Life

Picking The Best Dive Bars In The Country


When I was in college, every Thursday we went to “the Deuce.” The reason why is fairly murky. It’s not because it was particularly near our school. You had to take a cab to get there. Nor was it because there was a lack of dive bars near campus (RIP The Keg of Evanston with your big cups, stale popcorn, and very occasional murder — you served us well). But still, despite its inconvenience, every Thursday without fail a few hundred Northwestern students piled into cabs (usually 7-8 of us thick) and headed across the Evanston/Chicago border to a ridiculous dive bar in Skokie officially called the Mark II Lounge. It was open until 4am, and it was super classy…if by classy you mean exactly the opposite of that.

The rumor was that the tradition of Northwestern students going to the Mark II harkened back to prohibition, when liquor couldn’t be served in Evanston so desperate students found a dive right across the border in Chicago that would serve them (before you go thinking this is a cool 1920’s speakeasy bar, you should know that prohibition basically started in Evanston and then stubbornly held on until the 1970’s). Who knows if that creation story is true, but whatever the reason, we went willingly like herded sheep, and my memories of the Deuce are some of the best of college. The packed dive with random karaoke, cheap, bad beer, and free pizza was the center of a million crazy nights with friends that can only really happen in college. It was a cornerstone of many of our going out experiences. And while there were probably as many nights there crying as laughing and dancing, I couldn’t remember a place more fondly.

The good news is that when I was looking for Instagram pictures of the Deuce, a friend from college came up who was there in the last year. And I salute her.
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A good dive bar isn’t so much about the place, but the energy it gives off. It’s the history that seems to be ground deep into the sticky floors that presumably haven’t been washed ever since your favorite author or singer used to frequent the joint. If Rent measures a life in love, dive bars measure a life in pitchers of cheap beer, terrible bathrooms, crazy knick knacks, jukebox songs that can only be sung while shouting, and the amount of grizzled, tattooed motorcyclists playing pool in the corner. It’s where you play quarters on dirty tables, and happily eat frozen pizza with Bud Light to chase your Jameson shot. Dive bars are a place where you do not walk, you only stumble. And when you stumble upon the perfect dive, it just feels like home.

At Uproxx, we love a fancy cocktail once in awhile, but there’s something irresistible about our favorite dives. And so, we compiled them here. That way you too might enjoy the best dives we’ve found (and personally love) in America. Just do us a favor, don’t make them too hispter-y if you go, we like ’em dirty.

The Sip n’ Dip Lounge (Great Falls, Montana)

Allison Sanchez

Look, I can’t recommend that you fly to Great Falls specifically to go this tiki lounge. But GQ can (and did!) in a list of best bars in the country — saying it was the number one bar on earth worth flying to (okay it was in 2003, but it’s still true!). Great Falls isn’t on my list of top places that I would tell people to visit in Montana (to be honest), but if you’re driving through the state, I would highly recommend a visit to the Sip n’ Dip. It’s a pretty incredible place. The interior has that classic 60’s tiki look that I’ve seen many a bar try to imitate. This is the real deal. Live “Mermaids” swim in the pool behind the bar every night, and you can’t go wrong with a drink the size of a fishbowl (whether you split it or decide to tackle it by yourself is between you and your God). It’s all great, but I think the best part of the Sip n’ Dip is Pat, who has been singing and playing the piano there since 1963. That’s right, this place has an elderly woman who has been performing covers at the little Montana bar for over 50 years and she’s awesome. #lifegoals

Go there. It’s magical.

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#sipndip #mermaids #greatfalls

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Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Stacey Ritzen

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PHILLY

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Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar is a mainstay of South Philly that’s been around for nearly 80 years, located just around the corner from Cheesesteak Vegas (Pat’s and Genos), and a visit to the establishment’s website tells you everything you need to know about Ray’s: Open hours, from Monday to Saturday, are 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. (On Sunday they open at a conservative 9 a.m.) That’s right, if you’re so inclined, you can pop in to Ray’s on your way to work for an eye opener (and yes, I know people who have done so).

The bar’s quirky name — originally just called Ray’s — is a nod to the original owner Ray Capozzoli, who used to greet everyone with a “happy birthday” when they walked in. After Capozzoli died, his son Lou took over and decided to rename it. “When he passed away 15 years ago I said you know what I’m still going to call it Ray’s, but I’m going to call it ‘Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar’ to honor my father,” Capozzoli told WHYY on the bar’s 75th anniversary in 2013. “Once in a while it was somebody’s birthday and they’d say, ‘How’d you know?'”

And true to its namesake, upon entering, you’ll be greeted by a lit-up marquee-style sign above the bar that reads “HAPPY BIRTHDAY,” and if you show your I.D. on your birthday, you’ll get a free shot as the bartender rings a bell as a proclamation of the ocassion. On Friday nights, it hosts some of the best karaoke in the city with Philly’s renowned D.J. Lars. Like any good dive worth its salt, the drinks at Ray’s are cheap, strong, and cash only — and because it’s one of the few spots in the city you can still smoke, it’s damn near impossible to leave without stinking like the inside of an ashtray One time they literally served me a pint glass full of wine, and I think I paid like $6 for it. It’s truly a magical place.

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Sway🙏

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The Brendan Behan (Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts….i.e. Boston)

Andrew Husband

Just before the border of what locals dub “The Latin Quarter,” the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain boasts a literal hole in the wall crammed between a Dominican storefront with empanadas and a smoke shop. The Brendan Behan, named for the famously alcoholic Irish writer, boasts a dark, shotgun-style room lined with one long bar, few booths and tables, and a fireplace that (amazingly) still works. The only window in the entire place adorns the front wall facing the street, leaving the Behan’s innards constantly shrouded in darkness. Yet, it’s one of the most welcoming places in the neighborhood.

I almost never go there with friends because, truth be told, one or more of them are probably already there. If not, making conversation with the other regulars, barkeeps and newcomers is as easy as tripping over one of several loose boards along the floor. Throw in the fact that the staff keeps the place dog friendly (despite supposed health code violations) and eureka! You’ve got one of the best dive bars in the neighborhood, let alone the entire city of Boston. It’s cash only, obviously, though the weekly Irish and Celtic music jam sessions are free.

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Sunday funday with dahts #brendanbehanpub #jp

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Chili’s (Absolutely anywhere)

Brian Grubb

Is Chili’s a dive bar? Most experts would say no. In fact, most experts would say Chili’s is an American casual dining restaurant chain that features Tex-Mex-style cuisine. But then those experts would just be quoting from the Wikipedia page for Chili’s and, really, can we trust any “expert” that openly plagiarizes from Wikipedia like that? Shouldn’t we hold our experts to a higher standard? Like, say, the same standard we hold the 1,606 Chili’s restaurants around the world? Quite frankly, I think that’s the least we can ask. That, and for $5 Presidente margaritas at Happy Hour, which you can get at many Chili’s franchises on Thursday.

Hinano Cafe (Venice, California)

Amy Sorlie

Hinano Cafe isn’t only one of the best dive bars in Venice Beach, it’s also home to one of LA’s most legendary burgers. Known as one of Jim Morrison’s favorite hangouts, the bar only accepts cash and you have to order your food at the bar. Legend has it, they’ve used the same grill since opening in the early 1960s and that’s why the burger tastes so incredible. The burger is served with a side of hot peppers and a bag of chips, which is always a surprise. Doritos or Original Lays, sometimes BBQ if you’re lucky. Sawdust covers the floors and there’s often a live music act stuffed into the corner by the popcorn machine. Everything about Hinano is charmingly classic.

Santa’s Pub (Nashville, Tennessee)

David Pemberton

I’m proud to say that I’ve spent many nights in seedy, dimly-lit dive bars, drinking cheap beers and smoking cigarettes with questionable friends. Sure, such behavior has given me a fair number of hangovers and sent me to work with less-than-enough sleep, but it’s also given me a profound sense of perspective. That is to say, I fully understand how important the dive bar is (especially now that I live in San Francisco, where ever bar is either themed or over priced). Of all the honky tonks that have wetted my whistle, the best is — by a generous margin — Santa’s Pub in Nashville, Tennessee. It is literally a double wide trailer that sits underneath an overpass in an almost abandoned part of town. They only serve PBR and Miller Lite ($2 each), they have a functioning cigarette machine, and, yes, they also host nightly karaoke. Trust me when I say, for anyone visiting Nashville, Santa’s is a must-visit. Just make sure and bring your ID, because the bouncer, who looks just like Santa Claus, won’t let you in without an up to date form of identification. It’s one of the many rules that makes Santa’s a unique experience, along side “no cussin'” and “no fightin’.” It’s a great bar with a great atmosphere that’s filled with great people — the kind of place that makes everyday feel like Christmas.

The Tam (Boston, Massachusetts)

Dan Seitz

There is no bar in Boston that’s a more august dive than The Tam. Part of this is because it’s located just blocks from two colleges, one of which (Emerson College) is right across the street, meaning it has to cater to broke college kids, government employees, and financial workers all in one stroke. It doesn’t take credit cards. It doesn’t serve craft beer. It doesn’t serve food (although you can visit New York Pizza, right next door, and bring that in.) But it does have a charm that has endured even as luxury tower blocks go up where the strip clubs of the Combat Zone used to be.

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Paddy's Pub? ☘️🍻 #boston #thetam

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La Kiva (Big Bend, Texas)

Steve Bramucci

I can safely say that La Kiva is the only place on this list that is literally a hole in a wall. History? Both long and troubled (with a mysterious murder boiling at the center of it all). Acclaim? GQ named it the #1 bizarre bar worth traveling to. Style? This place is unapologetically Texas, the perfect subterranean hideaway after a long day on the road, ranching, or floating down the Colorado river.

Most of all, the music deserves a shout. I danced drunkenly at La Kiva as a 19-year-old college dropout and I still listen to the CD of the band I discovered there. Texas troubadour folk music has a home at the bar, as does anyone looking for a good, cool, below-ground time.

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enjoying the lone star life #melandnessgowest

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Old Town Ale House (Chicago, Illinois)

Jason Nawara

Roger Ebert said the Old Town Ale House was, “The best bar in the world that I know about” and if you’ve sat in its musty booths, it’s impossible to disagree. Nestled into the corner of what’s probably a century-old building in the heart of Chicago’s rapidly-developing Old Town, the Ale House delivers stiff drinks at decent prices and fills itself with patrons from grumpy old men to playwrights. It’s located right across from the Second City, so the bar stools fill up with talent every evening while the jukebox sputters its way through a decades-old Tom Waits album over a speaker system that barely works. The decor was probably collected from street corners over a few dozen garbage days, and it seems like the building could collapse at any time. Half naked portraits of the worst people in politics stare down at you while you drink, and bizarre portraits of the dozens of famous comedians who visited the bar over the years, from Hannibal Buress to John Belushi, smile outwardly like they’re sharing a secret. Old Town Ale House is a stinky, rotten, and terrible. The perfect dive bar.

The 5 Point Cafe (Seattle, Washington)

Zach Johnston

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Biscuits & Gravy served #247

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A great happy hour is the mark of a great dive bar! 5 Point has two. One happy hour takes place from 4-6 in the afternoon like a normal bar. There’s a $3.50 cheeseburger and fries deal that’s killer. Then, there’s the breakfast happy hour from 6AM(!) to 9 every morning — where for ten bucks you can get a half order of eggs Bennie and big ass Bloody Mary.

5 Points is a 24/7 sorta place that has a big U-shaped bar, cheap tall boys and well drinks, surly working class folks, cherry red faux leather booths, and a rad juke box. Like any great dive bar, you can show up an any hour of the day and you’ll guaranteed to have a blast without breaking the bank. What more is there?

Shanghai Tunnel Bar (Portland, OR)

Alia Stearns

During a period of heavier than advisable drinking, I specialized in the divier bars around close-in NE Portland. This means people in Irvington heard my roommate and me passionately carol The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshman” on the way home from Daddy Mojo’s. It also means that I feel weird going to Crow Bar because my party might have broken a table when one girl tried to climb over it to makeout with her friend (who later puked all over the street and wet herself in a cab). But, I have also had chill late-night beers at Billy Ray’s, and danced with loose limbed abandon to “Pony” by Ginuwine at the now closed and poorly named Kiknbaque Lounge.

Though, my heart remains with that area (even though gentrification changes it more and more daily), I think the best dive bar should be one that appeals to a larger group than local drunks. There is no small amount of pressure for me to choose My Father’s Place or The Sandy Hut, but I am opting for Shanghai Tunnel in Chinatown/Old Town. The Shang is a dark basement filled with allusions to China that have been roughed up with a serious dose of punk. It’s an ideal place to grope someone you would never want to be seen with in public, play some pool or pinball, and escape the reality that waits topside.

You can certainly descend into the bar or a PBR tallboy, but their cocktails made with fresh-squeezed juice and house-infused liquors are dank. Plus, the prices are reasonable and the drinks are strong. The menu is American-Chinese; moz sticks are an option, but so are eggrolls and kim chi fried rice. And, a couple of their noodle bowls are vegan, which may be too bougie for a dive bar, but drunk vegans deserve bar food, too.

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#pinball #quarterworld #portland 👌🏻

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The Marine Room Tavern (Laguna Beach, CA)

Steve Bramucci

Do I feel a little ridiculous highlighting a place smack dab in the middle of a hardly-dive-bar-hospitable resort town? Yes, yes I do. But the Marine Room is fascinating and worth getting under the skin of. For decades, this bar was a biker haven and Sundays were marked by the roar of Harleys headed into town. Classic rock bands played, women in denim cutoffs swayed, and grizzled men postured around the pool table, kings for the afternoon.

Then the bar was purchased by some upstart developers, who hired a 22-year-old to manage and rebrand the joint. Guess what she did? She owned the dive bar thing. She doubled down and decided to celebrate the place’s authenticity. Sundays are still for the bikers, while Saturdays are for a bit younger set. Bands play nightly and the Marine Room is unapologetic about having eclectic tastes.

The bar has a sexy-as-hell Tumblr blog, and is where all the beautiful people go, but it still maintains the worn out stool, frayed pool table vibe. The drinks are simple and straightforward — beers and whiskeys are the focus — and the decor hasn’t changed too drastically since prohibition. Besides, people love places that feel real. No wonder Justin Beiber stopped in for a secret show last year.

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