How to Know You’re in a Dive Bar


here is a distinct feeling and a slight stickiness on the bottom of your shoes. And hopefully, you made the concerted decision to be here, but if not, you’re going to need to lower your expectations—considerably. When lowered, you’ll find the most delightful surprises in the world, very reasonable drink prices, a tenured bartender and people—the good kind. The true marks of an excellent dive bar are certainly all of those mentioned above. However, there are typically one or six other signs that will give you a clue as to whether you have stumbled upon one of the real gems of the boozin’ industry. Shots on us, this is how you know you’re in a real-life dive bar.

What’s on the wall?

Here’s the thing, whoever owns this place is probably the true spirit of whatever town you’re in. If you’re in a fishing town, you bet your ass there is at least one marlin, a cast net and a myriad of fish photography on the wall. Hunting town? All of the taxidermy: land, avian, sea and something that looks like six animals glued together. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Why would anyone decorate a bar this way?” Well, then you don’t deserve that $2 whiskey sitting in front of you.


It is possible, in a certain reality, that you did not start your night in the current establishment that you’re in. So maybe, you have your good sneakers or nighttime makeup on. Great! Because nobody can see you all that well. The lighting in this particular place of business is an excellent mixture of neon darkness and Christmas lights—all year round. Your selfies are blurry, you don’t know what was in that last shot and “Where is Tiffany?!” That girl is always getting away from you.


Hey! We’re all Golden Tee champs on a rainy Tuesday evening while skirting all of our other responsibilities. But try to be a little more well-rounded, will ya? There are literally like four different games to be played in here. Like darts, is anyone good at darts? The amount of holes in the wall next to the board is a little upsetting. And how about pool? What sort of scary-ass mafia rules are in effect there? You put your quarters on the table, and that means you’re next, and if you don’t abide by quarters law then—follow the rules, okay? See you at Liar’s for dice.


The great philosopher John Mulaney once said, “It is nickel-shot night.” And that gospel is a true example of the kind of deals you’ll find at any good dive. It’s fun to imagine the bartenders sitting around plotting your hangover. The combinations are endless: half-off flaming scorpion bowls, buy a beer—get a pizza, or a penny for a Colt 45 + fried chicken. Don’t forget to take your Zantac.


Any good bar has rules, and a dive bar usually has even more. Because you people really don’t know how to behave in public, do you? A few of those might include: Please don’t dance on the bar, or no falling asleep in the bathroom. Some are a little more colorful, but you get the idea. Don’t be a dick.


There is money somewhere in this bar. Some bars will have what we like to call “The Fire Marshall’s Wet Dream,” which is the act of signing and hanging your dollar bill from the ceiling or, sometimes affixing a weight and a sharp pin to the end of the bill and winging it at the high ceiling with great velocity, which, when mixed with copious amounts of strong drink is, you know, safe. This creates a subtle effect on the decor. We also love the minimal presence of the first dollar bill in a frame. Don’t steal.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “Why would anyone decorate a bar this way?” Well, then you don’t deserve that $2 whiskey sitting in front of you.

Music Essentials

If you’re saying that you’ve never heard Billy Joel in a dark bar and thought back fondly to all the other times you’ve listened to Billy Joel in a dark bar, then okay, we believe you—whatever. Why would you lie to us, right? Anyway, a significant component to the bar scene is making sure that the ~mood~ is set. This can be done by stacking up your favorites on the ole jukebox in the corner. Or you can tune into the musical stylings of Candy on Karaoke Night. One more Jameson, and we’ll see you up there.

Local Characters

Okay, so you met Candy, nice lady right? Well if you plan to invest any further time in this dark and wonderful establishment, it would be smart of you to meet the regulars. These people are the heart and soul of any great bar. They’re the ones with the stories, the know-how and the perfect chili recipe that you never knew you needed. The secret is a little Guinness.

The Last Cigarette Machine

The Whalebone team does not advocate smoking. Legalities aside, the mark of a good dive is stumbling across the first cigarette machine you’ve seen in years. Not to mention that there is no such thing as a new machine anymore, so whatever you’re staring at is, at the very least, 15 years old. And hopefully it will still be there in another 15 years. Along with Candy, who’s stacking quarters on the pool table underneath a stuffed Jackalope, drinking a $2 whiskey on a Tuesday, and listening to the Piano Man play his catalog of hits in the dark, one Christmas in July.