- An American Bars rant -
Want to get a really great, unusual cocktail? It used to be very clandestine; places that only a few well connected people could get you into. Almost like a 20’s gangland movie, it seems getting a great cocktail required a lifestyle that bordered on the criminal: hanging out in questionable parts of town, knocking on hidden doors, knowing the latest passwords or secret squirrel handshakes.
Today, cocktail culture is almost as difficult on another level entirely. They are gastro pubs with names you cannot pronounce. They thrive in rather spiffy ZIP codes, hidden away in odd little lofts. Even the cities have strange monikers like WEHO, NOHO, and SAMO. (Translation: West Hollywood, North Hollywood, Santa Monica) Indeed, fancy drinks have virtually become a state of being in any tony region.
So, where does that leave the humble dive bar?
The irony here is that the trendier good cocktails become or evolve, the more we're reminded of the importance of a superb dive. Bartenders especially tout them. even ones who exult in their trendy new craft.
A dive bar is actually a place without pretense. Find a superior one and you are in it as much as possible."
Cconsider Bender's, which opened in 2003 on South Van Ness in San Francisco. It reigns as the perfect antidote to the Mission District’s Uber-gentrification. It is a neighborhood bar catering to regulars…whatever regulars may still be left in Uberville.
In Los Angeles, some of the best dive bars are still in questionable areas. And in the upscale regions, it will be ages before any trend bar transcends to dive bar.
Most “nice” places too new to be a dive. It requires time for New Deco Lounge spaces to age in the required manner. A sleek overhaul cannot replicate authenticity. New wood, polished metal and new wallpaper does not darken, rust and peal on command. Then the clientele needs to sort itself out, patiently waiting for the neighborhood dive patina and right people to settle in.
Everywhere in the Golden State, for example, true dive bars have to navigate the difficult task of remaining an honest neighborhood spot while polishing up the decor - and dealing with ever-spiraling rents.
What's clear is that cheap drinks, shots and bottled beer - and no questions or judgments, any time of the day or night - are still a draw for those who want a break from the latest fancy rum. elite mixed concoction, or obscure foreign brew distilled in Shanghai or Madagascar.
Seriously, a real dive bar is an aged establishment with an aged clientele. Yes, the cult of youth is a rarity in these places. There is a heritage and a culture you can feel when walking in.
A perfect example is Hotsy Totsy in Albany, California. Ordinary people come here. No dates, no business talk. This is a place to interact on a base level where everyone is equal.
The dive is commonly the model used by many bartenders who eventually open their own places. They know instinctively that less-fancy spots cater to middle of the road folk who like the old atmosphere, but are willing to try the fancy drinks.
That's precisely what happened at Hotsy Totsy. The wood paneling, dark windows and Christmas tree decorated with pin-up girls are a counterpoint to Totsy’s meticulously crafted drink menu, which uses ingredients like Gran Classico bitters and Abita strawberry lager without sacrificing patrons' ability to get a regular bottle of domestic beer.
Dive bars and Trend setting places are not exclusive to each other. There are mixes and matches and compromise. It is a theory of survive and even thrive by attempting the new, promising and challenging ways of culture.
More on this subject another time.
Thanks for reading.