Hole-in-the-wall spots need time to evolve.
Dive bars are the antithesis of change. Regular customers expect the same person to serve them the same drink, and that it will taste the same, the bar will smell the same, and that nothing will ever surprise them there. Sarah Jewell, who managed Seattle’s Central Saloon, called many of her regulars “ritualistic.” But whether it’s ritual, habit, or comfort, dive bars are the opposite of trendy, and the opening of a new bar is the opposite of everything for which the dive bar genre stands.
But entrepreneurs rushed to capitalize on that hard-earned vibe and open places that imitate the same spots that have been gentrified out of a neighborhood. (See practically-dive-themed bars like King’s Hardware and Montana in Seattle.) The thing is, you can't rush dive bars. Like antiques—or, more appropriately, whiskey and wine—much of the value of a dive bar comes with the passing of time: butt grooves in banquettes, moisture stains on the bar in the shape of one million pint glasses, and a bartender spewing the kind of surliness that requires decades of practice. Dive bars aren’t opened: they evolve.
So why do so many restaurateurs claim to be “opening” a dive bar? “Young people want to have an idealized version of old stuff,” says David Meinert, the owner of venerated Seattle dive bar the 5 Point. (Motto: “Alcoholics serving alcoholics since 1929.”) “They want to feel like they’re in this cool, old place, without the dirt and the patina, without the old person or the surly drunk.”
Most discussion about dive bars centers on dilapidated physical buildings—a first hurdle in opening one. “What are you going to do, open a brand-new bar with a busted urinal?” asks Mike Seely, author of Seattle’s Best Dive Bars. Since he wrote the book seven years ago, 30 of the 100 bars he chronicled have closed. “As we lose the more authentic places, there’s a void and these pre-fab places try to fill it,” Seely adds. Meinert focuses in on the reason why: “The soul of a thing is all its defects put together, but in a way that still allows it to function.” He compares it to an old car whose springs poking through the seats and cranky carburetor make it endearing as it endures.
But you can’t just distress some wood on the tables and call it a day, Jewell says. “You can go in with the intent to build a dive bar, but you can’t create that smell…you know, that aroma—100 years of good times, bad times, blood, sweat, and tears.” And while the times she refers to might be figurative, those bodily fluids (and many more) contribute to the aforementioned funk in the most literal sense.
You also can’t attract regulars overnight—they’re won through routine. “I have one customer, Gene, that’s been coming there since 1942,” Meinert says of the 5 Point. “There’s tons of customers that have been coming for decades. There’s also staff that have worked there for 20 years or more.”
For many of the people Jewell served, she was the only person to whom they spoke every day. “You know you’re walking into a dive bar when the bartender’s actively talking to five people at the bar, who all know each other because they all come in all the time,” she says.
Still, Jewell thinks opening a dive bar from scratch is possible, if it’s an offshoot of established habits. She offers an example of a bar that opened in 2012 and felt like a dive bar because it attracted the regulars of the owner’s previous bar combined with those coming from another recently closed dive. “So the group of regulars stayed the same and already knew the owners,” she says. “That relationship was established.”
In March, Seattle media reported that industry veteran Patric Gabre-Kidan would “open a dive bar,” the forthcoming New Luck Toy. Now, he distances himself from that phrasing, acknowledging that dive bars can’t be built, agreeing that it’s something that happens over time, and offering insight into why creating one would be so hard. Today’s dive bars put out grimy bowls of beer nuts and it’s cool, he says. “But you can’t do that in 2016. You can’t open an establishment, treat people badly, have bad drinks and shitty food, and expect people to think it’s cool and come back.” Jewell confirms this, acknowledging that “our consumer is more educated now than they’ve ever been. They’re expecting a higher quality of service. That’s not what a dive bar is about.”
Customers expect more, but they don’t expect to pay steeper prices. Meinert’s list of dive bar characteristics includes “old people, cheap food, cheap drinks, and stiff drinks.” Part of the problem with opening a dive bar from scratch, adds Jewell, is that the restaurant industry is already so low profit—the expense of building out a space and building up a customer base makes dive bar pricing prohibitive. “You can’t have a dive bar where you’re charging seven, eight, nine bucks a beer…You’ve got to have your $2 tall can,” she says. But, at $2 a drink, it’s hard to get a new place off the ground.
So, instead, Gabre-Kidan focuses on what he considers the essence of a dive bar: “That they’re not pretentious. They’re just places that you go and get wasted. And nobody is judging you.” That lack of judgment comes from welcoming everyone. Meinert describes the clientele of the 5 Point as prostitutes and politicians, drug dealers and Amazon employees: “A mix of people you don’t see at most places…a mix most places don’t try to appeal to.” Gabre-Kidan hopes to create that environment, and hopes that it will eventually turn into a dive bar. Seely, who believes the title “dive bar” gets bestowed only with “time and chipped paint,” advises patience: “The bars that are ten years old today will be dive bars legitimately 20 years from now. You gotta let the paint chip a little bit, you gotta let your regulars get a little bit older. But pour good stiff drinks at a reasonable price, and you’ll get there.”