What’s In A Name: Diving into “Dive Bars”

A long-running debate (oft-heated by 100 proof) is what makes a dive bar, well, divey?

Technically speaking, the term dive bar originated in the 19th century to describe a subterranean bar or opium den. Dive, hence, came from ducking down into the bar. It was allegedly first seen in America in 1871 in the New York Herald. Allie Conti of Vice says that there’s a “folk etymology as well––going in meant you were headed out of sight and into a zone of ill repute.”

But the best description that we’ve seen is Draft Magazine’s Joe Stange who eloquently proffered the following identifier of a proper dive bar:

“…they’re like porn, difficult to define but we know it when we see it.”

A dive bar either is or it isn’t. Per Draft Magazine, here are a few of the qualifiers that lend give dive bars that je ne sais quoi authenticity that just can’t be faked.

A dive bar: 

  • Lacks a beer list (you find your selection by looking at the fridge). 
  • Brings in people from all income levels and ages “from unemployed to underpaid and on up through those one or two rich assholes who can’t stay away.” On age range, DM says look for “a broad age range, preferably skewing old and grumpy; if it’s full of chipper twentysomethings giving meat market vibes, it ain’t a dive.”
  • “Gruff, professional staff to tolerate the eccentric and manage or eject the rowdy.”
  • Dated knick-knackery on the walls and ceilings.
  • Dimness. A dive should never be well-lit.
  • Not family-friendly, as a rule.
  • Cheap beer; less than $5 for domestic and $6 for craft is a good rule of thumb, depending on city and region.
  • Unpleasant bathrooms.
  • The smell of cigarette smoke, these days often seeping in from just outdoors or sticking to the clothes of the regulars.

Enter Dirty Bill’s, West 6th’s beloved dive bar. Recently lauded by grit-seekers as Austin Monthly’s best dive bar, it meets most of the Draft criteria. We’ve never seen a beer list. Everyone complains about the unpleasant bathrooms. It’s wonderfully dark and eccentric. Gnome paraphernalia covers the walls. If you bring your kids here, you have serious issues (plus, they’d be stuck sitting outside on the curb whilst you enjoy your cold, stiff, affordable drink).

It’s smoke and wood leather, faded wood and not-so-great choices, spilt booze and countless pints. It’s worn and unglamorous, therein lies the beauty. It’s for regulars, lovers of grit. Simple drinks, strong pours and prices you remember loving (i.e. cheap). It’s not fancy, you don’t need to dress up and no one cares if you dance on the bar. It’s loud, crowded and alive. If you’re solo, Dirty Bill (the traveling gnome who looks out over the bar) and a cold drink will keep you company.

Feeling more like a New York watering hole than the bright, shiny chic drinkers popping up across Austin, Dirty Bill’s has the dirty, gritty, well-worn soul of a proper dive bar.