“If you took a cab here, you don’t belong here.” So says one of what must be a million articles of graffiti on the bathroom wall at The Raven Grill, one of D.C.’s dive-iest bars. Although this quote nicely sums up the general atmosphere, it is difficult to describe exactly what makes a bar a dive. Like pornography, I know it when I see it. But there are a few generally accepted principles that all dive bars—or at least the good ones—have to follow.
First and foremost: cheap drinks. Unlike most other types of bars, dive bars will get you drunk for about as much as you would spend at the liquor store (or less). The drinks are strong, and the cover charge is nonexistent.
If this were all there were to dive bars, you could expect them to be packed every night. But if this is ever the case in a dive bar, it is only because most are tiny. Dive bars are associated with a slew of derogatory adjectives that are very often true: rough, disreputable, sleazy, poorly maintained, and last but not least, bathrooms that have seen their fair share of destruction.
There must be a reason why people keep coming back to these dives, though. Small and generally unappealing as they may seem to outsiders, dive bars are typically filled with regulars and locals. And not just any locals, either. Dive bars are notorious for their eccentric patrons—from young alcoholics to Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club and everyone in between.
Aside from the cheap drinks and the relaxed atmosphere, the other striking quality of dive bars is their history. The well-worn feel of a good dive bar is difficult to describe and impossible to replicate (although many bars try), and is definitely an alluring factor. The authenticity that comes with drinking in a bar that can claim years of being the neighborhood’s best-loved hole in the wall is unlike any other drinking experience.
For those who are primarily familiar with drinking in the Georgetown neighborhood, dive bars may seem like a foreign concept. Sure, Saloun is dive-y, and Rhino can have a bit of a dive vibe on certain nights (although that’s probably unintentional), but there is no burning evidence to suggest the presence of good dives in the District. However, dives are symbolic of a distinctly American nightlife, and as the nation’s capital, it only makes sense that D.C. lays claim to its fair share of good dives.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting what might be my new favorite dive bar in DC: Dan’s Cafe. Although Dan’s is located on the main strip in Adams Morgan, the only noticeable thing about the exterior is a decrepit sign and the fact that it looks like it might be closed. Inside, the bar is small, sparsely decorated, and without AC—but just wait until you order a drink.
The drinks at Dan’s are served in a manner unlike any other – in fact, “served” may actually be an overstatement here. The shots we ordered came served in a plastic squeezable ketchup bottle and were accompanied by a plastic bucket of ice and a handful of cups. If you haven’t had alcohol out of a squeezable ketchup bottle, try it. As soon as possible. Throw in the jukebox, the young crowd that fills the place on a weekend night, and the pool tables–which are covered with tarps and completely unusable as anything other than surfaces to put drinks on–and you’ve got a grade-A way to end your night. And of course, Dan’s is cheap.
Dive bars are definitely not for everyone, or for every occasion. But in most cases, you can’t beat these unique bars where you can blend in with true American eccentrics and imbibe with the area’s most authentic drinkers. And if they happen to have plastic ketchup bottles filled with alcohol for you to squirt into your mouth, well, that’s just a plus.