Dive bars. They’re dirty, located in questionable neighborhoods, and full of undesirables keeping late hours. Their “beer list” is a bland grouping of mass-market swill served up in well-worn pint shakers. The lighting is subdued, the smells are unrecognizable. Battle-weary bar stools are upholstered in layers of duct tape and who knows what else. Don’t even get me started on the bathrooms. You’re a refined beer connoisseur, so why would you be caught dead in some sleazy dive?
The truth is, dive bars get a bad rap. In a world where were are spoiled with an overabundance of quality craft beer, cider, and cocktails, the dive is a welcome respite. I gave this more thought as two local dives I frequented closed down recently. Around the corner from my Upper Monroe apartment was Monty’s Krown, an establishment that has had its share of ups and downs but quickly became known for supporting the underground punk rock scene. In the same vein was the closure of Dicky’s after a dispute with their landlord. This unassuming bar located on the corner of Caroline and Meigs was truly a throwback to another era. Both had loyal followings and strong community support.
The first kind of dive is truly part of the neighborhood. You might be afraid to push that door open for the first time, because you’re afraid the regulars will stare you down and the bartender will give you a surly lip. In reality, the best neighborhood dives welcome you in with open arms, and by the end of the night, you’re a regular, too. Even if everyone doesn’t know each other personally, they look out for one another. Friendly conversation comes easily as the stress of the day melts away. You belong.
Dicky’s certainly fell into this first category. Located in the middle of an old residential neighborhood, the bar was frequented by a wide range of patrons from all walks of life. Their wings were uncommonly good, and the beer always served fresh and cold. New craft beers were offered alongside local favorites like Genny and Labatt’s. The purported oldest bar in Rochester had seen some renovations over the years, with the adjacent dining room finished in pine paneling that lent a casual feel. Folks were friendly, but not intrusive. For many, the bonds went beyond friendship. Dicky’s was family.
The second kind of dive is anonymous and indifferent. Sometimes you want to go out, and just be left alone. Nobody at the bar seems to notice you come in, and that’s okay. The bartender is keen enough to quickly fill your order and leave you to your business, and be ready with a refill as needed. There’s no hostility here, just a comfortable seat and some time to think. You’ve earned the quiet respect of your fellow patrons. No one is asking for your story, and that’s okay. The barkeep gives you a subtle nod of thanks when you settle up.
Monty’s Krown was once a regular British pub serving fish and chips and broadcasting soccer games for expates at odd hours. A management change brought on Monty’s moniker, and soon the location became a haven for punk and hardcore music. The bar was dark, the music was loud. I used to tell people I would go there to “blow out my brains” and use the late night shows as a kind of mental floss. I could take a seat at the bar and disappear for a couple of hours. That’s not to say people were unfriendly, as folks could tell if you were open for a chat or a smoke. Otherwise, it was blissful solitude.
I won’t pretend the third kind of dive doesn’t exist. These are the places you were already imagining where the bottled beer is skunked, the draft lines are filthy, and the “free lunch” consists of a bowl of stale pretzels. We have all accidentally discovered places like these. You know the place where the moment you walk in one of the regulars thinks he recognizes you or insists you have a mutual friend in common. Orders at the bar are met with resentment, as if your crisp five dollar bill is an insult to the establishment. These places we can do without.
I’ve found new places for my late-night haunts. Richmond’s Tavern (21 Richmond St., Rochester) fills my need for cold beer and good wings. The bar staff is attentive and keeps my glass full. The long bar can be home to a variety of characters. Every night is a different experience, ranging from rowdy Friday nights to chilled-out Saturdays and everything in between. The outdoor deck beckons in the warmer months.
Across the street is Joey’s (561 East Main Street, Rochester). Don’t be fooled by the Main Street address, the real entrance is off Richmond Street. The small bar has been serving neighborhood patrons for more than fifty years. Brian and Jamie have breathed some new life into Joey’s by adding some draft lines and introducing fresh craft beers. Pool leagues make their home here, adding a competitive atmosphere. One night my friend and I took on a challenge of a different sort: Drinking the remaining stock of Genesee Bock Beer (I won).
Don’t expect to have similar experiences like mine, however. The dive bar is not a formula, it is not a guarantee. Break out of your shell, climb out of that rut, and go down a different avenue. Don’t look down on the dive.