I realized in a recent moment of adult-onset anxiety just how many of the bars I’ve gone to in Williamsburg over the past couple months look like upscale hunting lodges. We’re in the midst of an explosion of places with communal tables built of great, rustic pine slabs or steampunk light fixtures fitted with antique, Edison-esque bulbs. Everywhere, it seems, someone is handing me some kind of grapefruit-y Bavarian Weissbier in an elegant, footed glass specific to its brand. Bar menus with warm goat cheese salads are rampant.
In some ways, that’s to be expected. We are the tamed frontier of condo country, after all. But for all the fancypants joints that are popping up all over, Williamsburg and Greenpoint still have their fair share of the kinds of places where you can put a dollar in a jukebox, get a PBR and a shot for $4, play Big Buck Hunter, and never have to worry about mispronouncing “Weihenstephaner.”
Ben Westhoff is an expert on these places. He’s the author of the book New York City’s Best Dive Bars, and during the course of his research he visited, by his estimate, over 200 of the city’s greatest dives across all five boroughs. I asked him to take me to some of his favorites in our area and sing the unsung charms of the dive.
Our first stop, Irene’s Pub, is a Greenpoint bar whose warm lighting, wood paneling, and potted plants make it look uncannily like my great aunt’s living room. It’s a quiet night, with just a few guys chatting in Polish over bottles of Zywiec. As I grab a stool next to Ben, I ask the bartender for a Brooklyn Lager.
“Dive bar rule #1,” Ben says. “Never get the beer on tap.” Where most people drink bottled beer, he explains, the kegs don’t get changed often. Meaning at most dive bars, draft beer is old beer. She sets my glass in front of me, and I take a sip—lesson learned.
Ben’s a passionate advocate for these places, using words like “purity” and “authenticity,” at times giving New York’s Best Dive Bars the feel of a collection of extremely short stories or prose poems, rather than a guidebook.
“What makes a dive bar a great dive bar?” I ask. “You just kind of know it when you see it,” he says. There are the must-have elements, which he points out in Irene’s: faux wood-grain on the bar or walls, flyers advertising some sort of drink promo (nine times out of ten, it’s a PBR and a shot for 4 or 5 bucks), Christmas lights overhead, and, as he puts it, “temporary solutions that have become permanent,” like duct tape over something broken long ago.
“Most of all, though, it’s the kind of place where time seems to stop. A true dive feels like it’s been there forever,” Ben says. This is definitely true of quintessential local bars like Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern, The Charleston, and Turkey’s Nest Tavern, as well as great, but less well-known, places like Irene’s Pub and Palace Cafe. These are the chain smoking, ass-kicking grannies of our drinking world; they’ve seen what life is like. They know the score.
“There’s a sense that these places are immune to the forces of the world. There’s a history, and at a lot of them, things are just like they were 50 or 60 years ago.” These are the bars that seem as if they never intended to be dives but fell into the role. “That’s part of what makes them lovable. Their ideas of what’s fancy or fashionable are so outdated,” Ben says.
The night wears on, and we end up at Trash Bar. Like other great low-key neighborhood favorites, like Duff’s or Ontario, Trash Bar hasn’t been around forever, but it’s still got the cheap booze and rough-around-the-edges vibe that make people just plain feel at home. Ben and I catch some of the Yankees game on the two tiny televisions above the bar, while I nurse a PBR—in a can.
Overhead are Christmas lights. There’s a pool table towards the back surrounded by ripped-out minivan seats mounted on wooden platforms. License plates hang on the walls. Later, over $4 Tecates in the concrete backyard of Bushwick Country Club—next to the mini-golf course—Ben and I kick back in some broken plastic lawn chairs and he explains that it’s that casualness, that limitless tolerance, which separates dives from trendier spots. Well, tolerance, and recession-proof pricing. “There are cheap drinks, yeah, but there’s also not some social code to live up to. There’s more of a come-as-you-are mentality where no one’s going to judge you for your drinking habit or other qualities you’re deficient in. People think dive bars are scary or that the regulars are unwelcoming, but a lot of these guys just go to talk. They want new blood in there. They want people to talk to.” As if on cue, a drunk woman at the picnic table next to ours turns and asks why I’m interviewing Ben.
“He just wrote a book on dive bars in New York,” I say. “Oh, did you write about 169 Bar in Chinatown?” she asks. “That place is crazy.” Pretty soon, we’re all telling stories about our favorite bars around the city.
When you live in a neighborhood like ours, the forces of gentrification seem implacable. I worry, I tell Ben, that the days of the dive bar are numbered in North Brooklyn. “Well, bars are inherently profitable,” he says. “Liquor kind of sells itself, which is why there are so many old bars to start with. But no doubt about it, they’re dying off.” Two of the bars he wrote about closed shop before the book even hit shelves, turning those entries unexpectedly into historical documents. One, The Lazy Catfish, was one of Williamsburg’s own.
Ben considers how this might sound and adds, “But, you know, people say New York is turning into Disneyland. New York is not Disneyland. That’s laziness. You just have to get up off your ass and find these places.” He takes a pull from his beer. “Because they’re out there.”
“New York’s Best Dive Bars” by Ben Westhoff (Ig Publishing,$12.95) is available at WORD and Spoonbill & Sugartown. For more info: www.benwesthoff.com.