The 10 Rules of Dive Bar Etiquette

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.



How to tell a true dive bar from a fake

The term “dive bar” gets bandied about a little too often. Here in Chicago and in other big cities around the world, many bars that bills themselves as “dives” are really just hipster bars pretending to be dives (First clue: a real dive bar never calls itself a dive). Like a $75 trucker hat, it screams “Hey, look at me! I’m so unpretentious. Just one of the ‘regular old folks.” Don’t be fooled by these cheap imitations. At a real dive bar, no one cares who made your jeans, what your favorite Wilco song is, or if they can get your number. Here are a few other ways to tell the difference.

In a real dive bar:

one of the following things is on the “menu”: hard-boiled eggs, Jeppson’s Malort (a kind of Swedish Schnapps made in Chicago, it’s made with alcohol and wormwood), or shoestring potatoes (unshelled peanuts will also do). A real dive bar isn’t going to mess around with a bunch of different dishes. It does one thing and it does it well. If if it does offer food, it’s generally of the deep-fried variety. If if doesn’t offer food, you can order in.

cash is the only way to pay. Put your cash on the bar when you walk in. Tip well after every drink and somehow the bartender will make your meager pile of bills last as long as you want it to. Just leave any remaining cash when you go and you’ll always be welcome back.there is a screen door, or a secret buzzer gets you access. Dive bars don’t bother with AC, they just open the door and let the summer breeze inside. “Hidden” speakeasy bars may be trendy now, but secret dives have existed for decades. Regulars don’t want their favorite haunt taken over by hipsters, so staying under the radar is necessary.

there is an Old Style sign or some other large plastic/neon beer sign outside. Real dive bars advertise their best asset – beer – front and center.

whenever someone enters, practically the whole bar says hello. A true dive earns faithful regulars. It’s a place to drink and a place to meet up with longtime friends. If the bar is filled with strangers standing in groups, or worse, singles looking to mingle, you’ve walked into a faux dive.

Bonus points if the bar has a resident cat or dog known to all the regulars, or if the name of the person tending bar is the same as the name of the bar itself.

A real dive bar does not:

offer free wi-fi. If anyone inside is working on a laptop, turn tail and run. It’s not a real dive bar.

employ bartenders under the age of 40 years old. Especially heavily tattooed under-40 male bartenders who wear eyeliner. If the bartender, or the majority of the patrons, are wearing skinny jeans or look like they’re members of Fall Out Boy, it is most definitely not a true dive bar.

have a photo booth, especially a “vintage” one that charges $4 for pictures. The only acceptable forms of entertainment in a dive bar are tv (never flat screen), darts, and pool. Okay, and maybe a vintage table-top Ms. Pac-Man.

have a website. A real dive doesn’t have a website, hell it might not even have a phone. And it has no need for one.

have a digital jukebox. Especially one stocked with indie rock. A real dive’s jukebox will be the old-fashioned kind, complete with an un-ironic selection of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, or whatever music was popular at the time it opened (a real dive doesn’t care to update it’s selection).

And the surefire way to tell that what you have walked into is in no way a real dive bar: it has a martini menu.

The Broken Spoke: the best little dive bar in Austin, TX

Some dive bars are shady little neighborhood joints that no one has ever heard of, much to the delight of the patrons that frequent the place. Others are known far and wide, with legendary reputations for plenty of mayhem and fun. The Broken Spoke in Austin, Texas falls squarely in the latter category, with a fantastic mixture of food, music, and dancing that draws crowds from miles around.

In true dive bar fashion, the Broken Spoke isn’t exactly an architectural marvel. In fact, you’ll probably wonder if the place is safe at all. But the construction of the building will soon be the furthest thing from your mind when you have the opportunity to sample the famous chicken fried steak. And once the music starts, you’ll be more concerned with the impossibly large number of people on the tiny dance floor, and how you’re going to mange to squeeze in amongst the crowd.

Austin’s legendary dive bar opened its doors back in 1964 and has been serving up food, beer, and Honky Tonk Music ever since. The place is open Tuesday through Saturday each week with a live band every night. Country stars such as Dolly Parton, George Strait, and Willie Nelson have all played at the Spoke, and the wooden dance floor is always packed with two-stepping cowboys and cowgirls moving to the music.

If you’re planning a trip to Austin, be sure to include a night at the Broken Spoke. The place offers up an authentic Texas dance hall experience, with plenty of fun for everyone. Check out their calendar of events for a list of bands that will be playing there, and don’t worry if you can’t dance, lessons are held from 8-9 PM nearly every night.