Shane Te Pou on the joys of diving in to America's great bars.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the colloquial use of the word "dive" describes a "disreputable nightclub" or "shabby or sleazy bar . . ."
Having read this definition (and notwithstanding the use of the word "disreputable"), I must say that being more than a frequent visitor to America's dive bars, I can truly say I have found my home.
A dive bar has a few essentials: to start, a good range of beers on tap or by the bottle. I'm not talking $15-a-pop craft beers, but rather moderately priced standard beers. Top shelf, like the beer, should be basic and functional.
Dive bar folks drink rum, whiskey and bourbon. Of course, the more experienced dive bar drinker sips on a beer and has a whiskey or bourbon chaser.
Generic wine and other spirits should be available but they're far from essential. For food: burgers, hot dogs, anything that can be eaten with one hand. Peanuts in the shell are almost always complimentary. A word of caution however: never eat complimentary food unless it comes wrapped or in a shell.
The other vital component all legendary dive bars must have is a wide range of patrons, from the well-heeled to the down and out. You see, when we belly up to the bar we are all one.
Lastly, Dive Bars must have long and extensive happy hours: get the crowd in and keep them there.
So, having set the scene, here are my favorite US dive bars:
The Post Pub, Washington DC
1422 L St NW
Central DC used to have lots of great dive bars but gentrification and soaring property prices have led to their decline. There is however The Post Pub located in Midtown, which is more than 60 years old. I would say it hasn't had a spruce up since opening day and frankly, that's the way I like it. Four-buck beers and liberal hand-poured spirits are what The Post is best known for. The crowd is a mix of budget tourists and government employees. Ties are not allowed. Televisions play baseball and gridiron more as background fillers then anything else. The Post has a patio — actually a few tables and chairs — out front. Food is functional and well-priced with $10 burgers big enough to feed you and your mate. Thing is though, dive drinking is often done solo.
Here's the best thing about The Post: Its happy hour runs from 11am to 8pm.
140 W 44th St
Jimmy's is a shrine to boxing. Its owner, Old Jimmy, has worked the bar for more than 30 years and is a local celebrity, having trained some of New York's best boxers. Boxing memorabilia cataloguing Jimmy's life is pasted everywhere. Pride of place is a photo of Jimmy with Muhammad Ali in his prime. Jimmy's is also home to the Local Union of Steel Workers. Union bosses and delegates as well as rank and file pack the bar during the extended happy hour. The house drink, Jimmy's Hurricane, has only two ingredients: house rum and a splash of house-made juice. The jukebox is great with most music comes direct from well-known black music television programme Soul Train. If you take the time to work through your choices you can find a couple of numbers introduced by Don Cornelius. Music is always played at low volume at Jimmy's as conversation comes first.
300 Chartres St, New Orleans
The Chart Room had one owner for 40 years. When it changed hands in 2015, many thought the essence of the bar would be lost — thankfully, it hasn't changed a bit since my first visit some 25 years ago. Although standard beers are a staple, this dive is known for its bloody marys garnished with okra. The music is provided by an old school jukebox box. If it's live music you are looking for simply step outside as buskers play on the footpath. I use the term "buskers" with hesitation as New Orleans buskers are sensational, they're real musicians who play the best clubs in town at night and busk during the day for cash and the love of their art. The Chart Room has a local called "Hotel Al", who has been working at the nearby Hotel Monteleone for more than 55 years. Al shares his love for all things New Orleans, he can tell you about the time the Hotel Monteleone fed 1400 people a day during Hurricane Katrina, and he will also tell you how he smuggled Cuban cigars to JFK.
Kermit's Treme Mother in Law Lounge
1500 N Claiborne Ave, New Orleans
If you're going to The Big Easy you ought to get outside of The French Quarter. Don't get me wrong, I love Bourbon St — but the real New Orleans lies a few blocks away in the Treme. Here you will find Kermit's Treme Mother in Law Lounge. You know you're in for an interesting night when a pat down for guns greets you at the door. Named after the 1961 hit song Mother In Law, by Treme icon Ernie K. Doe, the Lounge is the place to go. Out back is where it all happens - I went to the Lounge on a Monday night and was lucky enough to see the local brass band, 10 players in a masterful display of musicianship. It seems no one is in charge and certainly they do not have a conductor — but the music they play is out of this world. Ten folks started the night, but mid-set I counted another 20 musicians cramming the small stage. Standard beers and rum are the staple drinks served with some of the best barbecue this barbecue aficionado has ever eaten. If you're lucky you will get to see the main man himself, Kermit Ruffins on the horns, or one of the famous Neville family members rocking up to play a set. Legend has it that Springsteen himself plays a few numbers when he's in town, sadly not when I was there. Mind you that could have been far too much for me to handle.