These days, there are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes a dive bar. Going by lists on sites like Yelp and Citysearch, and especially this laughable list from the Houston Chronicle, apparently any drinking establishment that does not sport bottle service, valet parking and a velvet rope is a dive.
How else can you explain the presence of places like Under the Volcano and Kenneally's on such lists? Kenneally's is just an Irish pub, and at Volcano, they squeeze fresh fruit in the cocktails. Unless you are talking limes and limes only, that is not a dive bar. And the more we think of that Chron list, the more we wonder what in the name of Sam Houston is going on in this city when the town's alleged Leading Information Source dares with a straight face to say that Catbird's, The Mink, Dean's, The Harp, McElroy's, Komodo, Woodrow's, and Boondocks are dive bars. That's eight of what they are calling the top 20 in the city, and they've listed two Irish pubs, a chain bar, and a couple of hipster joints. That list sucks.
At any rate, we even recently talked to a twentysomething guy who liked carousing in Midtown and on Washington who was scared to go inside Griff's, because it was a such a rough and tough dive bar.
Brad Moore, current co-owner of Big Star Bar and former co-founding owner of Pearl Bar, thinks the velvet rope/valet parking litmus test is crazy. "By that standard, 95 percent of the bars in the world are dives," he says. "I've even seen people call Pearl Bar a dive. It's just not the case."
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You also often see the Continental Club listed as a dive bar. It's not. With very few exceptions, places that are first and foremost music venues, especially ones that are less than ten years old, are not dive bars. Not that dive bars can't offer live music. It's just that live music is not usually the focus at a dive bar. Drinking is the focus, and often dive-bar clienteles like to pick their own soundtrack to cry in their beers to.
Former Houston dive bar denizen Willie Nelson knew that fact very well -- in fact, he's probably a certified Doctor of Dive Barology. Back in the early '60s, when he was living in Pasadena and scuffling in honky-tonks everywhere from Canal Street to the Hempstead Highway, he tailored songs like "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy," and "Nite Life" for dive bar jukeboxes, because as he once put it, "Ninety-nine percent of the world's lovers are not with their first choice. That's what makes the jukeboxes play."
So there you have it -- if you are in a bar in which sad songs are not playing on the jukebox and people look entranced with their dates, you are probably not in a dive bar.
And truth be told, there are very few 100 percent dive bars left in neighborhoods like Montrose, Midtown and Downtown. To find out just where they are locally in abundance, read this week's feature called "Dive Bars: A hand-crafted tour of the best, most obscure places to lean on a stool in Houston."