How to Start Your Own Dive Bar
Be the boss, bouncer, and favorite bartender
By Lessley Anderson
Some people would insist that a dive bar must have been around at least 30 years yet still be undiscovered by anybody with a liberal arts degree or a full set of teeth, while others would call the grungy punk rock bar with its own Facebook page a dive. Let’s simply define it as a bar that’s casual, shockingly cheap, not very clean, and imbued with a sharp edge of nihilism that perfectly suits the mood of these rocky times. Now, on to the info.
Come Up with a Cool Name. You might already have one in mind, like a preteen girl who knows what color the napkins will be at her wedding. But if not, we’ve developed a dive-bar supercomputer that generates pitch-perfect names.
Choose an Old Building. “When something is vintage or aged, it plays a certain role in the feeling,” says Jason Mathern, manager of the 24-hour Club Ms. Mae’s in New Orleans, which has a stamped tin ceiling and “poor ventilation.”
Piggyback on Another Draw. “We get people who are through swimming,” says J. T. Travis, manager of Deep Eddy Cabaret in Austin, Texas, neighbor of the Deep Eddy swimming hole. The Jury Room in Santa Cruz, California, is across the street from the courthouse.
Be Nook-Smart. Alcoves and stoops on the building’s exterior are good for patrons seeking cover. Better yet, move in next to a parking lot, alley, or vacant weed patch that the bar is “not responsible for,” says Club Ms. Mae’s Mathern. The interior, conversely, should be nook-free. “No nooks—gives ne’er-do-wells more places to do what they’re gonna do,” says Tim Hall, bartender at the Jury Room.
Operate Under the Radar. Set up shop as a cash-only bar with an unlisted, disconnected, or constantly ringing but never answered phone. Or have your phone number go to a voice-mail message that’s just a bunch of rattling sounds. Be sure to devise a clever scheme to bypass any antismoking laws your city has.
Open Before 8 a.m. If your city codes do not permit you to stay open all night, which is optimal, open as early as possible so that people can get a drink before work if necessary. At Clooney’s in San Francisco, which opens at 6 a.m., bar fights on the sidewalk have been known to provide entertainment for poor working stiffs trudging to the subway.
Don’t Clean Too Often. Although you don’t want rotting vermin underneath the cushions of old couches, a little grime is desirable. But avoid too much black décor, as it “incites men,” says Charlie Gutierrez, manager of the Brown Jug in San Francisco.
Keep It Dark. Although some dives go for the blindingly well-lit “you won’t be shooting up in here” thing, most owners agree that dim is best, enhanced by year-round Christmas tree lights and Bud Light signs. Although jukeboxes and games—including video poker, shuffleboard, pool, and darts—are advisable, keep televisions to a minimum. “They interfere with the sound of the jukebox,” says Jim Kalin, part owner of the Power House in LA.
Adorn the Walls with Handwritten Signs, Paintings on Velvet, Yellowing Photo Collages from Fun Parties You Can Hardly Believe Happened in This Bar, and Dusty Taxidermy. For these and more ideas, check out our dive bar product guide.
Offer Only a Few Kinds of Cheap Beer. “They’re coming in to drink; they don’t need to stare at 50 taps of beer,” says Kalin, whose Power House has two beers on tap, one of which is Pabst. Taps are a pain to keep clean, so you’ll want the majority of your beers to be in bottles, with at least one in a can. Stick to cheap macros like Bud, Bud Light, Natural Ice, Hamm’s, and Busch.
Discourage Cocktails. “It’s all about volume for us; that’s how we can charge so little,” says Mathern of Club Ms. Mae’s, whose mixed drinks are $1. “If you order a martini, I will give you a very bad look, and it will come in a plastic cup.” No flaming drinks. No blended drinks. No energy drinks. Encourage beer and shots. If you’re a patron and you want a mixed drink, you may want to consult our guide to what to order at a dive bar.
Establish Quirky Traditions. Some dive-bar owners extend their sphere of influence into live entertainment, putting on cabaret shows, like at Flo’s Algiers Lounge in Chicago: The elderly owner, Flo, sings duets with her Elvis impersonator son. At the PS Lounge in Denver, everyone through the door gets a free Alabama Slammer shot (SoCo, OJ, and sloe gin), and every lady gets a red rose.
Serve “Dinner.” Some bar owners have figured out that they can keep people on their stools longer by offering something heartier than pretzels, like free pizza, hot treats from the Crockpot, or burgers off an outdoor grill. Avoid serving free popcorn, as it attracts vermin and pigeons. Rudy’s Bar & Grill in New York serves unlimited free hot dogs. “You always know you can come into Rudy’s with $5, get two pints, tip a dollar, and eat two hot dogs if you’re broke and out of work,” says co-owner Danny DePamphilis. “It creates special memories.”
Use Brains, Not Muscle. Avoid getting into, or encouraging, fistfights or any activities that might attract the police. If you need to remove somebody, try calling him a cab. Or do as J. T. Travis of the Deep Eddy Cabaret does: “Bring up the idea of calling the police—like, pull up the phone.” Drew Bixby, writer for the Denver weekly newspaper Westword and author of a forthcoming guide to Denver dive bars, reports that the Nob Hill Inn plays classical music through a speaker outside the front door to keep riffraff out. “On my last visit there, however,” emails Bixby, “some guy named Danny unwrapped a pair of lady’s Isotoners beneath the bar to show me his homemade shank.”