David Wondrich on Dive Bars

Renowned cocktail historian reflects on the egalitarian nature and shared space of a true dive bar.
Black and white portrait of Dave Wondrich
David Wondrich, cocktail historian and scribe. Photo: Danny Valdez.

It’s just after five on a sweltering July afternoon when I duck into the Chart Room in New Orleans. I’m there to meet cocktail historian David Wondrich, because nothing says Tales of the Cocktail culture like a good old-fashioned shot and beer bar. The bartender slides me a local lawnmower beer (Catahoula Common) and Wondrich chooses an Abita. Mercifully, there are only a few regulars nearby, who are kind enough to ignore us in favor of bantering with the bartender. We’re here to talk about our mutual love of the dive bar, and why it holds such allure for so many of us.

Mickey Lyons: Why dive bars?

David Wondrich: Dive bars are like the living room of my version of the real America. Anybody can come in, anybody can participate in the social experience there, but you have to be willing to check your pride, check your entitlement, check any of that stuff at the door. That’s the beauty of the dive bar for me: they’re social spaces where everybody at the bar is equal in a way that a lot of people are very uncomfortable with. That makes me love them the more. The dive bar is a very egalitarian space. You have to step up and be willing to check your entitlement, privilege, self-love at the door. It doesn’t feature there. It doesn’t play well.

ML: Is any topic off the table at a dive bar? My mama taught me to never talk politics or religion at the bar. Is that true or not?

DW: Well, it’s not a great idea. But I’ve seen amazing discussions of both in dive bars. But I don’t think you need rules for dives. The idea of a dive is that we’re beyond rules’ space. Is it a great idea to bring it up cold turkey? Oh no. You can have great arguments, though. Hopefully people respect each other enough to not pull knives or guns.

ML: What do you think are the key ingredients to a good dive bar?

DW: For me a great dive bar has a lively bartender. There are people who can actually talk to other people, who are self-confident without being assholes, who can get different groups of people talking to each other, who are comfortable in their space. That’s the most important thing: a talkative, amusing bartender is everything.

ML: Any other ingredients?

DW: Crap on the walls is good.

ML: Why crap on the walls?

DW: Because everything on the walls is a record of somebody being in that bar. And I don’t mean “TGIF” crap on the walls, that’s corporate central. I mean real stuff on the wall that customers have brought in or the establishment has put up. My favorites are the signs that the establishment puts up to remind their customers not to behave like animals. Those are always great. You see things on some bars, like, “customers MUST NOT urinate on the floor.” I’ve seen that in a bar. You’d think, “Of course you’re not...” but then apparently, maybe not of course you’re not going to urinate on the floor. You don’t know their clientele. It’s things like that that really amuse the hell out of me. That’s a sign that it’s a real dive. They’ve got to remind people to behave like human beings and not like some kind of semi-advanced primate.

A great jukebox is essential to a great dive bar. It can’t have music from the last 20 years, whatever time it is. Because the great dive bar customers tend to be either older, or if they’re younger, they’re willing to hang out with older people. When I was going to dive bars in the 80s, the good ones had music from the 60s. It was doo-wop and British Invasion. In the 90s, they had 70s music. It can’t be the latest stuff, the latest stuff doesn’t work in a dive bar. The older customers get grumpy, and the older customers are the ones who are there every day.

NOLA's Chart Room's "crap on the walls." Photo courtesy of Mickey Lyons. NOLA's Chart Room's "crap on the walls." Photo courtesy of Mickey Lyons.

ML: There’s a trend in a lot of places, and a lot of neighborhoods, for the younger crowd to come into these good old true dive bars. Do you see a disconnect there? Do you see combativeness?

DW: The real dives, as opposed to a neighborhood bar, people travel to them. They’re destination bars. You’ll go there because it’s where you want to be rather than because it’s around the corner. So it’s sort of okay that you get crowds of younger people.

What I don’t like is seeing a monoculture. You don’t want all the neighborhood people and the old people to be driven out. There’s always neighborhood types at a dive, but at a good dive there are also people who know it as a destination. True neighborhood bars, I don’t think they qualify as dives, because they’re very closed. That’s not really quite the same. All the great dives I know have a mixture of regulars and new people.

ML: So what happens when an out-of-towner decides to go to a dive bar?

DW: Well, if that out-of-towner knows how to behave in a bar, they’re going to be very happy. If you don’t know how to behave in a bar, you’re going to have a problem. Dive bars are all about etiquette. They’re the most polite places in the world, in a weird way, because you have to know how to behave, and you have to know what the culture of the place is. You can figure that out pretty quick, but you have to pay attention and you have to respect it. They’re respectful places. You can’t go in and expect them to move all the furniture around to suit you.

ML: So, we have a bartender who is good, owns the room. We have crap on the walls. We have a good jukebox and a diverse group of people.

DW: We’re in heaven.

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