Great dive bars are a bit like cockroaches. They tend to be out of sight, able to survive while others fail, and nobody is quite sure where they came from in the first place. That’s not to say that dive bars and cockroaches share everything.
Some might turn up their noses at dive bars, but anyone worth his weight in pitchers of Bud Light knows that a great dive bar can be the most beautiful oasis in a desert of high-concept pubs, clubs and other money-draining, culturally destitute outposts.
The classic dive bar, to which this article is devoted, is timeless. It exists now as it existed when your ancestors were getting lit. They are steadfastly genuine; no respectable dive bar needs to admit to outsiders that it is a dive. They offer the perfect location for drunken epiphanies and offer umbrage for any and all thirsty travelers. There are few rules other than to keep your shit together, but even then exceptions are allowed.
Although dingy watering holes of speculative provenance are not unique to the United States, they represent that halcyon American dream in which a melting pot of peoples, ideals and attitudes are thrown together with the hope that, by the end, everyone will be better off than when he started. But that’s probably just because dive bars are ideal for getting drunk.
There are classic dive bars, and then there are institutions like Adair’s in Deep Ellum. It’s big enough to feel empty on slow nights, when the time is just right to listen to Willie Nelson and guzzle bourbon and Lone Star.
There’s usually a band during the evenings, graffiti litters the walls, the leather on the stools is cracked and everything is right. If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, then hopefully it’s at least like Adair’s.
The Grapevine Bar
The Grapevine Bar on Maple Avenue is about the size of Jerry Jones’ bathroom and has probably seen just as much weirdness. It has a basketball court, and the inside looks like Hunter S. Thompson’s idea of a Mardi Gras bar.
The interior is lined with old chairs and couches, and if you can command the pool table, you’ll be right in the middle of the action. Most people enjoy their frozen concoctions on the spacious patio, but the seating on the roof is ideal in the warmer months. Oh, and you can play basketball because there is a court, but that was probably already mentioned.
It looks closed from the outside — always a sign of a good dive — and the inside has the décor of an Iowa basement circa 1975, thanks to hideous carpeting, cheap wooden siding and a low ceiling. The burgers have a bit of a local following, but this isn’t a burger list, so we will mention that this place serves alcohol as well. The drinks are known for having some kick to them too.
If there’s an evolved strain to the “party in high school at someone’s house while his parents are out of town,” Lee Harvey’s caught that bug. The inside is tiny and dirty — surprise, surprise — but the backyard is where the action is.
An expansive patio that features live music on the weekends, the chain-linked space feels less like a bar space and more like your friend’s place. The outdoor bathroom evokes memories of the toilet scene in Trainspotting, but clean bathrooms are sacrilege to good dives.
Much like playing with fire, visiting The Loon will eventually get you burned on loaded cocktails that tend to have just a spritz of mixer to cut the bottom-shelf liquor. It’s a seedy den of iniquity in Uptown that attracts the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, SAEs turned real estate agents and people that will be calling in sick to work in the morning.
There are a few things you need to know about Ships. The bar only takes cash, only serves beer and only is as boring as you let it be. If you balked at any of that, then there are other places on Lower Greenville that will take your money.
If you need your dive bars with something stronger than beer, then bring it yourself. Ships is BYOL, which means that any mistakes made here are purely of your own doing. Grab a few friends and knock out a night pretending you’re Bukowski or Tom Waits.
Time Out Tavern
The taps are limited, the owner is surly and the patio is possibly a renovated storage closet. But the TOT is a dive bar on the outskirts of the Park Cities in an area that lacks many bar options other than the nice dive bar, Inwood Tavern.
It’s a grungy, windowless affair that keeps its cards close to its chest until you walk in, making a trip to the TOT a bit like a drunken Christmas gift. You might think you know what you’re getting, but often you’re in for a surprise. Throw in a pool table and shuffleboard, late-night brisket tacos, and a little interest in your fellow patrons, and you’ll be playing “Candy Licker” on the jukebox in no time.
The Elvis is raunchy on a Saturday night. Full of people whose sole priority is to put alcohol into their bloodstreams, Velvet Elvis is the kind of strip-mall dive that will fill you up on cheap Crown and Cokes and beg you to sing along to the band.
You’re likely to find a couple of middle-aged men who were probably good at a sport in high school going to town on their sixth drinks and leering about. There might be one that’s in too deep, but he doesn’t mean anything by it, and he’ll get carried away to sleep it off somewhere else.