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The Age of the Imitation Dive Bar

As the dives of yesterday dwindle, their make-believe counterparts have risen up to fill the void.

Late last year, Dolly’s Swing and Dive, a self-proclaimed dive bar, opened amongst the luxury condominiums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Your favorite dive bar from your 20s, reimagined as your favorite neighborhood bar … with a jukebox and weekend DJs. Take out the dive bar bathroom. Keep the dive bar pricing!” trumpeted the press release. On a recent Friday night, I went to see if Dolly’s lived up to its “dive” name. It did, mostly: 1970s paintings of women hung on the walls, looking beatific in the glow of a Budweiser sconce. The jukebox was there, but out of order. Miller High Lifes were $5, Buds $4 and cocktails $9. And though the bathroom was clean, the walls covered in Dolly Parton album covers, they had run out of toilet paper. Yet, to connoisseurs of true dives, the whole enterprise felt dishearteningly like a television set.

According to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” And so it follows: The dive that can be defined is not the eternal dive. There are dive bars with nice bathrooms, dive bars with no jukebox, dive bars with no pool tables and nary a dartboard. Some dive bars have carpet, others dingy linoleum. But the essence of a dive cannot be held and can hardly be named. It is an absence: absence of shtick and of pretense. The intention of a dive bar is to rend a hole in the fabric of the universe and fill it with drinkers and drink. One can grasp, immediately, the paradox of the self-aware dive.

That hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. What the craft cocktail renaissance was to the aughts, the faux dive bar is to the teens and now ’20s. In New York, this is embodied in places like Ray’s on the Lower East Side, a painstaking replica of a dive (owned by actor Justin Theroux), and the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, an upscale joint inhabiting the cadaver of a real former dive in the East Village, and, of course, Dolly’s. The rise of faux-dive bars correlates to the decline of real dive bars, of which maybe a handful still exist in New York. These include Billymark’s West, Lucy’s and Milano’s. Each of these beer-soaked, time-worn, slightly sorrowed spaces leads the precarious, tenuous existence of an outlaw holdout. 

Both the real and the faux dive appeal to New Yorkers exhausted by the try-hard tropes of nightlife. Many of us moved to New York precisely for the chaotic ozone in which dive bars flourished. And whether or not it was dead by the time we arrived, the familiarity of a laminate wood–paneled room illuminated by neon has the ability to remind one of home, real or imagined. Home: a place without a shtick, sweatpantsville, a refuge from agenda.

A few drinks in at Dolly’s, realizing I was standing on a set, I also came to see that everyone was in on the charade. Because, what bars these days aren’t set-like? In the last month alone, I’ve been to The Django, an homage to a 1920s cabaret; Butterfly Soho, a recreation of an obscure Italian designer’s butterfly-themed apartment; and JJ’s Hideaway, a reproduction of an early aughts dance club and a speakeasy sports bar.

So why did Dolly’s leave me so uneasy? Though the walls of The Django are painstakingly patina-ed and the maître d’ dons a Wes Andersonian bolero jacket, no one imagines we’ve ruptured the time-space continuum to land in the 14th arrondissement in 1923. Though House of Jealous Lovers thumps at JJ’s Hideaway, time is a one-way street, the nostalgia simply an expression of our collective wish to reverse it. But because a dive bar is still a viable reality, its simulacra inhabit an unhappy, uncanny valley: real enough to feel familiar, off-kilter enough to feel weird. So when my drinking companion suggested we seek out a real dive, I gulped down my High Life and braced myself for the East River breeze.

Celebrated by New York Magazine, Time Out and The Infatuation as one of Brooklyn’s best dives, Tip Top Bar & Grill occupies the basement of a brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Here there are vinyl-patched stools, foreboding bathrooms, floors as worn as a butcher’s block. From a window in the back called Aunt Sally’s Corner, one can purchase snacks like fried whiting on white bread. As for décor, there’s much tinsel, many Obama posters and two “Happy Birthday” signs. Whose in particular? “It’s always someone’s birthday,” replied the bartender with not-unfriendly weary.

Near the jukebox stood a sweater-swaddled coven joking about architecture. Four white 20-somethings sat at one end of the bar beneath a TV. To them as well as my friend and I, Tip Top’s diviness was part of the draw. However, to Ruby, a 50-year-old African American regular who grew up on and still lives down the block, this was a neighborhood bar. For many of the men and women who have frequented Tip Top over the last 40 years, the word “dive” might be received negatively, a disrespectful epithet equating their place of communion to a dump. To them, this is not a dive; it’s home.

In a rapidly gentrifying Bed-Stuy, this dichotomy of insider-outsider is expressed via race and age. But across the country, the fault lines vary—by age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and more. But the underlying dynamic is the same, and it’s about more than semantics. “Dive,” for many, indicates a lower tier of bar and sometimes even an establishment in decline. It is perhaps precisely because dives are so othered that they are also so exalted. To call a bar like Tip Top (as opposed to a set piece like Dolly’s) a dive is to underscore one’s distance and establish an asymmetry of perceived power and privilege. But to be a local, routine patron dissolves fetishization.

Yet, we all keen for home, and even I, insufferable snowflake moralist, sometimes like my Coors Light for $4, drunk to the croon of D’Angelo. Which brings us the question: What to make of fake dive bars? At knee-jerk, I tend to disparage, but upon reflection, I can admit that they are, perhaps, the lesser of two evils. In the self-aware version of a dive, all parties partake in the fantasy, thereby avoiding the moral hazards of Tip Top et al. It’s akin to the difference between a magic trick and a con; if all parties are in on the suspension of disbelief, nobody gets hurt.

So are we doomed to make-believe? Perhaps not. We needn’t necessarily shift venues, rather adjust our state of mind. Though self-awareness can be fatal to a bar’s atmosphere, it’s necessary to being a patron. Approach the threshold of these dives, these neighborhood holdouts, mindfully, letting go of any definition at all.

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