Defining a dive bar is difficult because people have different perspectives. In a nutshell, a dive bar is an unglamorous establishment that offers cheap drinks and is sometimes a time capsule frozen in time.
The dive bar is honest and straightforward. What should you order?
The golden rule is to keep it simple. The go-to options are whiskey, vodka, gin, and tequila. You can mix them with soda, take them as a shot, or drink it neat. Beer and a shot, or just a beer, is another option. If all else fails, you could order a glass of wine or just a plain soda (this might get you some weird looks, though).
We’ll take a tongue-in-the-cheek look at what a dive bar is before we dive into your best and safest options to order at a dive bar. We’ve also included some final thoughts about dive bars to put your mind at ease about them.
What Is a Dive Bar?
Let’s start at the very beginning; what is a dive bar? This is a loaded question and difficult to answer because everybody’s got an opinion on a dive bar.
Below are some tell-tale signs that you could have stepped into a dive bar (if you did not pay attention to your surroundings) or other tell-tale signs.
Here are five signs that you might have stepped into the parallel universe called the dive bar.
Cash Is King
While a $20 bill might cover a relatively cheap cocktail and a modest tip in a more upmarket bar, it can take you quite far at a dive bar. Many patrons are shocked when their bill arrives, and there are no card facilities.
Don’t be alarmed when the bartender tells you it is a pay-as-you-drink system with payment upfront for each drink you order.
The decor needs to be updated, and the floor is sticky. Welcome to the dive bar world.
The furniture is as old as the bar itself and outdated. Or at least 30 to 40 years old and stained. It adds charm to the bar and gives a sense of comfort to know very little has changed.
The bathroom should be used quickly or avoided at all costs. The place might look run down or could even do with a proper deep clean, but that’s part of the dive bar charm.
Pool Table – The Meeting Point
There’s a good chance you’ll find a pool table (or two if there’s space) that’s seen better days. Even better if it is coin-operated!
This serves as a meeting point for locals, regulars, couples on a date, and just about every type of person from all walks of life. A dart board might also be present, with some guys challenging one another.
A pinball machine somewhere in a corner won’t go unnoticed, either.
Yes, it’s illegal to smoke indoors. Still, people just can’t help reaching for a pack of cigarettes while drinking at their favorite hovel.
Be prepared to walk into a dimly lit space with thick, blue smoke hanging in the air—that’s a dive bar right there.
If they aren’t smoking indoors, they’ll undoubtedly occupy a space somewhere out front discussing anything and everything.
The Thrill of the Unknown
You’ll probably be looked up and down by the patrons when you enter, and they’ll carry on as if nothing happened. Yet, you still have this foreboding sense that something is about to happen.
Sometimes a fight or argument will break out while you’re there, and usually, it is quickly deflated. A round of shots is ordered, and all is good again.
At the very worst, the cops will be called in, or somebody will get a lifelong ban. That’s dive bar life.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with dive bars. As long as you respect the patrons, bartenders, and waiting staff (if there are any), you should be fine.
Some dive bars are worse than others, and the moment you feel uncomfortable, settle your bill if you have one and leave as quietly as possible. The key is to trust your gut.
Most dive bars are safe if you leave your ego at the door; if you don’t know your place, patrons and bartenders can become inhospitable quickly, making your evening a disaster.
What To Order at a Dive Bar
Do not expect anything fancy. We repeat, expect everything to be straightforward. A dive bar is not the place to flex your snob’s muscles or try to outdo the bartender with your vast knowledge of Japanese whisky.
In a nutshell, they just do not care. They’ll serve the drinks they know their regular patrons like, and if it is an Irish whiskey and happens to be Jameson’s, it will be Jameson’s. Nothing else.
You’ll never see a dive bar bartender or owner sitting with a liquor rep discussing and trying new whiskeys. It just takes too much effort.
They don’t like changing their ways and love placing repeat orders for the liquor they know will sell.
Don’t be foolish and ask for some weird and wonderful top-shelf whiskey—you ain’t getting it. Period.
Gin and Tonic is a safe option if you want something fizzy. The key here is to check that it is actually a gin you’ve heard of and poured from the original bottle.
Ever heard of bathtub gin? No, not the nice one by Ableforth’s you’d buy in the store, but the type that people illegally distill in their backyards…
Be careful if the gin is poured from some unlabelled bottle because you don’t know what’s in there. As for the tonic water, make sure it comes from a sealed can or bottle that’s opened in front of you.
If the ‘tonic water’ they serve comes from a gun, leave it alone. Instead, sip your gin neat or leave it. Gin will taste terrible when combined with sub-standard tonic water or even Coke.
Whiskey and soda is always safe option. Or whiskey with a mixer such as Coke. Again, don’t get fancy and ask for some wonderful whiskey the bartender doesn’t stock or never heard of before you came to visit.
According to numerous bartenders, the beer and a shot option is a dive bar staple. It is also known as a Boilermaker. There are many ways to enjoy this combination, but the two most common methods are:
- Shoot the shot down and chase it with the beer
- Drop the shot into the beer and drink it.
Easy peasy. The best options for the shot are usually tequila or whiskey.
A dive bar serves a singular purpose: to serve alcohol to patrons of the legal drinking age—nothing more, nothing less.
The effort is not the name of the game in a dive bar. So, don’t expect a vast array of craft beers on tap, fancy liquor, or even fancy cocktails such as a whiskey sour, a mojito, or a martini.
These things take effort to make and order ingredients for and deviate from their regular order with their suppliers.
Beer is the generic and go-to option if you don’t want nasty surprises. The beer will most probably be from a keg. Sometimes, it will be in a glass bottle and next to a beer glass. Don’t expect miracles.
Hard liquor such as vodka, whiskey (including bourbon), tequila, and maybe brandy are the major options you’ll probably encounter.
Do not expect fancy or expensive liqueurs; they’re not in the business of selling high-end products. You can order your hard liquor neat, on the rocks, or with a mixer.
Sodas are another option if you want to quench your first after work but don’t feel like alcohol. Avoid juice, though; it is probably synthetic and won’t taste great.
If all else fails, go for a glass of wine.
Final Thoughts on Dive Bars
A dive bar is precisely what it is meant to be—a bar. They’re there when you need a drink, nothing more.
Things don’t change in dive bars because anything that takes effort is too much effort. A dive bar is like a beacon of hope.
They keep on doing what they do a year in and year out. They open. They serve drinks. Repeat cycle.
They have enough employees to keep the place ticking over, and service will be honest. You might get friendly service, or you might get brusque service.
The staff are who they are, and acting in any other way takes effort. Still, you’ll find a certain level of honesty and sincerity that’s hard to beat at other establishments.
A dive bar is to be enjoyed and not scrutinized or torn to shreds with a negative Yelp review (they’ll probably never even see your review because, you know… effort).
Whether or not you like frequenting dive bars, they are beacons of hope when you need a drink. Keep your order simple, and the bartender will respect you.
Options include liquor and a mixer, a beer with a shot, whiskey and soda water, and gin and Tonic.
Don’t get fancy and try to order something they don’t stock or never even heard of. Just keep it simple and enjoy the experience.