The definition of a dive bar depends on who you ask, and perhaps what city you are in. Bill Radke has taken a dive into the term “dive bar”.
This post originally appeared in KUOW’s Today So Far newsletter for March 7, 2023.
What’s your favorite dive bar in Seattle?
Before you answer that, consider the latest “Words in Review” with KUOW’s Bill Radke. This week, Radke delves into the term “dive bar,” which he claims has been diluted from its true meaning. This issue isn’t exclusive to Seattle, but it feels like a lot of bars and patrons tend to throw this term around a lot.
I would argue that there are a number of factors that can add up to a dive bar, and “it depends” is probably the best answer to whether a bar is a dive or not. Beyond that, the contemporary hype for the dive bar may speak to something bigger that Seattle is looking for amid its current development. “I think a dive bar is kind of implied in the name, that it’s below society. A dive and its customers are both kind of desperate. It’s not a place where the well-heeled gather to watch sports, for example, or sing karaoke.” Tom Flynn told Radke.
Flynn, who started working in his father’s bar at the age of 10 and tended bar through his 20s, claims that when “dive” was associated with a bar, it implied a certain desperation. Or as Radke puts it: “I think of a dive bar that does the bare minimum to keep the liquor license and keep the doors open. They don’t fix the broken hand dryer in the men’s room.”
I think I know what Bill and Flynn are talking about. Join me to a bar in downtown Portland many years ago. This hole-in-the-wall (you could seriously miss it if you blinked) was around the corner from a bookstore I worked in. While it was open early in the day, I caught the after-hours crowd. The pavement punks took the pit bull out for a beer after a hard day of panhandling. The culinary offerings were limited to bags of chips and jerky. In the toilet, next to the operational toilet, there was a hole in the bare concrete floor where another toilet was to be installed – to this day I don’t know if that hole was actually sealed, I was too scared to see. This was a dive bar by the standards of Radke and Flynn. A bar like this wouldn’t be found on this recent list of “The Absolute Best Dive Bars in Seattle.”
“It’s not a dive bar on the list, under the classic definition,” Mike Lewis told me. “Jupiter is a good example; nice places are referred to as a ‘dive’ (on that list).”
In fact, if you consider Jupiter Bar a “dive”, then I guess your standard pub has a dress code and your credit score needs to be approved at the door. Bill has his bar expert, and I have Mike Lewis – a former Seattle PI reporter who bought the local reporter’s bar after the paper fell on hard times. Now he runs the Streamline Tavern.
“I think the Streamline was certainly (a dive bar) back in the old location … now it’s characterized as one, but from my old interpretation it’s more of a really good neighborhood pub than a dive bar.” Lewis said, further noting that Streamline doesn’t have people sleeping on stools, or other classic dive bar attributes (I’ll further note that Streamline has good tacos, which also wouldn’t be included among many definitions of a dive bar).
The definition of a dive bar depends on who you ask. Personally, I’d consider many places around Seattle to be dives, places where the lights are kept low to hide stains on the carpet, or with scribbles on bathroom walls that can’t be replicated here, or with cans of beer for those on a tight budget. Someone actually made a list of dive bars on Wikipedia, which is very heavy on Seattle and Portland locations. I don’t know if it is good that I can say that I have been to many of these places and can therefore comment that many are not dive bars. My name is on the wall at Holman’s in Portland for being part of their whiskey club – not a dive. My grandmother was stuck in Joe’s Cellar, where I don’t think sunlight has entered in decades – dive. Linda’s on Capitol Hill has a brunch menu – not a dive. An old lady, and self-proclaimed psychic, read my palm (without me asking) at the Blue Moon in Seattle’s U District, before she sort of passes out—dive. If you ask Radke, Flynn or Lewis, such assessments may differ. Lewis argues that times are changing and that modern customers often call regular neighborhood pubs “dives”.
“The meaning has stretched,” he said. “Now it’s become something people want to put in the description of their bar, whereas when I was young, if you cared about your bar, you wouldn’t (dive) anywhere near the description of your bar.”
“I think the term has changed and evolved, in the same way that ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ were absolute insults when I was young, and now they’re a point of pride,” Lewis said. “Now it’s become a kind of endearment to everything from neighborhood bars to hipster bars that call themselves ‘dive bars.’
So what has changed? Why have dive bars gone from obscene, scary places to desirable hangers?
Flynn has a theory: People have a “desire for authenticity, to taste the other side or ‘slum it’ – that’s what we used to call it in the ’80s and ’90s, ‘We’ll go slumming to local dive.'”
Authenticity? It’s a romanticized version of Seattle that many people have in their minds, whether they’re newcomers or longtime locals. I don’t think this version “slums it,” but I find conversations about what the city has lost quite common (there are even social media pages dedicated to “disappearing” Seattle). Along with the rise of glass office towers and high salaries comes a flashy vibe, or what I like to call “highfalutin fancy pants”. It is felt every time a person is looking for a simple, decent apartment and has to scan past countless ads for new “luxury” apartments at high prices. There’s the news that the salary needed to afford a Seattle home jumped from $141,000 in 2021 to $205,000 in 2022. It’s seeing artists and locals pushed out of the city. It’s the overheard, loud conversation from a booth at Shorty’s about choosing between working for Goldman Sachs or Chase, depending on who offers the best six-figure salary (true story). I would argue that the standard for a dive bar has risen with the city – Seattle has changed. And perhaps it has left some people with a “desire for authenticity,” as Flynn said. Where is the authentic Seattle among all these changes?
This means that when a person walks into a regular, neighborhood pub, without any boutique paraphernalia, custom cocktails and graffiti art, or any attempt at being hip, it suddenly becomes hip through its genuine nature. It’s a breath of fresh air of “this must be where real Seattleites hung out through the old days; it’s like I can see Kurt Cobain, Sir-Mix-A-Lot, Martin Crane and the cast of Almost Live! out of the corner of my eye!” Perhaps it’s a desire to hold on to Seattle’s grit amidst times of change.
“And that’s why bars that aren’t really dive bars want to claim that name,” Lewis told me. “It’s like wearing an old Nirvana t-shirt to say ‘I was there then…’
“Low is a matter of how high your perspective is … I retain my right as a grumpy old guy to wish it still had its old definition.”
Maybe that’s why I refer to my regular Seattle bar as a “dive,” despite the fact that there’s no sign of “desperation” in there. But it is a lovely patio.
Check out Bill’s full segment on the term “dive bar” here. And do you have any thoughts on diving poles? Radke wants to hear them. You can email him at [email protected]
And if you’d like to nominate any bars for the “dive” title, feel free to email me at [email protected]
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What is the oldest bar in Seattle? It is a difficult question. Seattle PI noted in 2019 that various bars claim to be the “oldest” in the city, including J&M Cafe, Central Saloon, Merchant’s Cafe and Saloon (all in Pioneer Square), and Georgetown’s Jules Maes Saloon.
People can get nervous about the details. The Pioneer Square locations were all established after the Great Fire, so many businesses appeared right around 1889. Jules Mae’s Saloon claims to have started in 1888. PI concluded that the true “oldest bar” in Seattle may never be known since it never good records were kept and the history has been lost as building and business ownership changed over the years. Yet each place has a sign that says “oldest”.
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