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.