Bar Trends - Dive Bars
Mar 29, 2018
Style bars are fine. They’re more than fine. We like them a lot. We like colourful cocktails served in slender-stemmed glasses; we like design ‘concepts’ and sculptural light fittings. But sometimes we have a different itch to scratch; sometimes we just want a beer or a glass of something stronger in laid-back surroundings, where you don’t have to worry about what you’re wearing, where you can talk without having to shout over a DJ set, where everybody – OK, where somebody – knows your name (and, more importantly, your tipple of choice).
Sometimes we just want to hang out at a dive bar. We’re using the term to include dive bars of the old school, the holes in the wall, where the décor has accumulated over time, along with the layers of grime, and the staff and regulars are on first name terms – and the newer wave of dives, where a decision has been taken to ape that particular aesthetic, where the décor is deliberately rough and the atmosphere is what counts. We can argue about authenticity later (after a couple of drinks).
New York has its fair share of dives, new and old. Dating back to the 1850s, McSorely’s has age on its side, but a by-product of its longevity has made it a bit of a magnet to tourists. The Kettle of Fish, a West Village cellar bar, has literary pedigree as a former beat hang out. And the city is littered with plenty of other dives where Kerouac didn’t drink, including the 169 on the Lower East Side, The Alibi in Brooklyn – a favourite of local art students – and Frank’s Cocktail Lounge (also in Brooklyn). Expect cramped surroundings, dated music and bar food that’s been deep fried into oblivion, but the drinks will be cheap and the clientele and atmosphere unquestionably ‘authentic.’
Of the newer breed, the Rusty Knot, a nautically themed bar owned by the Spotted Pig’s Ken Friedman, is a very contemporary dive. The food menu features home-made spicy pickles and pretzel dogs and it might seem a bit too arch and artificial to some, but the intention was always to create a comfortable neighbourhood joint were you could chill out with a cheap beer. The Rusty Knot is not the only one: PDT, with its hotdogs and secret(ish) entrance, manages to be part dive, part speakeasy, without denting its cool.
Say these things are wont to do, this attempt to capture something of the dive bar aesthetic in newer venues has crossed the pond. While there are less true dives in rapidly gentrifying London (though they’re out there if you know where to look), there are plenty of bars that ape the grunge and grime of the New York dive.
The latest branch of the London Cocktail Club on Shaftesbury Avenue has a naval theme and tattoo art on the walls. Ruby’s in Dalston boasts a flea market vibe with vintage beer mats, rickety tables and the kind of lamps your granny might once have owned. The Dalston Superstore, while not quite so artfully ramshackle, boasts a Lower East Side dive bar vibe. Spuntino in Soho mimics the appearance of the dive – unmarked door on a slightly shady street, counter seating, tattooed staff – but is part of Russell Norman’s spreading empire. Pitt Cue’s permanent Soho outpost, with its net-curtained windows and cramped basement dining space – where you can partake of their famous Pickle Back, a glass of bourbon chased with a shot of pickle brine – is a similar proposition. But perhaps the ultimate in this new breed of London dives is Yianni Papoutsis’ MEATLiquor in Marylebone, with its neon-bedecked walls, pounding music, potent drinks and American-style burgers. Why, even a New Yorker would feel at home.
Written by Natasha Tripney