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12 Signs of a Truly Great Dive Bar

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor
March 10, 2014

Photo credit: Julia Bainbridge

We attempted to answer the question of what makes a truly great dive bar Sunday night by completing a bar crawl of Austin’s best dives.

The destination list was compiled based on recommendations from Franklin Barbecue’s Aaron Franklin, Ned Elliott of Foreign and Domestic, bartender Justin Elliott of Qui, Christopher Jacobs from Jeffrey’s restaurant, and you, our dear readers. It contained: Buddy’s Place, Lala’s, the Broken Spoke, Poodle Dog Lounge, Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, Deep Eddy Cabaret, Dirty Bill’s, and G&S Lounge. (Note: This was whittled down based on overlapping recommendations; there are many more great dives in Austin than these eight.)

Not all of them were open (Sunday is a day of rest in these parts), but most were—enough to get a taste of the good stuff. We mapped our course, we put our feet on the gas, and we launched ourselves into the night. These are the qualities that, throughout the trip, struck us as essential to a great dive:

* When you approach, unsure of whether or not it’s actually open.

* When you tell the bartender you were unsure of whether or not it was open and she says, “Oh s*&t!” and runs into the back to flip on the lit sign.

* When you ask for whiskey and you’re told: “No,” blank stare and following silence included. Also known as: When bartenders are nothing but sassy.

* When only beer and Doritos are on offer.

* When most men present are wearing steel-toed boots.

* When a game of pool is 75 cents.

* When a foot-wide rectangle has been cut in the bottom of the bathroom door so you can see whether or not there are feet beyond the threshold, indicating that it’s in use.

* When sad, sad country music is the only thing on the juke box.

* When there’s a juke box.

* When the hand-written sign above the register reads, “No fussin’, no cussin’, no hasselin’, no wresslin’.”

* When, by the end of the night, you and everyone else in the bar are in one big happy crap-talking conversation.

* When you finally leave after a round of hugs.

Photo credit: Julia Bainbridge

Of course, this list is particular to Austin. There would be no steel-toed boots in a great New Jersey dive. Patsy Cline’s velvet voice might not be flowing through a San Francisco joint.

But what’s great about dive bars is that they’re cheap, they’re consistent, and they’ve got no frills and no pressure—but damn if they don’t have style (often charmingly leftover from 1970). They’re not trying to be anything other than a place to come sit for a while. No one in front of or behind the bar cares what your job is or where you went to college. Hell, they don’t care who you are at all. And that’s why you go there: to be comfortable; to be anonymous; to celebrate with a couple friends; to silently drown a little heartache in a warm, flat beer. To do whatever you want.

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