What is a Dive Bar?

Written by Kit Jenkin

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There are bars, and then there are bars

Of the two kinds of bars, a dive bar falls into the second italicized category. 

Most bars want to enjoy a good reputation. They want to be known as a place where people can go, relax, meet people and have a bit of fun, all while having a drink or two (or three). 

Dive bars are another beast altogether. In particular, they have gained a different reputation, one that most bars would want to avoid. 

What is a dive bar?

A true dive bar is a rough, seedy kind of bar. Whereas most bars go out of their way to cultivate a welcoming or enticing atmosphere, a dive bar may want to keep people away, save for a select segment of the market. 

They tend to be the types of places that always have fairly low levels of trading, attract regular customers, with a generally dark and quiet atmosphere that implies it has seen better days.

Are dive bars different from normal bars?

Dive bars are bars in all the ways that count: they are a place for socializing that serves alcohol. What distinguishes these bars from a normal bar is their reputation and atmosphere.

Normal bars go out of their way to cultivate a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Dive bars, on the other hand, tend to lean into their sense of being past their prime. They make little to no effort to keep their decor updated, purposefully rooting it in the past.   

A short history of dive bars

The term “dive bar” used to have a primarily pejorative connotation. It was used to describe bars that were insalubrious, attracted the wrong type of customers, and were generally best avoided. These days, to be called a dive bar is considered a badge of honor amongst aficionados looking for a place that feels “authentic.” The term dive was first used in the press in the U.S. in the 1880s to describe disreputable places that were often in basements into which one "dives below" [1].

Starting in the late 2000s and early 2010s, dive bars became symbolic of a dying breed of establishment that wasn’t influenced by the passage of time, that appealed to working-class people who were becoming scarce in the US’s increasingly wealthy and cosmopolitan big cities, and that were assumed to attract misfits, toughs, criminals, and other types of people on the fringes of society - the left-behind of globalization.

Because of this, the concept of a dive bar became something to aspire to [2]. Many establishments wished to trade on a reputation of authenticity to attract young, affluent people, fuelled by a desire to post their experiences on social media. In this way, many dive bars ended up ushering in gentrification in many American cities that helped push out poorer communities.

Ultimately, the popularity of dive bars was part of a larger cultural movement that embraced nostalgia for cultural conventions and products of the early-to-mid twentieth century. This the hospitality sector, types of businesses that also became popular included speakeasies honky-tonks, and other cocktail lounges. 

What makes a dive bar?

There are many features that one might consider the most iconic of the dive bar.


Dive bars are the types of places that cultivate a particular atmosphere: dark, low-energy, and slightly rough around the edges. The decor is usually an example of "early last century" (or earlier). Music played in the background tends to be from decades past.

Limited drink selection

Dive bars have a limited selection of drinks on offer, usually no more than around 3-5 options. These are often the types of things you'll always see at a dive bar. Examples include cheap beers (local or otherwise) and a basic selection of spirits. Wine is usually not offered. Dive bars are unlikely to ever offer anything more sophisticated. They also don’t tend to serve food [3].


One of the hallmarks of a dive bar is its reputation for attracting the type of clientele that may not be welcome at other bars. Dive bars are often viewed as places where you can go to escape mainstream society - somewhere to escape from "the man." As such, dive bars tend to attract customers that don't feel comfortable in other establishments. 


Dive bars are often found in the seedier parts of town - away from gentrified areas, full of older housing stock, and usually on the poorer side. This means that they tend to be located near run-down neighborhoods where crime rates are higher than average. Often this is due to the generally lower standard of living in the area.

Poor signage and little advertising (if any) help contribute to the sense of exclusivity and discovery that people feel when they stumble into a great dive bar. It's part of what makes them so special - you had to actively seek out the dive bar because otherwise, passing people would never know it was there!


Dive bars often have a negative reputation as being dirty, crime-ridden, and unsafe. This can be true or not - the point is that dive bars cultivate an aura of unlawfulness by playing into stereotypes and cultivating their atmosphere around this idea.

This contributes to the sense of discovery and exclusivity that many customers feel when they first come across a new dive bar. Many people attend a bar for its atmosphere, not knowing anything about it beforehand.

If a dive bar is located in the seedier part of town and plays up its negative image, it's likely to get a good reputation for being a bad place to go.

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