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New York's Best Dive Bars

In his new book, New York City's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Big Apple, Ben Westhoff riffs on the five boroughs' finest dumps. Here are his 10 favorites.

New York's Best Dive Bars

Anyone who says that gentrified New York lacks dive bars is nuts. Sure, we no longer have McGurk's Suicide Hall, the Bowery haunt frequented by sailors and low-rent prostitutes that was thought to be the place to take one's own life. But we've still got the historic rooms, the cultural diversity, and the unquenchable thirst to make for a great dive-bar town.

But what is a dive? A place with cheap drinks? Certainly not always in Manhattan. A dusty, dingy hole? Some of the best dives are spotless. An aging relic? Often, although many bars become dives quickly after opening, due to the lack of upkeep.

Ultimately, a dive has a stillness about it, an air that it is not driven by commerce, even if it is. It's a place where nobody tries to "upsell" you, where temporary solutions—say, duct tape over broken urinals—become permanent. A dive is a place that embraces your inner degenerate, and doesn't pretend drinking isn't the main task at hand.

"At the best dive bars, misery and dread are balanced by elation and poorly reasoned optimism."
Chad Griffith. Special thanks to the Nancy Whiskey Pub; Hair & makeup by Jennifer Fleming; Styling by Karin Elgai; Wardrobe courtesy "The Store with No Walls," Hell's Kitchen Flea Market
"At the best dive bars, misery and dread are balanced by elation and poorly reasoned optimism."
A pit stop of the first order.
Sarah Sellars
A pit stop of the first order.

With apologies, then, to worthy-but-overrun dives like Mars Bar, McSorley's Old Ale House, and Rudy's Bar & Grill, here are 10 outstanding—but more under-the-radar—spots. They're short on plasma screens, Wi-Fi connections, and organic-ingredient cocktails, but they're sturdy and welcoming in their own ways—which is to say: They're the kind of place where everybody would know your name, if they could see straight enough to recognize you.

Nancy Whiskey Pub
Tribeca
1 Lispenard Street (intersection of Avenue of the Americas and West Broadway), Manhattan, 212-226-9943, nancywhiskeypub.com

At the best dive bars, misery and dread are balanced by elation and poorly reasoned optimism. The patrons and the help relate to each other like dysfunctional family members—bitter and defiant one moment, gentle and supportive the next.

At Nancy Whiskey Pub, some of the help is accommodating, like the bushy-bearded bartender known as The Pirate. Others, like a younger, female, brunette barkeep, do things to annoy the aging clientele, like blast Arcade Fire at ear-splitting levels. When one of the old-timers requests she switch the big television to the U.S. Open, she refuses to comply. She's watching soccer on that screen, she claims, though when pressed she can't name either team playing.

Perhaps one reason folks are touchy is because the place smells of cheap french-fry oil. The kitchen's greasy grill spawns foot-high flames. Also, the ceiling is extremely low in some sections—less than six feet high in the loft, for example—and every inch is cluttered. A shuffleboard table dominates the main floor; one of its primary functions is providing storage for cases of beer below.

Yet Nancy's inhabitants maintain a Gorilla Glue bond. Maybe it's the cheap drinks, or the "Fuck Communism" house T-shirts for sale, which are worn by the cook and some customers. Or maybe it's the simple revelation that, as ugly as things may be in here, they're downright disfigured outside.

Billymark's West
Chelsea
332 Ninth Avenue (between 29th Street and 30th Street), Manhattan, 212-629-0118

During a shift behind the bar not too long ago, Billymark's West co-owner, Billy Penza, cranks up the Weather Girls and sings along to "It's Raining Men." He guzzles glasses of ale and lights up cigarettes before scurrying outside.

Wearing thick black glasses and a shirt that looks like a pack of Fruit Stripe gum, he takes a break from his partying to speak about the framed platinum albums behind the bar. They belong to his brother, Mark, who is the bar's other owner (Billymark's, get it?) and a former session drummer for Blondie.

Billy then dispenses his honest assessments of the drinks for sale: Blue Moon is "delicious"; a grenade-shaped energy drink called Bomba that is heavily advertised here, however, is, "terrible. Do not try it." He also attempts to keep a running tally in his head of how many drinks his customers order, but this system often breaks down.

Billymark's clientele runs from servicemen to softball players to mailmen. A postal servant, armed with a shot, mixed drink, and beer, demands that nobody leave until the bottles behind the bar are empty. It may sound like a silly thing to say, but it's actually a drunkard's Platonic ideal. Imagine it: a bender so epic it leaves the bar utterly extinguished, every drink drunk dry.

Blarney Cove
East Village
510 East 14th Street (between Avenue A and Avenue B), Manhattan, 212-473-9284

Moments after this writer snaps a picture of Blarney Cove's exterior, a woman comes running out.

"Why are you taking pictures of my bar?" she asks, half-crazed. She is middle-aged and has lipstick on her teeth. After he explains that he is writing about dive bars, she demands his phone number, in case she has any "questions" for him.

For no good reason, other than that he is scared, he writes it down. Then she gestures at the slice of pizza he is holding. "Give me some," she demands. She eats nearly half of it before telling him it isn't very good, that he should have gone to Artichoke instead. She says her name is Margie.

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