"I know it when I see it." - Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, on correctly identifying pornography. Also applies to dive bars.
The dive distinction is complicated. Used to be you could stick a bar in the non-dive phylum if a web jukebox were present. But nowadays there are dives that still feel like coming down in a Greyhound station (in a good way?) even though you can download the Carpenters on the jukebox, if you're so inclined.
Dirt doesn't make a dive. Every bar is dirty. I'm not going to lick the floor at Red Lion, not unless I spill something really expensive, but that doesn't mean it's a dive. No matter what Guy Fieri says.
As for patrons, the West Alabama Ice House has a rode-hard crew of regulars, but since the place started dressing nicer (and flying a Greek flag, for some reason) it hasn't felt the same. A great neighborhood place - or a semblance of its former, grittier self, depending on who you ask - but not so much a dive any longer.
Then there are bars that give me particular trouble. La Carafe and Warren's - if they were college football recruits, I'd give them the amorphous "athlete" distinction and slap a rare five-star ranking next to their names. Despite the rating, I didn't include either on this list, and it's difficult to explain why. They have a timeless quality that doesn't make pigeonholing them impossible, but it does feel sacrilegious. Is Blood on the Tracks a rock and roll album? Stop typing, music geeks, that was rhetorical.
It should be clear, then, that this top-ten list is neither comprehensive nor meant to be gospel. (If you want comprehensive, get Press reporter John Nova Lomax's book.) And it's missing more than a few solid choices: Ruthie's, TK Bitterman's, REHAB, Catbird's, Shady Tavern, Blanco's, Big Star, Big Easy, Dan Electro's, a couple other places that Shilcutt poached for her best neighborhood bars list.
In a city as dirty as Houston, though, ten slots better not be enough to come up with a definitive dive bar list. Here's a shot anyway.
10. Blue Lagoon
Last time I was at this Spring Branch dive, I talked to a woman who, based on her familiarity with the bartender and other patrons, seemed like she'd spent every weekend since the Clinton administration at the decades-old bar. Turned out she'd been drinking her white Russians there for only a couple weeks. Another month, and she might get her photo on the wall near the pool table, with the dozens of snapshots of other regulars. (Many of them are damn near hilarious, though I wouldn't expect any of the pictured to suffer much embarrassment.) A smoking patio out back looks like a porch where your country grandpa might retreat when Nana's working his last nerve. It's hard not to feel at home here.
9. Cozy Corner
Westbury regulars drive this boozy outpost, and as the neighborhood has changed, so has this dive. When gays and lesbians who wanted to buy homes but couldn't afford Inner Loop prices starting moving in, the bar-goers among them naturally chose the only watering hole in the area. And the new residents and Westbury originals who patronize this seasoned little room next to a dentist's office get along like long-lost, tipsy pals. Shuffleboard gets played, Jello shots get passed around, and if you promise not to throw the controllers, you can even have a turn on the Wii. (Shilcutt already snatched this bar up, but it's hard to resist re-listing such a friendly place in a part of town with a dearth of nightlife.)
8. D&W Lounge
This beer-and-wine joint in the shadow of the east-side coffee plant is a good reflection of its neighborhood - weather-beaten but not dangerous, racially mixed (though maybe just a little bit whiter than the rest of the Second Ward area), isolated-feeling despite being only a couple minutes from downtown. Saturday karaoke is popular, especially with grown-ass Hispanic women, and conversation on the chicken-coop patio is easy to come by any day of the week. I've wandered in and been pleasantly surprised by Nick Gaitan and the Umbrella Man playing a live set to a packed house. About a year ago this place was cash-only and had no online presence; now there are six Yelp reviews and a credit card machine. Hit it up before CultureMap does. Better yet, pick it as a first date spot to make sure your prospective guy or girl can hang.
7. Mr. Gino's
This Sunnyside-area blues bar is approaching its 40th birthday (though it's been at its current location for 20 or so). Like most of its patrons, it has aged gracefully. Get a beer - or bring your own bottle of booze - and feel the love. The live music and setting are such that using even the word "authentic" to describe this place sounds corny. Watching a Scorsese documentary on the blues will give you a good history lesson; Mr. Gino's will give you a good time, live.
Yes, this bar is in Galveston. When you're this good, though, certain geographical concessions must be made. (Also justified: A second and final theft from Shilcutt's list.) No equivocation - The Poop Deck ("Where the elite meet in bare feet") is the best bar on the island. It's a dirt-road Baptist church compared to the gimmicky Lakewoods that dot Seawall Boulevard. Old-school islanders and more adventurous tourists come here to drink, smoke, play classic rock on the jukebox and watch a weird Gulf Coast parade march past the bar's second-story patio. I once got an unopened can of Lone Star here that tasted like it was full of sea water. The Poop Deck is that salty.
Among my friends, there's not much ambivalence when it comes to Lola's. Some are no strangers to low-down places but still can't find any kind words for this bar. The Home of Reality is also the home of certain activities that attract certain crowds (macrame, obviously). But, argue those of us who appreciate Lola's, it's still a Montrose institution with strong, cheap drinks. It's hipper than most of the other spots on this list, but it's on the slightly dangerous side; Lola's is no kitsch dive. It remains windowless and sign-less, the patio is still stark like an exercise yard, the bathrooms are still third-world and the old-school jukebox is still loud. There's a credit card machine now, though, so you can tell the sketchy guy who offers to "watch" your car that you're on plastic tonight.
4. The Dutchman
A friend once described this place as a "1970s party basement" from somewhere up north. That's a compliment. On a strip of Wakefield that used to be a honky-tonk hotspot, The Dutchman holds things down between surly Red's Country Place and rowdier Catty Corner Ice House, both of which aren't far down the road. Speaking of the neighbors, many of the folks here look like they would fit in at nearby Petrol Station but prefer things a little on the darker side. The Dutchman is beer and wine only, but they offer setups and have a big-ass back yard, so make yourself comfortable.
PJ's is technically a sports bar - there's a big TV in one corner, another couple above the downstairs bar and one more on the patio, plus game-day specials - but it's so much more than that. A close-knit cast of regulars and an old-school bartender (the man himself, PJ) make this creaky, paint-chipped old house feel like a home. Fridays bring a younger karaoke crowd upstairs, where even those among us who aren't fans of the art of wailing over plonky MIDI tracks have been known to have a surprisingly good time, and the Thursday steak night is a solid value. If there are two cats in the yard at PJ's, they're probably feral, but life does feel a little less hard here.
You can't talk about Alice's without mentioning two things: The icy schooners of Lone Star and Shiner for $1.50 and $1.75, and the brusque lady who pours them. It's not that she doesn't like you, Alice is just being herself. If you do get a smile, you damn well know you earned it. The Tall Texan is literally brighter than most dives, which, along with the long tables in the middle of the room, makes it feel like a tiny, badass community hall. The old-school jukebox is mostly country, with nods to blues, classic rock and soul, and the crowd reflects the north Heights location.
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Downtown's superlative dive, next to Metro HQ and a couple blocks from the Greyhound station - what's left to say about it? One of my favorite stories about the place comes from a former Press staffer who stopped by after work. Regulars were toasting a very recently departed compatriot, who had apparently suffered some kind of OD and died. The whiskey wake lasted half an hour or so before another regular stepped in the dark, narrow bar and asked what was going on. So and so is dead, the others informed him. "Bullshit," he said, "he's back at my place taking a shower right now." Which resulted in more rounds and more toasts, this time celebrating the fact that their buddy was still alive. That's the Lone Star - absurd, dirty, welcoming for some and a little intimidating to the squeamish. The pool table's kind of janky, the owner tightly monitors the pours and the back deck was recently sacrificed for more parking. But it remains a Houston standout, new online jukebox and all.