness. It’s a public house in the truest sense of the word, welcoming anyone and everyone to come enjoy cheap drinks, good company, and some of the friendliest bartenders I’ve ever had the pleasure of being served by. Live music is free or very cheap, Wednesday trivia nights are a blast, and the women’s toilets live in infamy for the fact that they face each other and have no partitions.
The Original Pinkie Masters
From the old school jukebox to the incredibly cheap drinks to its location nestled amongst a half dozen churches, Pinkie Masters oozes cool. It’s basically unchanged since its opening in 1951, where it was originally called “The Rainbow Grill”. Regulars here are particularly feisty, as if they want to make sure that anyone hanging out at Pinkie’s knows that it’s not just some bar—it’s a veritable part of the fabric of Savannah’s history and culture. Don’t plan on coming here for just one drink; you’ll want to stay until they kick you out in fine fashion at 2 a.m.
Orange Beach, AL &/ Pensacola, FL
Back in 1962, the state of Florida gave the state of Alabama a two-mile stretch of beachfront land in exchange for help with the construction of a bridge. The Tampary family saw this as a golden opportunity to make a bar and package liquor store that would straddle the state line—making it one of the only bars in the country that’s legally operating in two states at once. Some call it the country’s best beach bar, and I’d have to agree. Because where else besides Florida/Alabama are you going to be able to pull off the hat trick of being both a renowned beach bar and a venerated dive bar?
Los Angeles, CA
Family owned and operated for over 50 years, the Tiki-Ti was a longtime favorite smoker’s bar thanks to a California loophole. Because it was all family members running the place, they skirted the state’s smoking ban and kept on going with business as usual. And though they’ve revised that policy now (no smoking inside), the uniquely rebellious spirit of the place is still intact. The bar itself was opened by Ray Buhen, one of the last of the great tiki cocktail bartenders of the Donn the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s era—and they can still make a damned fine tropical drink.