What makes a dive bar? A ‘dive’ is usually is a term that is applied pejoratively, or ironically, meaning some kitsch value is attached the bar. In reality they are a place to act out a bit – let out a bit of tension lubricated by a bit of cheap beer and heavy cocktails. No one’s going to look down their nose at you for yelling or laughing too loud, or using an obscenity, or for the most part anything that isn’t illegal as long as you would allow the same freedom to your neighbor.
When I asked my friends about good Seattle dive bars were there were often caveats: “That’s a dive, but really you don’t want to go there” or “that tavern is a dive, but not really worth going out of your way for.”
What bars are worth the journey that also offer that dive quality? And what was ‘that dive quality’ anyway? Looking back over my own experience, I came to a simple definition: a dive bar is an original, that isn’t attempting to look hip, where the drinks are cheap, and the standards of behavior were at the very least up for debate.
So when I walked into the Bit in Ballard with a couple friends to see a bartender I work with play in his punk-rock Elvis cover band I thought I might have found a place that matched the description. The bar has a non sequitur neon horse’s head hanging over the sidewalk and Mexicans were arguing over Tecate beer.
The somewhat revealing men’s bathroom notwithstanding, this is a good bar with a lot of the standard stuff you expect to find in a ‘dive’ including tough bartenders dressed like ‘50s greasers with loads of tattoos, Rainer Beer (Seattle’s lost heritage), and punk/metal/rock music playing so loud a conversation is only possible through shouting. Years of scattered memorabilia was taped or nailed to the walls is a nice touch to this dive.
There are many more dives like this in Seattle such as the Five Point Café in Belltown or the Redwood in Capital Hill where you are encouraged to throw the refuse of your unlimited peanuts onto the floor. To describe them all would be a bit redundant, although these are all great dives with their own bit of character and rough charm.
Furthermore, I wish I could lay out a sweet dive crawl for a night on the town, but sadly the gentrification of Seattle has made these types of places few and far between. So perhaps a little more flavor is needed to be worth going out of one’s way. I, of course, mean this literally.
The Mecca Café in Uptown is a well known dive bar having been in Seattle for almost eighty years. Despite stories like patrons finding a woman dancing topless on the bar (on a Tuesday, at two in the afternoon)-it’s a very inviting place. It’s split between a diner style restaurant serving a spread of standard American fare and a small cozy bar with some decorated and artfully vandalized photos on the walls. The music is loud, a few drinking professionals sit at the end of the bar, and the service on the slower nights of the week is excellent. Good for the starved and thirsty, with a touch of dive. Though, I must warn that I’ve been told my experience was unique and this place is a full on dive during the weekends.
Ed’s Kort Haus Eatery in Greenlake has special standing as a dive that serves a vegetarian and exotic meats menu. Now, I will admit I’m not a fan of Ed, he told me that my girlfriend would remember him longer than me, but the exotic meat menu deserves its due – yak, camel, alligator burgers, plus more – you’re not going to find any of these meats elsewhere in Seattle. This in itself makes this place worth checking out, if not so much for the dinginess, which it has loads of, but for the chance to try something that you may not come across otherwise.
There are a few exceptions to standard dives. In general while, these bars may be associated with blue collar workers, in the U District there’s a dive for grad students, the aptly named College Inn Pub. Over the years this has become more of a fraternity bar, but in previous years, this underground pub was filled with the overly well-spoken dialect that only an advanced degree can give, proof of which is found in the graffiti-ed tables – Sanskrit and physics equations next to obscenities are a standard – and the verbose and often well thought out bathroom stall writings. The pub features usual good dive amenities as well; pool tables, darts, and a warm fire.
The most well-known dive bar in Seattle is the Blue Moon located at the edge of the U District. This spot was a well known hovel of poet Theodore Roethke and author Tom Robbins – who an associate of mine almost came to blows with one night here. Easily recognized by the neon blue woman hanging off the moon and the Drinking Man sculpture (a spoof of the Seattle Art Museum’s Working Man statue) outside, this place is also well-known for trouble; almost losing its liquor license a few years ago for the frequency of police citations for drug sales taking place in the bar.
Robbins was a person who rose to the bar’s defense, penning an article in the Seattle Weekly, that argued for a place in every city, where there could be a release valve of social delinquency, that such a place was necessary for the healthy functioning of a city. It’s debatable as to whether this accurately portrays The Blue Moon, but it does say something about dive bars in general.
For me, the ultimate place is The Smokeshop in Ballard. Also a combination restaurant/bar (though partitioned by a wall with separate entrances), the bar is classic – old framed photos and paintings of sailing and fishing – Ballard’s legacy. The bar itself is a hardwood hang with low even lighting, that is calming rather than just darkening. The bartenders and servers here include a few doting old ladies with a bit of tenderness and edginess to their character that is instantly appealing. This place is a tad quieter than most, with some serious regulars who may have been around when fishing was Seattle’s chief market.
I don’t expect much here, I don’t ask for much. It’s a place to drink at a low price, where anyone can walk in and enjoy themselves in their own way. That, to me, is what is unique to dive bars and those who frequent them. These places don’t have standards of behavior required – they don’t require their customers look or act a certain way in order to attract other customers – these bars are here for you, whoever the hell you are, and at the end of the night, no one cares who that is, which is great, because sometimes you need a place like that.
What & Where:
The Bit Saloon (4818 17th Ave NW; 206-782-1680)
The Five Point Café (415 Cedar St; 206-448-9993)
The Redwood (514 E Howell St; 206-329-1952)
The Mecca Café (526 Queen Anne Ave N; 206-285-9728
Ed’s Kort Haus & Eatery (6732 Greenwood Ave N; 206-782-3575)
The College Inn Pub (4006 University Way NE; 206-634-2307)
The Blue Moon Tavern (712 NE 45th St; 206-675-9116)
The Ballard Smoke Shop (5439 Ballard Ave NW; 206-784 – 6611)
Corey Kahler is a cook and writer living in Seattle.