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What is a Dive Bar? An Overview of Dives and Dive Bars

Updated on January 30, 2012

Dive Bars, Defined

Having stumbled into one on a Friday night, I found myself wondering this. As it happens, dive bars, also known as dives, are the low-down American interpretation of the local pub. Typically locally owned, relatively small, and highly informal, dive bars are a place to go to unwind and heave a booze-filled sigh of relief at the end of a long day.

Apparently, the term "Dive Bar" used denote an illegal, often basement-bound, drinking establishment or venue of a shady nature back in the 1880s. Over the years, this definition has lost its accuracy, as one is hard-pressed to find a dive with people smoking opium and the like, however it still holds some clout. Of all the different types of bars in the world, dive bars would surely have a higher likelihood of something shady going down- if not on the premises itself, presumably somewhere nearby.

The etymology of dive bars is shaky at best. One might deduce that the term refers to the original basement locations of these establishments- how one would essentially have do 'dive' underground as one enters. Some also assert that dive bars got their name from those who dove under bars when something havy cavy went down, such as, one may safely assume, a bar fight.

Dive bars are a singularly American invention- something of a nascent version of the old English/German/Irish pub one might encounter on the other side of the Atlantic. Some dives are even formally titled as pubs (e.g. its outside sign might read "Irish Pub") however their lack of geographically moored tradition and cultural pride usually turns the internal atmosphere into something decidedly more American in nature- something with less tradition and more neon; less wood paneling and more kitsch.

Things to Do in Dives

One would first and foremost come to a dive bar to drink.  One may expect to find a decent assortment of beers on tap, as well as many other alcoholic alternatives, from cocktails to jello shots.  

Because dives are also decidedly informal in nature, one can also expect to relax a bit.  Freed as they are from high-end cultural pretenses, patrons of dive bars are free to take a load off, drop the charade of fast-paced modern life, and simply stare off into space (or watch a sports game) in silence.  Conversation is welcome, though don't expect to get a ton in.  Loud noise aside, this isn't exactly the place to analyze Proust.  

Dive Bar Games

For extra amusement, dive bars often offer games. They give patrons something to do when all the seats are taken and conversation gets dull.

Common offerings include...

  • Pool
  • Foosball
  • Pinball machines
  • Video games (mostly of the vintage variety)
  • Darts
The more socially adept might also develop a drinking game for the evening, though such matters depend entirely on the nature of the patrons.  The establishment is more likely to offer passive amusements.

Have you washed your hands?
Have you washed your hands?
Note the roughly-cut M&M's bag utilized as signage.  Classic dive decorum.
Note the roughly-cut M&M's bag utilized as signage. Classic dive decorum.

Dive Bar Entertainment and Snacks

Aside from enjoying the company of your friends (usually other locals who have come to unwind, or chums with whom you have arrived), you may have the privilege of listening to music, either at the whim of the night's owner and/or manager, or presented by the tastes of those around you, via the graces of a jukebox.

Dives may also offer live music from time to time, usually in the form of a local band or musical artist, who, if not paid, at least gets free booze for the night. If seeing live music at a dive bar, ear plugs are recommended, especially if one expects repeated exposure to such environments and would like to avoid the indignity of hearing aids or deafness in middle or old age.

One might also find diversion from snacks located about the bar. While dive bars are rarely known for serving food (unless beer may be considered a food, and veritably, I think it should be), they do often offer candy dispensers or other salty, fatty snacks such as peanuts or cashews.

The sanitation of these dispensers leaves the more germ-phobic members of society more than a little disconcerted, but assuming that one would be enjoying the available snacks along with copious doses of alcohol, there is not too much cause for concern.

Dive Bar Aesthetics

Even if one is not particularly interested in drinking and winding down, one might find dives to be wonderful, aesthetically fascinating venues.

As mentioned above, dive bars are unmoored from the decoration of more historically-based establishments in other countries, giving them freedom to exhibit some characteristically American decorations.  

In addition to the aforementioned pool and foosball tables, old arcade games, and pinball machines, one might enjoy gazing at the neon signs mounted at various points along the walls.  These signs, most frequently advertising beverages available for sale, have an artistry warranting hours of discussion, and cast fascinating hues upon drinkers, walls, furniture, floors, and drinks alike.  

Other advertisement-centric signage, both in the form of additional lighting (e.g. a nascar pool lamp) or posters (e.g. novelty plates or other wall mounted curiosities) will leave you visually stimulated for the entirety of your visit, be it for five minutes or five hours.

Dives in the Media, and Future Trends

In the midst of 2007, dive bars saw a spike in popularity that can be easily attributed to the airing of Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which brought much of the 'cool' back to dive bars, which had not seen much of a heyday since the 1950s.

Of course, dive bars have made prominent, recent appearances in pop culture long before the Food Network show- Moe's Tavern, a classic dive, may be considered a prime example.

Nevertheless, dives are significantly more popular today than they were in the early '00s and the '90s before them.  Perhaps this growth in popularity can be correlated with increased interest in small indulgences and nostalgia for older times brought on by the current economic climate and the complexity of our modern age.  

At any rate, dive bars are well worth visiting.  Between the drink, the company, and the atmosphere, you shall find no dearth of fascinating details.


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    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      You're right, Down and Out! Thanks for reading :D

    • profile image

      Down and Out 

      7 years ago

      Dive bars are making a comeback. In this upside down economy, where else can you go and get a greasy burger poorly done and kick back a few pints and listen to some old Southern Rock for 10 bucks. Look in rural areas that have little or no services.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      8 years ago from UK

      Cheers! :-)

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      You make some very good points, OnTheRock! I had a very different expectation of the dive bar audience before I actually hung out in one, and I must say, the crowd is quite cool!

    • OnTheRock profile image


      8 years ago from Tortola, British Virgin Islands

      Fun article- I always feel more comfortable in a dive bar scenerio then a club type scene. You do get to meet the people around the bar and I am usually surprised to find they are not your steroetypical dive bar drinker and tend to have philosophies worth considering (and the regular all day drinkers are always entertaining too!)

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks Prasetio! I don't frequent bars much myself, so the occasional visit is all the more a treat!

    • prasetio30 profile image


      8 years ago from malang-indonesia

      I never visit bars at all. But you give us something interesting to read. Very well written and I love to know the various culture outside my country. I also enjoy all the pictures above. Thank you very much.


    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Yah, I'm more of a homebody myself as well :)

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I liked your remark..."this isn't exactly the place to analyze Proust." Think that I'll just enjoy a nice glass of wine at home and not go out seeking all that neon and noise. Haha!

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Hahaa- little do they know..... ;)

    • yenajeon profile image

      Yena Williams 

      8 years ago from California

      Hey Simone,

      I LOVE dives! But, I think it's because I like beating the guys at darts. They honestly don't expect a woman to be able to play!

      Thumbs up!

    • Simone Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      LillyGrillzit- thanks! You're totally right.

      akirchner- hahaa, I know, it's very strange how dive bars' socio-cultural positions have evolved. I think I'm more of a pub person myself as well though- prissiness FTW!

      lorlie6- You're right. It's all about the neon!

      cindy.dauer- it's amazing how many interesting things one can find in such an under-discussed venue, no?

    • cindy.dauer profile image


      8 years ago from Oregon

      I love dive bars for so many reasons... I think you named them all!

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 

      8 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Nice job, Simone! If it were not for neon, these fabulous places would not exist. Long live the M&M bag signage.

      Fun hub!

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      I remember the connotation about 'that joint's a DIVE' and you were supposed to stay out of it! Too funny that now I think we're not supposed to stay out but go in! Actually I think there are all levels of taverns - like in small towns such as ours; you can either go in them or stay out because they aren't your 'typical' pub atmosphere. I've found the few times I ventured in that these spots are where the 'locals' hang out and feel most comfortable!

      Thanks for your overview of dives and dive bars - I've been in a few but think I do prefer the pub atmosphere myself just because I know I'm a priss!

    • LillyGrillzit profile image

      Lori J Latimer 

      8 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

      I like a litte Dive Bar! It is a good place to loosen up and relax. Thanks for sharing!


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