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.
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
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.
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.
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.
He goes to meet up with friends at Otto’s Shrunken Head, and later comes back to Blarney Cove and sits down at the bar. Margie doesn’t notice him at first, too busy drinking, head-banging to the Beastie Boys, and offering up her own altered lyrics: You’ve gotta fight/For your right/For beer!
Blarney Cove is the real deal, a long sliver with one wood-paneled wall and one faux-brick wall. It’s the kind of place where a guy wearing a straw fedora will smoke a cigarette while playing video poker, and then mash the butt on the floor with his shoe once he’s done; the type of spot with a pay phone where people regularly receive calls, and a gumball machine that dispenses pistachios.
Finally, Margie notices the writer. She grabs his hand and pulls him over to where a man in a thin mustache and a beefy guy called “Popeye” are sitting.
“Next time, you must ask Popeye before you take pictures. He’s in charge,” she says.
But isn’t it your bar?
“Popeye’s in charge.”
In truth, nobody’s in charge at Blarney Cove. It has its own forward momentum, slowly spiraling out of control.
532 Ninth Avenue (between 39th Street and 40th Street), Manhattan, 212-502-4609
Some folks complain that Manhattan has become Disneyland, but pockets of Hell’s Kitchen feel, appropriately, more like Hades.
On a steamy night at Holland Bar, a general contractor named Albert talks about all the shit he’s gone through in his life. Much of it is because he grew up in bad Brooklyn neighborhoods, he says, and because he takes pride in his race. His backward baseball cap features glittering dollar signs, and he also sports sunglasses and Timberlands. His tattoos include a pair of tear drops near his left eye, a spiderweb over his elbow, and other Aryan-themed ink beneath his clothes.
He nonetheless gets along swimmingly with Jeff, the black bartender, who doesn’t remove him even after he knocks over somebody’s beer with an unsteady paw. This is only his fourth drink, Albert pleads. Here, that is. Truth be told, he’s been drinking since noon, 12 solid hours. It would have been more, but at 10 a.m., a deli employee said he couldn’t buy booze yet because it was Sunday. “I’ll die if I have to wait,” he joked (but not really). Fortunately, he now has a bottle stashed in his bag to help him wind down later.
The recently reopened Holland Bar looks like the kind of place that is held together with duct tape—and the bathroom door literally is. The giant, magnificently scripted “Holland” sign behind the bar dates from the 1930s, a holdover from the joint’s former incarnation as Holland Welfare Hotel’s saloon, over on 42nd Street. The hotel didn’t survive, but the dive and the sign were transplanted here.
Before long, another regular comes in, a guy whose right side of the face has bubbled up and nearly melted off. Despite being hard to look at, he is greeted warmly.
Holland Bar is rough around the edges, but it’s not so bad. The air circulation is decent, the people—if sometimes harboring unfortunate ideas about race—are friendly. And the help is non-judgmental.
Mr. McGoo’s Pub
5602 Broadway (between West 231st Street and West 232nd Street), the Bronx, 718-548-9810
Lots of wise guys hang out at Mr. McGoo’s—meaning, they’re funny guys. That said, almost all of them are overweight, have mustaches, or talk like Joe Pesci. A night there might go something like this:
Fat Guy No. 1: You like my sauce?
Bald Guy: I told you I like your sauce.
Fat Guy No. 1: No, you said you had a toothache that night.
Fat Guy No. 2: [Talking on cell phone] I love you, and I don’t even know your name. What’s your name?
Bartender: [To Ben and his friend, Rose] “500 Pounds of Fun.”
Fat Guy No. 2: Delilah? [Pauses] I’m not big on names. [Pauses] I’m telling you, don’t let him use your hairspray. [Hangs up phone, addresses bald guy] You guys gotta come skiing with us. Hunter Mountain. Last year, I was drunk 71 out of 72 hours and the other hour I was passed out, so I may have been drunk then, too, I just don’t remember. They treat me like a king up there. And the food! We get up, wave hello at the slopes, and then go get drunk. Although I went tubing last time.
Bald Guy: How many times?
Fat Guy No. 2: Four times.
Bald Guy: Four times?
Fat Guy No. 2: They didn’t tell me that the fatter you are, the faster you go. It was terrifying. Me and this other guy tied our tubes together and went down the hill at 850 miles an hour.
Bald Guy: [To Ben and Rose] That’s 850 miles an hour, remember—not 856.
Bartender: [To Ben and Rose] You guys should come.
Fat Guy No. 1: Anybody who spends time in my summer house ain’t comin’ back.
Ben and Rose: See you guys later.
39 Fifth Avenue (between Bergen Street and Dean Street), Brooklyn, 718-783-9721
If your task was to create the first bartender, how would you design him? (Keep in mind that the first female bartender would be created later, from his rib.)
Surely his appearance would be vaguely rockabilly, to indicate his class, admiration for the old ways of doing things, and lurking wildness. He would have slicked-back hair and wear workman jeans with a giant set of keys dangling from the belt loop. His pristine-white cowboy snap shirt would have the sleeves rolled up, to display his bicep tattoos.
He would make vodka Collinses and whiskey sours in pint glasses, squeezing fresh lemons over a strainer and using real sugar. He would work at O’Connor’s Bar, and when you arrived, he would salute you with his hand.
Opened in 1933, O’Connor’s is an airy, roomy spot where you’ll be able to find a seat. The music isn’t too loud, and an American flag drapes the wall above naugahyde booths. Founder Patrick O’Connor died in 2006. He hated it when people called his joint a dive.
So we won’t do that. We’ll call it the garden of Eden of intoxication. And, speaking of which, this writer never caught the bartender’s name. Frankly, he was worried that if he asked, the bartender might think he had a little crush on him, or something. And that would have been preposterous.
4241 Broadway (at 180th Street), Manhattan, 212-923-8927
‘Whatever you do, don’t become a bartender,” Jim says, shortly after a hysterical patron goes on a tirade about her baby daddy, who abandoned her immediately after conception. Reynolds Cafe’s longtime barkeep repeats this maxim a couple more times and then pours himself a Smirnoff and water, no ice. There is Latin music and a rambunctious crowd, including two guys who go into the tiny bathroom together, lock the door, and emerge 10 minutes later.
Reynolds is probably best known for its iconic neon-pink sign on the 180th Street side, but if anything belongs on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s Jim himself. Short, rail-thin, almost toothless, and possessing sailor-style tattoos and a near-photographic memory for faces, he’s been here since long before the neighborhood transitioned from white to brown. (How long exactly? “Mucho, mucho,” he says.) The owner has been absent for decades, but he still calls in almost every day to ask Jim if there are any customers in the place. “How many?” he inquires. “Count them!”
Jim is stressed out, but he’s a great guide. He explains that the animal head near the back of the bar once belonged to a bobcat, and that the mounted critter near the front is a weasel-like species hailing from South America. He then returns to bemoaning his fate, wondering aloud how he allowed himself to be lured back here out of retirement. He wanders outside for a smoke break every five minutes, each time muttering before he leaves, “Whatever you do, don’t become a bartender.”
355 West 41st Street (between Eighth Avenueand Ninth Avenue), Manhattan, 212-947-1188
The brunette bartender, about the size and shape of Mila Kunis, says she is often asked, “Why are you wearing a bikini?” Because Port 41 is a bikini bar, she replies. She also keeps a heater running behind the bar—even in the summer—because it gets chilly there.
You may not know much about bikini bars, but they’re all over the city, filling the gaps in a metro area lacking its share of strip clubs. Port 41 is more “sketchy dive bar” than “spectacle of flesh,” however, and, unlike strip clubs, its drinks are affordable.
The clientele includes the cordial, like a Bensonhurst guy in a Hawaiian shirt who calls himself “Mr. Dive Bar” and was 86’d from Grassroots Tavern after being caught smoking pot in a closet (he thought it was a bathroom). It also includes the unfriendly, like an old guy with a cane sitting in the back room. He watches basketball by himself, a few feet away from an out-of-place wooden desk. Earlier in the night, this writer had seen a young dude drop something into one of the desk drawers, and now—curious journalist that he is—he walks over and opens the drawer.
“What are you doing?” the old guy demands.
“Nothing. A guy put something here, and I wanted to see what it was.”
“Don’t worry about that!”
Later, a muscular guy comes in carrying a large plastic bag, stuffed to the gills with items that are hard to make out. He meets up with the old guy in the back room, and leaves empty-handed.
Meanwhile, the bartender assures a pair of patrons that “The top stays on.”
Tip-Top Bar & Grill
432 Franklin Avenue (between Madison Street and Putnam Street), Brooklyn, 718-857-9744
Tip-Top Bar & Grill is not easy on the eyes. The doors and windows are covered with iron bars, the interior is drenched in Christmas lights, and there’s tinsel. Lots of tinsel. The crew, however, is first-rate. They include:
Corrine, who is in charge of dispensing the food, which is free. Wearing a newsboy cap and glasses that are missing a stem, she serves up wieners, chili, Swedish meatballs, cucumber slices, and fish cakes on Styrofoam plates. It is borderline indigestible, but bless her for going to the trouble.
Junior, the owner, who looks about 70. He can be found smoking out front, or sitting near the door and carding those who look young, which is pretty much nobody. It’s a fair assumption that he was excited about Obama’s election, as nearly every inch of Tip-Top’s wall space is filled with Barack and Michelle pictures—with the queen, with Oprah—and Obama dollar bills.
Linda, the bartender and Junior’s daughter. She has long braids and pours a generous drink, as long as you don’t order something from a bottle hanging upside down that is regulated by those exact-shot spouts. Ask to see her personalized, bedazzled “Tip-Top” ball cap, which rests on a shelf behind the bar.
Enormous customer, draped in a giant piece of white fabric with a winning smile. One assumes she makes the mistake of eating too much of Corrine’s food, considering her tendency to clutch her side and wreak havoc upon the bathroom.
39-50 61st Street (near Roosevelt Avenue), Queens, Phone: Disconnected
The name Station Cafe conjures up a cosmopolitan image, but this Woodside pub is less “Grand Central Station” than “Greyhound bathroom.” That’s harsh; in fact, there’s something glorious about the deterioration here. A room off to the side is dedicated to little more than stacks of empties waiting to be recycled—or decompose, or whatever. Décor includes an ancient “No Dancing” poster, featuring a pair of tired boxers clutching each other.
The shelves are dusty because the selection is meager. Station Cafe doesn’t need much, because the staff knows what everyone who enters is going to want. Grizzled and Irish, mostly, they’re all regulars, and no one is throwing back any aged single malts. Typical answer when the barkeep asks how they’re doing? “Good enough.”
It’s been said that all of New York’s real dive bars are in Queens, and Station Cafe brings truth to that statement. As you approach, you’ll think it’s closed, but—have no fear—it’s open, despite the fact that the door has no handle. On second thought, have a little fear: The Station Cafe, it’s clear, caters more to fighters than to dancers.
Ben Westhoff will read from his book, ‘New York City’s Best Dive Bars,’ at 8 p.m. October 6, at Port 41, 355 West 41st Street. For more information, visit benwesthoff.com.