Thomas Patterson: We Dive Till Dawn
There are many things that are better in America than in Britain: burritos, cheerleaders, Austrian movie stars, Real Housewives. But one of the most overlooked areas in which our cousins across the Atlantic excel at is drinking. No, hear me out. We may think we have the market licked with our real ales and WKD alcopops and underage pissed-up teens turning our market towns into Friday night war zones. To the cursory Brit eye, all that America seems to have on offer is a yellow water called Budweiser drunk by rednecks in ‘Keep Calm & Carry Guns’ t-shirts at Arkansas county fairs.
Look deeper, however, and you’ll see that the Yanks’ boozing culture is leagues ahead of ours. They may not have bitters with names like Otter’s Bottom and Hobgoblin’s Knob served by glad-eyed barmaids in cantilevered bras but every American town has a micro-brewery churning out IPAs that would knock the socks off the average CAMRA man. We may distill the best whiskies and gins in the world, but it’s America that’s put them to work in iconic cocktails like the Sidecar and the Manhattan. When did you last drink a cocktail named after an English city? Anyone for a Newport Pagnell on the rocks? Want to imbibe a Coventry, shaken not stirred?
You don’t see Americans turning every other pub into a million pound des-res fit only for a Russian oligarch and their bars stay open until respectably adult hours like 4am. In fact, in the States drinking is an adult sport. Thanks to tough laws and even tougher ID checks, it’s nigh on impossible to start drinking until you’re 21 years old and amen to that. A night out on the tiles is a privilege that has to be earned and the fact that only adults can get into the spirit (both literally and figuratively) means that small town America isn’t overrun by feral youths ripped to the tits every weekend. Their public transport isn’t awash in sick and kebabs on a Saturday night. Sure, it’s America’s dirty little secret that everyone driving a car after midnight is probably drunker than Dean Martin but we’ll let that slide. If only for the fact that they’re behind the greatest contribution to drinking culture since the ancient Mesopotamians discovered that fermented honey made their ritual sacrifices go with a swing. I’m talking, of course, about the dive bar.
For the uninitiated, the dive bar is exactly what it sounds like – a deep, dank pool for hardened drinkers in which you can submerge yourself to partake in the important, introspective activity of getting yourself thoroughly and utterly blotto. Every city, every town, every two-horse village has one, and truly they are wonderful. They’re not pubs, where you could while away an afternoon by the fire reading the Sunday supplements. They’re not cocktail parlours, with frou frou models behind the bar who call themselves mixologists because they know how to add gin to tonic in a silver shaker. And they’re certainly not sports lounges, where whooping idiots neck lager in front of blinding flatscreens showing games with rules incomprehensible to anyone born outside of Boise, Idaho.
No, the dive bar is a church, a temple, a sacristy of alcohol. You’ll find them in strip malls and weather-beaten streets, windowless, uninviting holes with names like ‘The Cloak Room’ and ‘The Double Down’ and ‘The Hideaway’, all spelled out in acrylic fonts that went out of fashion before your grandparents were born. Some may have pool tables or shuffleboards, some may have jukeboxes, some may even have an ancient TV, made before remote controls were invented and which only shows three channels max. Most won’t be penetrable by sunlight. But these are all asides to the main activity God built them for: to drink, like people used to drink before the words ‘artisinal’ and ‘organic’ were attached to anything associated with booze. A dive bar doesn’t do seasonal ales or cocktails muddled with mint. Hell no. You can have beer, whiskey, gin and vodka. Anything else is a bonus and you’ll be grateful for it. But what a dive bar does, and does it well and does it like nowhere else, is offer grit, substance, an egalitarian stoutheartedness that defines the very essence of the American character.
You can see it most clearly in America’s art. America’s greatest bands formed in the dive bars of Brooklyn and the Bowery; artists and poets and beatniks and crooks all got sloshed together in the holes of San Francisco’s North Beach; and authors from Bukowski to Hemingway, Carver to Cheever trod from dive bar to dive bar either to inspire or quell the muse. Of course we Brits have had our own creatives who have eulogized the public house – Dylan Thomas, Jeffrey Bernard, Patrick Hamilton, Bruce Robinson, for starters. Yet the worlds conjured up in our great boozy works like ‘Hangover Square’ or ‘Withnail and I’ ultimately have a squalid, melancholy feel entirely at odds with the widescreen, nonpartisan quality that the American dive bars have inspired in works like The Long Goodbye and Magnolia. Simply put, you should just go and experience that for yourself. To that end, I give you a beginners list of The Turkey’s Nest in Williamsburg, Club Tee Gee in Atwater Village, The Drawing Room in Los Feliz and The Red Room in Santa Cruz. Just remember, wherever you choose to dive into – don’t order a drink with more than two ingredients, always tip your bartender and make mine a Makers on the rocks.
Thomas Patterson is a Journalist and Screenwriter. His areas of expertise include Psychedelic music, NASCAR, G.K. Chesterton and Louchery.