New York's unique character is defined by any number of sources, but the bars in our great city comprise one strong thread that runs through the fabric of the city. We may have access to some of the most elegant cocktails in the world—but you can often find an even more colorful cross-section of people, and their stories, at New York's many dive bars.
Ben Westhoff, after researching dive bars across all five boroughs, shares his findings in New York City's Best Dive Bars.
What compelled you to write a book about dive bars? I love drinking in dive bars, and love playing urban explorer (though this specific opportunity came about because the Village Voice was sponsoring the book, and I write for them).
What qualities comprise a true dive bar? Christmas lights. Also, wood paneling, and a bar made from wood grain linoleum. Other than that, it should be a place without loud music, without menus, and without much "razzle dazzle."
What do you think it is about dive bars that are so compelling and keep them in business? Unfortunately, most dive bars don't stay in business very long. Two that I profiled (Freddy's and Lazy Catfish) have already gone under. But the ones that endure do so because there's something true about them, and they don't appear to be trying too hard. They don't try to sell you custom cocktails made from figs and organic honey, for example.
Are there particular drinks by which you judge a dive bar/is there one particular drink you order at every bar? Almost every dive bar in the East Village has a can-of-PBR-and-shot-of-whiskey special. This special should cost $5 and no more, unless it includes a tall can of Pabst, in which case $6 is acceptable. I usually get Jameson on the rocks, because it is a manly drink and I am a manly man. Either that or a Tequila Sunrise.
What are your top three, most iconic dive bars in New York? The most iconic dives in New York are McSorley's Old Ale House in the East Village, which is the oldest bar in the city; Rudy's Bar & Grill in Hell's Kitchen, which has free hot dogs; and Mars Bar in the East Village, which is poorly-lit. This is not my opinion so much as fact. Siberia would probably have made the list but it went under a while back.
What were your most (and least) favorite things about writing the book and the research involved? I loved having an excuse to see bars and neighborhoods I would have never otherwise gone. Oddly, I'd never spent much time on Staten Island. But it got tiring. Searching for the subway in some godforsaken Queens neighborhood at one in the morning on a Tuesday night in February gets old.
Any classic New York dive bar stories you can share? At this place called Mr. McGoo's in The Bronx all these fat guys who talked like Joe Pesci were telling my friend Rose and me about their expeditions to Hunter Mountain. They normally just boozed, apparently, but once one of them went inner-tubing down the mountain, tied to another guy's tube. They were very friendly, but when they invited Rose and me along on their next trip we declined.
What's the most disgusting thing you encountered? A dive in the financial district called Cordato's had the most disgusting bathroom I witnessed. In the book I say it looked like it had been hit by a "Category Five urine hurricane."
Any advice for ordering a drink at a dive? Avoid beers on tap. Because the equipment isn't cleaned regularly, at many dives each beer on tap tastes exactly the same, be it Budweiser, Blue Moon, or Stella. There are plenty of exceptions to this, of course, like Farrell's in Park Slope.
Do you ever go to non-divey bars? Any favorites? I like the bar at the Hudson Hotel in Midtown.
What's your favorite late-night, post-dive snack? I usually get a post-dive slice. I don't know if you're aware of this, but New York has really good pizza. And bagels.
Are there any dive bars that serve great food? In a word, no. But you can't beat the price, which is usually free. This place called Denny's Steak Pub in Kensington brings in catered food. No steak, although the time I was there they had pepper steak, covered in black sauce and limp bell peppers. To say it was good wouldn't be entirely accurate, but a free meal is something you don't often encounter.