By Michael Corcoran
An authentic dive bar doesn’t call itself that; it just is. So, when you see a new watering hole advertised as a lowdown “dive,” it’s most likely targeting young adults who read Charles Bukowski on Kindle. But where are the regulars who claim their barstools daily with territorial zeal? A real dive bar is a Cheers where everybody slurs your name.
Nouveau “dive bars” have waitresses with made-up names like LulaBelle and Madge. But real dives only have a bartender who knows what channel “Gunsmoke” is on. He or she is also the “lighting director,” flipping the switch at 7 a.m. on the daily one-act play where tragedy and comedy take turns. (“Dive bars” usually open in the evening.)
A “dive bar” hires an interior decorator to carry out the concept. But a true dive bar runs on random, with a décor of rummage sale eye candy. Built in the ‘50s or ‘60s, they still have their original toilets and carpeting. The color scheme is red vinyl and duct tape and the whole place smells of PTSD (which stands for “part time social director” at a “dive bar.”)
A “dive bar” offers chef-prepared meals and craft cocktails, while old school dives keep edibles in big jars on the counter and the “craft” discipline is limited to carving initials. If you smoke at a “dive bar,” you’ll be asked to leave, but at a real one you’ll be asked for a cigarette.
Austin’s chic Dive Bar on Guadalupe Street serves a delicious “Corpse Reviver” concoction of cognac, brandy and vermouth. At a real dive bar, seemingly dead bodies come to life with a glass of ice water to the face. If you’re deemed overserved at so-called Dive Bar, Uber or Lyft will take you home. After five or six too many at a real dive, your rideshare is an angry spouse in a house coat.
This difference between advertisement and authenticity, theory and reality, became apparent during a visit to The Tap, which has been rubbing the underbelly of El Paso the right way since 1956. Now, THIS is a dive bar! It’s nostalgia in present tense, harking back to the days when your GPS was a stranger on the sidewalk. And yet the colorful characters and inherent sketchiness provide new memories for Instagram. How could a millennial not take a photo of a margarita that comes stabbed with a lime popsicle?
It’s not a real dive until newcomers hesitate at the entrance, as the regulars stare. That the scent of danger can both attract and repulse is a theme of lowbrow joints.
Located downtown, just a couple blocks from the police station, The Tap started out as a “cop bar,” but through the years it’s also become a hipster hangout, a Mexican cantina, a biker bar, and a foodie stop (“’world’s greatest nachos,’ we’ll see about that!”) You’ll find businessmen in suits next to tattooed metalheads, as diversity is a dive bar’s calling card.
The Yelp-friendly kitchen and occasional live music are stickler points for those “dive diva” purists, but The Tap earns its gloriously stained stripes with an unpretentious “anything goes” vibe. A night at the Tap will save you a trip across the border to Juarez. It gets especially crazy on Tuesdays, when a Tecate with a shot of tequila will set you back $2. Asking for an IPA at The Tap is like playing Steely Dan on the jukebox between the favored death metal and Tejano.
Ironic, isn’t it, that the two places on Earth where no one judges you and all are welcome are a dive bar and an AA meeting? (Also, they both have bad coffee.)
A dive bar’s clientele is a dysfunctional family, but you take that personal connection wherever you can in this hand-held world, where many are left to their own devices. These dark dens of day-drinking yank you back to the years when the only Kardashian everyone watched on TV was a trial attorney. Remember when we had to entertain each other through conversation and antics? When an odious opinion could offend only those within earshot, and was usually forgotten within an hour?
That’s what the new, hip “dive bars” are trying to tap into: the value of social meat over media. Let’s not evaluate them too harshly, with their touted weekend DJs replacing the jukeboxes that don’t seem to have any records newer than “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks. Some “dive bars” will eventually become dive bars; we just need to give them 30 or 40 years.