Dive bars from the Dolphin to the Crobar are on the ropes. But a new roster of bars with divey vibes are emerging, and their cocktails are making waves. Millie Milliken asks what makes a good dive bar in 2022 and picks out seven of the best.
Spending 10 days isolated in your flat can really do wonders for one’s ability to do housework. My flat has never been so spotless and during my frenzied shelf-reorganising, book alphabetising and clutter-throwing-outing, I came across a framed, black and white photograph of eight people, posing for their portrait on a beach.
A lovely piece of memorabilia, I decided to keep it – despite the fact that I have no idea who any of these people are, when they lived or even really how I came to acquire it. What I do know though is that it came into my possession after a night out at The Dolphin pub in Hackney, my local dive bar 10 years ago.
Any Londoner looking for a really, really good time until 4am should know this Mare Street institution. It’s hot, it’s sweaty, and being branded with its blue, dolphin-shaped stamp is akin to a badge of honour.
People have many definitions of a dive bar. The Urban Dictionary uses descriptors like ‘unglamorous’, ‘shabby’ and ‘well-worn’, with the drinks described as ‘simple’ and ‘cheap’. For me, however, the quality of the drinks (or lack of) isn’t the defining factor of a dive bar, it’s the attitude of the owners and an unspoken agreement between them, the customers and everyone involved that we’re all just going to have a fucking good time.
Ten years ago, such places made up the majority of my drinking destinations: flashbacks to rolling down the steep staircase into Soho’s Trisha’s with a flourish; dancing around my handbag (and getting it stolen) in Shoreditch’s Jaguar Shoes; and pouring pints down peoples’ trousers in Holloway’s The Big Red (don’t ask). Back then, a £4 spirit and mixer or a pint of mediocre lager did the job.
Sadly, many classic venues are falling victim to Covid, changing consumer tastes and the growing costs of running a bar. One such institution is The Crobar (photo below) which, despite raising considerable funds to save it from the claws of Covid, has sadly closed its doors. Owner Richard Thomas opened the legendary rock ‘n’ roll bar back in 2001 after a bartending career that began in 1981. After stints at two former music destinations, The Borderline and The Garage, he opened the rock and roll bar he’s always wanted to drink in. “It was something that a lot of people wanted, not just myself,” he tells me. “Within a year or even eight months we took off, we were busy before we’d even got a name.” For those who might not have figured it out yet, The Crobar was named after the heavy metal tool.
Dive bar paradiso
Drinks may have been simple (spirits and mixers, and beers) but Thomas never wavered on quality. “I’ve always been a believer in giving people quality booze… Right from the start our aim was to have the best liquor in town.” With a rock crowd bourbon was a popular choice, with around 50 on the back bar and Bulleit as the house pour – selling 90 bottles a week at its peak. Thomas was also sure to have about six to eight Scotches, half a dozen Irish whiskeys and 12 good quality Tequilas which Thomas was keen to give his guests as a serious sipper. “We stopped offering people salt and lime with Tequila because it was nice to drink by itself and our Tequila sales just went up and up.”
He even eschewed fridges (“fridges in bars are the most pointless waste of money) for chilling his beers in ice and water to ensure someone ordering a beer at 2.45am had as cold a beer as someone who ordered one at opening time. A refreshing approach to many of the other rock bars I’ve frequented over the years. “This idea of doing booze like McDonald’s appals me – a good bar is when you’d rather be there than in your house… That’s why people always arrived at 8pm with intentions of leaving at 11pm and staying till 3am.”
Is this the end of the dive bar?
So, why are these institutions struggling to survive? Thomas is refreshingly open about how financially difficult it became for bars like The Crobar to keep their doors open, citing a decline in office workers, less tourists who would spend good money in theatres and restaurants which in turn was spent by their staff in his bar, and landlords upping the rent.
“Soho in the ‘90s and the early ‘00s was bloody fantastic. You could go out and you could go to half a dozen really cool bars and rock clubs. But after 2008, that was a game changer… It got tougher and tougher, landlords got greedier, the government got greedier, in 2014 they put the rates up by 111% overnight. My rent when I left was £130k a year… Margins got smaller too – in the 90s margins were 72%, but by the time I left Crobar it was 42% because of endless costs.”
Divey vibe, but with great drinks
It might look like the classic dive bar’s days are numbered, yet a recent trip to Barcelona in November pointed to the future. I found myself in Two Schmucks, a bar that defines itself as a ‘five-star dive bar’. It has all the hallmarks of a classic dive (neon signage, Converse hanging from the walls, a definite dancing on tables vibe) but its drinks certainly aren’t. Drinking fancy cocktails like the Melon, Cheese and Pepper (combining melon cordial, gin, vermouth and burrata) amidst the revelry that comes with the Two Schmucks crowd might be the most fun I’ve had while drinking cheese foam.
“The concept of Two Schmucks wasn’t decided by us, it happened as a result of us trying to work around a tonne of limitations – mostly financial,” laughs co-founder Moe Aljaff. “We knew what we could do and we believed in the service we provided. We started without any money so we built everything ourselves and tried to get whatever we could to deck out the bar. It took us a year before we first used the phrase ‘a five-star dive bar’, the bar took on its own concept and we just kind of went with it.” The combination of quality cocktails and divey vibes has clearly paid off, with the bar being ranked at number 11 at World’s 50 Best Bars and the end of 2021.
Looking for a raucous night out?
But what about back on UK soil? After two days with the Schmucks (including at their new karaoke bar Lucky Schmuck) I realised – Covid-aside – it had been ages since I’d had such a raucous night out in my own hometown. When I posted on a London bartender Facebook group asking for people’s favourites, one member replied with eight damning words: “There are no real dive bars in London.” Shots officially fired.
That’s not to say these kinds of bars don’t still exist – they just appear in different guises. Lyndon Higginson, the brains behind Junkyard Golf Club, Crazy Pedro’s, The Liars Club and other Manchester haunts has done a formidable job of combining divey surrounds and late-night destination bars with drinks lists to please a more discerning drinking crowd. Below Stonenest, a new basement bar in Soho, is making its mark too with cocktails like White Port and Tonic, Joan Collins, Zombies and a small but discerning wine list.
And the old guard are revinenting themselves too. Richard Thomas is waiting for Covid subsidies to come through before unveiling the new guise of The Crobar which will undoubtedly be welcomed with open arms and mouths from its already loyal following – and hopefully, a new one too. He is eagerly counting down the days. “You have no idea how much I want to listen to heavy metal and get shitfaced.” Here’s to diving into 2022.
6 of the UK’s best dive bars
We called for members of the bar industry to tell us their favourite dive bars. Here are five of the most popular
This bar industry regular is still a sure thing if you find yourself in Soho and in need of a bar to prop up till 3am. It’s basement bar, The Pink Chihuahua, is where you’ll find all the tequila and a place to dance with zero judgement.
‘Roses are red, violets are blue, shots of tequila, Blink 182.’ It seems poetry and agave spirits are both a strength of this basement tequileria in Liverpool. Walls are festooned with a mish mash of Mexican memorabilia while cocktails are fun but packed full of the bar staffs’ knowledge of all things agave.
Pizza and nachos seem to be Pedro’s favourite drinking foods, and chances are you’ll need some to soak up all the cocktails that scream out from the menu. Classics include the likes of El Diablo and Ped’s Spritz, while house cocktails use ingredients like Batanga Reposado, Koch Espadin and supasawa.
This Islington-by-way-of-America favourite is described more as a ‘vibe’ bar but people who have worked there firmly put it in the dive category. Whisky is the spirit du jour with over 80 bottles from around the world on the back bar and live music and the obligatory jukebox add to the vibes.
Mexican wrestling on the TV, and memorabilia on the walls, and Batangas on the menu make La Pantera a favourite in Cardiff. Merch is popular (and another sign of a good dive bar to sell to its loyal following) while drinks have catchy names like Shark Tooth and come in fun colours like the Midori Sour.
A proper rock n’ roller, Blondies is dark, dingy and the stomping ground of punks, partiers and karaoke lovers alike. You might go to this Hackney venue for the music but with pizza, Midori Margaritas and the licence to let seriously loose, this might just be the perfect antidote to two years of being well behaved.
Please let us know some of your favourite dive bars, past and present, in the comments or on social.