There's Something About a Dive Bar—or is There?

Courtesy ZekeSaysSo/Flickr

You know what I'm talking about—a place with a special kind of charm. It may be a little (or a lot) run down, yet the drinks are cheap, the vibe is unpretentious, and the locals love it. But does it deserve a spot on your vacation itinerary?

Many years ago, before I lived in New York, I paid the city a visit. Considering myself a savvy traveler, I asked the locals which bar they would recommend and there was this one place (it has long since closed—a casualty of the recession) that everybody raved about: "it's an institution! You have to go!" went the collective wisdom.

Well, alright then. I went with my traveling companions and we were…confused. A thin layer of grime seemed to coat the surface of just about everything. The music was out of date, the furniture looked like it was just seconds away from the dump, and the bartender was surly. I felt like I might get hepatitis just by being there. And OK, the drinks were cheap—but it wasn't what we were looking for on our one night out in the city. So we downed our PBR, paid, and high-tailed it out of there.

Many years later, I moved back—around the corner from this bar, as it just so happens, and one day found myself back in the same barstool I had rejected years ago. It was just as grimy as before, the music just as out-of-date, and some of the furniture might have even been held together by duct tape at this point—yet, it was somehow different. Suddenly I got it. This place was cool—not because the drinks were good (they weren't), not because the atmosphere was great (there wasn't any), not because the place was even sanitary (I'm still pretty sure it was a health risk), but because of the people. The locals gathered there—it was the place you went to kick back and catch up.

I had my awakening—yep, no doubt about it—that place was an institution. But that doesn't mean I would have sent a visitor there.

Recently, the topic came up in our office. Do travelers want to know about dive bars in the cities they're visiting? On the one hand, a dive bar can seem like a great window into a local culture. On the other hand, part of what makes a dive bar so special is its local connection—something you wouldn't really appreciate unless you were, well, a local.

What do you think?


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