New York City gets more and more upscale every day. In fact, TRUE STORY, last week I saw a pigeon pass up a bagel on the street because it wasn’t a rainbow bagel. But despite our descent into luxury-branded oligartopia where everything you love winds up getting replaced by a SoulCycle, the city still has some dive bars full of older locals, cheap drinks and extremely low ceilings.
Everyone has a different idea of what makes a dive, but my own requirements include: cheap drinks, an overwhelming smell of stale beer when you walk in and a sense of unease as both you and everyone there realize you’re not a regular. Here are the best dive bars in the city, as told by yours truly; feel free to thunder about how your favorite dive bar was left out in the comments.
THE PUNCH BOWL: Operating out of a structure that’s been around since 1901, and run by the same family since 1979, the Punch Bowl is full of Kingsbridge lifers and boasts, at least when I went, a bartender with a magnificently thick Irish accent who inexplicably also appears to have lived in the neighborhood his whole life. You can choose from a few beers on tap, but I recommend getting a bottle of Budweiser, both because it’s just $4 and because they’ll give you a fancy little chalice to pour it into. There are karaoke nights Fridays at 10 p.m., and the bar's Facebook page is updated frequently with open mic and dance nights, if you’re looking for a wilder time than watching the afternoon news and sports highlights.
While there are plenty of signed Yankees jerseys in the bar from the team’s '90s dynasty years, what helps make the Punch Bowl more than your average Bronx bar is the presence of a signed Mets Willie Randolph jersey and a Mets calendar behind the bar, opened proudly to a picture of Noah Syndergaard mid-pitch. “Is this a Mets bar?” I’d asked the bartender, trying to confirm a Yelp review I came across in my research. “It sure fuckin’ is when I’m working here,” he said proudly. So get out here, Mets fans, and keep Yankees fans from holding at least one piece of territory in the Bronx.
MR. MCGOO'S PUB: There’s an ongoing war in baseball between old school scouts and new fangled fancy Ivy League analysts who think they can learn everything out of a computer. Much in the same way, some people might tell you that if you want a dive bar, type “dive bar” into Yelp and pick one. But that'll mean you’ll miss out on a place like Mr. McGoo’s Pub, which sits just up the block from a totally different bar listed as a dive on Yelp and Google but somehow doesn't get labeled as such by either site. If the weatherbeaten awning doesn’t entice you, the giant sign offering a “winter special” of $3 Bud, Longboard or Goose Island (with a free glass!) should do it.
Mr. McGoo's is the kind of place that doesn’t get a lot of newcomers. I judge this by the fact that the bartender shook my hand and introduced himself to me by name when I walked in, then gave me a glass to take home with me, even though it wasn’t the kind of glass they were supposed to be giving away. Weekday specials include $5 PBR and whiskey, $3 flavored vodka shots, $3 select pints and $5 frozen drinks. There’s also a pinball machine that gives you five plays for a dollar, a large covered backyard that hosts live music in the summer and guest appearances by the bootleg DVD lady. The lesson is, don’t trust Yelp when you can put in some good old fashioned shoe leather instead.
THE DUCK: When you walk into The Duck, you’re greeted by Lethal Weapon 3 and New York Jets-branded pinball tables, both of which work, although a regular once told me she’s never seen anyone playing them. Walk past the arcade room and you’ve got a long bar with a pool table at the end that people actually play, a lively population of bargoers, and drinks that get as cheap as $2 for Gennesee family beer cans and $2.50 PBRs. If you get hungry, there’s a cheap Indian/Pakistani greasy spoon next door, which is always welcome after you’ve been drinking trash beer. Do know to beware the jukebox, which only has about 20 or so songs that actually play.
GOTHAM CITY LOUNGE: The “special” at Gotham City Lounge (a PBR and a shot of well whiskey) was famously only $3. After Thanksgiving though, it went up to $4, and this assault on criminally cheap alcohol is, to me, the biggest failure of Mayor Tall’s entire administration. That being said, $4 for a beer and shot is still a great deal, and it’s not even the bar's main draw. The sheer amount of comic book memorabilia (which is from the owner's personal collection) is overwhelming, with Star Wars ships hung from the ceiling behind the bar, comics embedded in the bar itself, and posters and action figures adorning the walls.
There's a projector screen looping old cartoons and movies, and you’ve got room to play pool or pump quarters into the Marvel vs. Capcom arcade in the corner of the bar. True to the dive's nerdy roots, you’ll end up getting into a lively discussion about the all-female Ghostbusters reboot after someone spots your Ghostbusters t-shirt, and even the bartender will put in his two cents. You can also sip comic book-themed drinks like the Harley Quinn (Raspberry Vodka and lemonade) and the Daredevil, whose secret ingredients I won’t reveal, though I will say it’s a good drink that won’t poison you.
MOTHER PUG'S SALOON: Mother Pug’s has a big sign advertising itself as a “PUNK ROCK DIVE BAR,” but you won't necessarily know it when you walk in. When I visited one recent Sunday afternoon, the entire bar had been taken over by men playing on a number of custom-built rod hockey tables. It also happened to be their league playoffs. The gang was pretty friendly, though several I talked with were Flyers fans who began philosophically dissecting the concept of a "sucker punch" in the midst of an argument about a Ryan McDonough/Wayne Simmonds incident during a Rangers/Flyers game in which McDonough was absolutely sucker punched.
The rest of the crowd was made up of Staten Island old timers watching hockey on TV, and Barbara the bartender invited us to stay for the afternoon’s Ranger game. She also informed us that she cooks for the whole bar every Sunday (baked ziti, pulled pork, etc.), of which you can partake while drinking $4 to $6 drafts or $3.50 High Life bottles. So where does the “PUNK ROCK” label come from? Turns out Mother Pug’s also hosts hardcore shows featuring bands both old and new, and the bar's big enough to provide plenty of space to jump around. There's also a large backyard patio for when you need to get some air.
WINNER'S BAR: One Yelp review of this spot, located in a squat, anonymous building on Broadway in Queens, warned Elmhurst residents to walk on the other side of the street to avoid being near it. A better review is the next on this Yelp thread, which just reads: “sad very sad.” There's nothing too horrifying here, but it is a perfect dive, with super cheap beers, televisions showing soccer, CNN and ESPN, and a bartender with a Russian accent who happens to speak perfect Spanish.
Winner’s is surrounded by a whole manner of pho and banh mi places, so feel free to grab a banh mi or bowl and wash it down with a couple of $4 Buds before trying your luck with the punching bag arcade game in the back corner. Is it truly a sad place? It’s not for me to say. Sometimes, all you want to do is have a sandwich and a couple cheap beers while people walking by on the street peer into the windows in confusion. There is, however, a vending machine that lacks chocolate but sells Cup-O-Noodles, and that is very sad.
DENNY'S STEAK PUB: Denny’s is just like that bar from Cheers, but instead of regulars getting greeted with a friendly "NOOOOOOORM," you'll hear something along the lines of, "EY WHAT’D YA, SLEEP THROUGH HAPPY HOUR YA SCHMUCK?" when a regular shows up a mere five minutes after happy hour ends. Denny’s is about the size of a living room and the loud yelling doesn't really have anywhere to go, but it's part of what makes this place great.
It's also noteworthy that happy hour here, which lasts from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily, includes a free jukebox and 2-for-1 drinks, including $2 mugs of Budweiser. In addition to the super cheap Bud, you can get a small tumbler full of Jameson for just $5, and did I mention the FREE FOOD? Yes, FREE FOOD. There’s a hot tray full of food on one side of the bar, which on one evening included as many roast beef sandwiches as you could eat. The crowd skews older and consists mainly of locals, but no one’s going to stab you in the neck unless they know you. Hell fucking yeah, Denny’s Steak Pub forever.
TIP TOP LOUNGE: Tip Top's spinning light out in front dares anyone walking down Franklin Avenue to come in and have a good time. Usually the scene's tamer than either the light or the sign on the front door reading “ABSOLUTELY NO DRUGS YOU ARE BEING WATCHED” suggests, but that's fine, if you want a sweaty sexy dance party, go to nearby One Last Shag instead. The rest of us get to hang out with Tip Top's friendly bartenders while drinking $5 bottled domestics like High Life and Budweiser, staring at a TV that seems to have been stuck on ABC for the last five years.
Tip Top is also home to Brooklyn’s largest collection of newspaper and magazine photos of the Obama family, and it also an excellently wacky backyard with plenty of space, random stuff strewn everywhere, and a plexiglass roof, so you can hang out back there even when it rains. There's a large side room with tables with white tablecloths and a stage that hosts the occasional comedy show, reading series or DJ. And definitely make sure you go on Tuesdays, when Dr. Ceecee makes a platter of free sandwiches and will let you eat as many as you can stomach.
HANK'S SALOON: While Hank’s doesn’t smell like stale beer, a Hank's regular friend of mine often complained it “smelled like feet,” which is another odor you probably don’t want to immerse yourself in all the time. The flames on the outside of the bar promise you a good time, and a good time you'll have indeed, whether or not the nearly century-old building is packed with people seeing a country or rock band or just hanging around watching sports.
The bar can be even better when it's mostly empty, for that's when it lets the truly strange have their moment in the sun. I once stopped in at Hank’s and caught the end of the Boston Bruins/Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup Finals, which resulted in a dramatic Blackhawks victory. Whether the only other person in the bar was a Blackhawks fan or just a rabid hater of the city of Boston I'll never know, but he began screaming in ecstasy, bought shots for me and my friend and screamed, “FUCK BOSTON” loud enough for all of Atlantic Avenue to hear it. This was, mind you, just two months after the Boston Marathon bombing, which he also yelled he didn’t give a shit about.
Note that the drinks don’t come too cheap, with $6 taps and no beer and shot deals, which is probably the only mark against Hank's. You never know what will happen to you when you walk into this bar, and with the ascendance of the Barclays Center and the recent transformation of the 24-hour diner across the street into a fancy ramen place, its tenacity and refusal to pretty up in the face of a neighborhood upscaling is very welcome.
IRENE'S PLACE: In a rapidly changing Greenpoint, it’s good to know you can step off the Nassau Avenue G and immediately step into a dark hole-in-the-wall that has no pretensions about being anything more than an alcohol delivery system. Irene’s stubborn refusal to change is best evidenced by the jukebox, which is equal parts Polish disco and throwback early 60s CDs from the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., The Drifters and Dean Martin (inexplicably, the one nod to modernity is a Lou Bega CD). Moving your good times along are $3 PBRs, ($6 with a shot), $7 High Life and shot specials, and $1 Jell-O shots (you can even pick your own color). Hang out long enough to do more listening than speaking, and maybe you’ll start to pick up a little Polish.
THE LIBRARY: I was once drinking by myself at The Library when a man walked in and began asking patrons for money. He had a staple gun with him, and said that anyone willing to give him money could staple the bills to his body wherever they wanted to. A further twist was that when the bartender saw him, she threw him out, screaming, “I told you, you can’t keep coming in here doing this shit!” So, yes, The Library is kind of a strange place. True to its name, it has shelves full of old books that range from pulpy mysteries to business how-tos. If you don’t feel like reading, you can also watch whatever '80s movie on VHS the bartender is showing on a projector screen in the back. The best time to show up here is for the 2-for-1 happy hour from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., but no matter when you choose to brave this place, you can always snag a $3 Rolling Rock or a $4 Narragansett.
LOCAL 138: It's no secret that these days, the maze of small streets hemmed in by the Bowery, East Houston, Delancey Street and the East River belong more to women wearing soft leopard print pants and walking 200-pound St. Bernards than they do to Sid Vicious or even early-aughts Julian Casablancas, so it's not insane to blanche at the declaration that any bar around there is a dive. But Local 138 stands strong. It has a happy hour from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day in which beer, wine and well drinks are just $4. This includes the tap beer, which runs a nice gamut of mid-tier craft beers. Beyond that, the bar still has that divey smell, and if you meet a nice man or lady while you’re there, the two of you can duck into one of the front rooms, close the door, and give passersby a live sex show.
TOBACCO ROAD: The best word to use to describe Tobacco Road is “grim.” In fact, everything about this bar is grim. To get there, you have to walk along 41st Street from 8th Avenue to 9th Avenue, which brings you past all the tired-looking people waiting for buses outside the Port Authority. Then you spot the bar, which is located directly across the street from the sad place in the Port Authority where buses pull out. Then you walk into the bar, where bartenders in skimpy bikinis serve a combination of office workers, hard hats coming off a shift, and drifters. Of course, if you’re looking to drink in Hell’s Kitchen, at least Tobacco Road is interesting. It’s also cheap, with $4 PBR tallboys, $5 well drinks and a $10 Bass and Fireball special.
The back area, which is separated by a curtain when its not in use, has a stage that plays host to live music. I once performed here with a band I was in, and Van Helsing was projected on the wall behind us, for some reason.