Dive bars in America are known for three basic things: cheap drinks, food that might kill you and elementary violence. There’s one in almost every town, and they are among our most-loved institutions. On your worst day, no one at The Ding Dong Lounge will judge you — and if you show up in a ball gown, no one will really care.
As much as I love fancy cocktails at, say, The Oak Bar, there’s something oddly charming about ordering a two dollar beer and a shot in a dirty, peanut-covered dive where you heard there was recently a knife fight. It’s a kind of urban adventure. That said, when you’re taking such an adventure, especially when you’re outside of your usual domain, you should observe some key rules of etiquette.
That’s right, I said etiquette. Etiquette isn’t just about salad forks and car doors, it’s about doing as the Romans do, so as not to irritate anybody or make yourself unnecessarily conspicuous. Blending in is the foundation of civilized society, even in bars where your shoes stick to the floor when you walk.
So here they are, The 10 Rules of Dive Bar Etiquette, especially for when you “ain’t from ’round these parts.”
1. Tip. Tip a dollar per drink, or two dollars if the drink is over $6. Any drink over $6 is probably a mixed drink, which means the bartender put in a little extra effort (presumably as little as possible) and has thus earned an extra buck. The tip for a drink over $12 should be $3, but if you’re at a dive bar where they’re serving drinks for over $12, your taste in dive bars sucks. Also, if you tip in coins, you’re doing it wrong.2. Don’t ask too many questions. The only appropriate question, really, is “What do you have on tap?” — and that’s only if the taps are not visible. Unless your bartender invites further conversation, tell them (don’t ask them for) your drink, then assume that their dog is dead and this is the funeral. Don’t bug them about how long the bar has been around, whether they own it, and don’t ask what kind of wine they have. They have white and red.
3. Don’t talk on the phone. If you absolutely must make or take a call, step away from the bar and head to the restroom area, where there is often the remains of a pay phone of yore. This is the only appropriate place to carry on a conversation. Nobody wants to hear your business, and when you’re on the phone next to them, they can’t help but listen and start to hate you.
4. Don’t judge the locals. Out loud. You never know who’s into knife fights.
5. If you order a round of shots, you pay. “Do you want to do a shot?” is an invitation to buy a shot for someone, not an invitation for someone to buy one for him or herself. You also must offer a toast. Even if it’s just “to drinking.”
6. Don’t touch the bar mat. The mat on the bar, as well as everything behind the bar, is sacred. The bartender will put the drink in front of you when they decide it’s time for you to drink it. If the dive is also an eating establishment, there may be a bar mat where servers pick up drinks for their tables. Don’t sit or stand there.
7. Smoking rules. You must not borrow more than one cigarette from anyone without buying them a drink. Cigarettes, to some dive bar frequenters, are worth their weight in paper money, and, when in a bind, they will smoke paper money. If you are going outside for a smoke, you must place your cocktail napkin on top of your beer, or the bartender will think you’ve left. If you see a drink with a cocktail napkin on it in front of an empty bar stool or at a bar table, you can’t sit there. Roofies are okay. (Kidding.)
8. Don’t eyeball the bartender. Unless you have official bar business like ordering a drink or a tab, eye contact with the bartender is an uncomfortable faux pas. If you don’t have someone to talk to, eyeballing the bartender looks desperate. Stare into your drink and contemplate your existence like a normal person, or ask a nearby guest about the upcoming weather (you’ll be flying or driving soon, after all).
9. Observe bathroom gender codes. No talking for men; obligatory talking for women (a simple “hi” is okay, but if you say nothing, you’re a rude outsider).
10. Keep it simple. Don’t order a complicated drink. The ingredients should be in the name of the drink (examples: gin and tonic, beer). Also, grade your drink on a Pass/Fail basis, not on complex ratios or emotional implications. If the drink is too weak, order a double next time. If the drink is too strong, let us know where that bar is.