Nobody can seem to agree on the definition of a dive bar. We all have our version of this little piece of heaven in our heads, but finding this heaven on earth seems to be near impossible. There are a few qualifying physical characteristics that many agree on, for the most part. Words like dark and dingy, Heggies Pizza, and just plain old come to mind. But what really defines a dive bar... and why is it so damn hard to find one in Uptown these days?
The truth is, it is not just about appearance. A good dive bar evokes a feeling in the pit of one’s stomach — a kind of warm and fuzzy that can be found in memories of Shirley Temples and the best cheeseburgers in town in the basement of an old building while your dad plays pool and drinks Miller Lite with his hunting buddies. Yes, as much we may wish to deny it, our love for these kinds of places probably stems from deep within our brains, a training of sorts that we had no idea we were taking part in. Thanks, dad, for starting us early and setting the (dive) bar so high that the chance of ever finding such a gem in our legal-drinking aged adult years feels like an insurmountable task.
What are we left with? The CC Club? We love you but we see right through you. “A for effort” for not mending your torn booth seats, not painting over the bathroom graffiti, and the cigarette burns on the “new” menus, but changing to electronic Touch Tunes was not your first and will not be your last downfall. Blame it on the influx of luxury apartments and their new class of tenants roaming Lyndale Avenue if you need a reason, but the truth is, a true dive bar never wavers.
Is it the drink specials that drive the beating heart of the dive? The bucket of 3-for-1's at Liquor Lyle’s may be a thing of the past, but there are still plenty of deals here, a hard-to-argue characteristic of our sought-after destination, especially considering the absence in choice of said libations on account of the "Mystery Bottle" special. The lack of windows doesn’t hurt their case, either.
Do we judge the level of divey-ness on how safe we feel? If this is the case, The Red Dragon takes the cake. On a Monday night you can find this bar fully equipped with one patron showing off his sword while bellied up to the bar (antique weapons are allowed but make sure you check the very-detailed dress code posted at the front door before entering — criteria that is “Strictly Enforced”), while his buddy not only double-fists Budweiser bottles, but successfully drinks from both at the same time in between solo karaoke performances of ABBA’s “SOS” and the theme song to The Grinch.
Or maybe it’s the arcade games and dart boards that seal the dive-deal. Mortimer’s is a force to be reckoned with if this is the case. Legend has it that a mouse met his maker one cold winter night at Mort’s by way of “stray” dart. Yes, a mouse may have been sighted inside Mortimer's. Yes, someone may have killed it with a dart. Whether this second-hand story is true or not, we can all agree on two things: 1) It's pretty fucked up and 2) It's pretty dive-worthy. All potential legends aside, it's hard to complain when you can wash your cares down the hatchet with a $2.25 Premium or Coors Lite — and that’s not even happy hour.
But a place that combines all our dive bar needs might exist only in our imaginations. A place where we can combine all of our favorites under one roof. A place with dim lighting, wood paneling, and cheap beer, sprinkled with touches of graffiti, weekly meat raffles, and a sense of "home" that competes with Thanksgiving dinners at grandma's house. A place where the main source of lighting might be a string of year-round Christmas bulbs. A place where you can find some of the most reliable people in the city... sometimes referred to as "regulars."
While the search forges ahead, we'll continue loving to hate the current contenders that don't quite make the cut. And if it is out there, please share with the rest of us longing to relive that burger and Shirley Temple from the Eagles Club we had years ago with our dads... after all, we need a place we can bring our kids.
More from Food & Drink