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What makes a dive bar?

A beery postcard from Alaska.
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Dive bar 1a-2

Photo by Joe Stange

I’m at a place called Darwin’s Theory in downtown Anchorage, and the waitresses are teasing the hell out of me for taking pictures of the popcorn machine.

“Ooh, you have to line it up just right, yes, very artsy… .” Behind them, a half-drunken punter pours it on, pretending to point and click an imaginary camera.

Clearly, I have broken a social norm. In this case, by using a beefy SLR camera to carefully capture an image of a boring object they see every day, I have exceeded the venue’s acceptable limits of pretentiousness. And they are letting me know.

I play along, explaining in an uptight voice that the mise-en-scene includes not only the popcorn machine, but more importantly its juxtaposition with the jukebox. Then I fill a basket with popcorn, order another beer and neck it from the bottle. There was no thought of asking for a glass.

Darwin’s Theory, you see, is a dive. My guess is that locals outnumber tourists four to one, though some might be good fakers. These are the workers, fishermen, soldiers, groups of friends out for the night and thirsty travelers. The bar is a square U, its most obvious feature being a string of chili pepper lights that go all the way around it, yet most of the light comes from the front windows and Alaska’s late evening summer sunshine. Nearly all the patrons munch basket after basket of free popcorn and drink directly from cans or longnecks. The jukebox—the kind that has buttons to browse pages of CDs—features the likes of ZZ Top, Bob Seger and Johnny Cash.

So, you check ostentatiousness  at the door.

Given the description, you could be forgiven for thinking the beer choices might be limited to Bud, Bud Light and something like Olympia. My guess is that thought would have been close to the mark as recently as five years ago. Instead, we see a fridge stocked with a selection of about 40 Alaskan and U.S. independents (no drafts here). I start with a malty Fairbanks Lager from Silver Gulch, then opt for one of the bar’s two cheap-beer specials of the night: Lagunitas IPA ⏤the other was Scrimshaw Lager. I reckon they have extra stock of the non-Alaskan beers and are trying to unload them. We’re happy to help.

We had noticed the same thing in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, when long-running workers’ dives like Colombo’s or Nick’s might have 40 to 100 taps, yet mainly have regulars who prefer to drink Busch from the bottle (even though they also have Busch on tap).

It raises a question: What makes a dive bar? If one of the requirements is an absence of interesting beer, then more and more of them are dropping from the ranks. I’d prefer to say that we need to update the requirements to keep up with the times, but this is a tricky business. The last thing we’d want to do is dilute the definition of a dive, lest they lose their grubby charm.

Already, there are trendy bar designers who open dive-like bars as concepts. Yet a proper dive has a type of authenticity that cannot be faked. It might be good that dives are grown and nurtured rather than created from scratch. Or maybe they’re like porn, difficult to define but we know it when we see it. Just the same, we can list some common traits.

  • Lack of a beer list⏤look at the fridge or ask (nicely).
  • Patrons from a broad mix of income levels, from unemployed to underpaid and on up through those one or two rich assholes who can’t stay away.
  • A broad age range, preferably skewing old and grumpy; if it’s full of chipper twentysomethings giving meat market vibes, it ain’t a dive.
  • Gruff, professional staff to tolerate the eccentric and manage or eject the rowdy.
  • Layers of knick-knackery and other garbage on the walls and ceilings, preferably dated. Might include Christmas lights, dollar bills, ticket stubs, bras, polaroids and calendars left untouched from previous decades.
  • Dimness. A dive should never be well-lit.
  • Simple snacks only, going perhaps as far as a small selection of battered, deep-fried nibbles. If you know anyone who goes there for the food, it’s probably not a dive.
  • There might be a TV or two but they are for local news and local teams, not your special interests.
  • Maybe a few wines, but come on.
  • Not family-friendly, as a rule.
  • A few but not too many games like pool, shuffleboard, pinball or darts; scoring extra dive points for low-level gambling like keno and video slots.
  • Cheap beer; less than $5 for domestic and $6 for craft is a good rule of thumb, depending on city and region.
  • Neon beer signs out front.
  • Taxidermy.
  • Unpleasant bathrooms.
  • The smell of cigarette smoke, these days often seeping in from just outdoors or sticking to the clothes of the regulars.
dive bar 2-3

Photo by Joe Stange

What have I missed? Use the comments below to let me know, or to argue. This question—What makes a dive?—makes for good barroom chat anywhere. For example, in a famous bar at the end of Homer Spit.

The Salty Dawg Saloon is a well-timbered fisherman’s pub at the end of the Spit, 225 miles south of Anchorage. It’s long been frequented by fisherpeople who do it for a living and those who come here to do it for fun.

We walk in after a day of reeling in cod and halibut. We add a dollar bill to the layers of them on the wall, autographed with Sharpies. Long oak tables are etched with thousands of initials and profanities of those who came before.

Our group orders a mix of Bud Lights and Alaskan IPAs; the latter cost $5.25 per bottle. We ask for no beer glasses⏤and none are offered.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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One Comment

  • Nick says:

    So you can shuck and jive with the photography but can’t ask for a glass? Would’ve been all the more fun, going on about how good and aromatic the beer is for a wimpy flatlander.

    Why reckon the beer selection there is that new? Alaska’s been at the forefront of GoodBeer for as long as OR & WA; this ain’t MO.

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