The debate about what constitutes a dive will never be settled, not even in a bar brawl. We realized this the minute we endeavored to write a definitive book about the subject in 2010, Los Angeles' Best Dive Bars- Drinking and Diving In the City of Angeles (Ig Publishing). After it came out, we really knew it, too. Divey is, it seems in the eye -- and liver -- of the beholder. There are things we can all agree upon, however: a realness, a sense of history, cheap drinks. Unfortunately, these qualities are becoming rarer and rarer, and bars of this ilk continue to close down, including some of our favorites. Since our book came out, the following have shuttered: The Spotlight, Coach & Horses, The Joker, Le Barcito, Dinner House M and The Cat Club.
In a city known for velvet-roped hot spots, signature cocktails, bottle service and opulent decor, here are our 10 Best Dive Bars still fighting the good fight, serving up raw, unfettered atmosphere and inexpensive but excessively strong drinks. May they pour and roar for many years to come.
Don't expect a dirty dive experience at this old Valley haunt. The bar, around since 1962, is surprisingly tidy and homey. Tucked inside a nondescript minimall and just off the path from trendy Ventura Boulevard, this little bar is very much an escape from the retail raging that goes down nearby. Cartoony drawings of grimy-faced little English fellows (apparently kiddies worked as chimney sweeps in the old days?) adorn the place and the sign outside, but the central focal point is the '60s ski lodge-style fireplace surrounded by a cobblestoned table across from the bar. It gets very warm in this area, so prepare to strip off some layers. The stiff, nice-priced drinks will warm you up too, though the bartenders can be on the cool side; they're mostly no nonsense old-timers who may or may not be chatty if you take a bar stool. The 'Sweep may not be big, but it does have some good crevices (there is an adjacent game room with pool, video games and darts) perfect for flirty, drink-fueled date nights. Still, the weekends here get cramped and like most bars, somewhat pick-up-centric. You may find yourself sweeping away suitors around midnight. 4354 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks; (818) 783-3348.
The ever-changing complexion of Cahuenga Boulevard aka "corridor" continues to evolve, mostly in the trendy, swanky direction. Sadly, one of our favorite dives, gay landmark The Spotlight, shuttered recently. Which leaves Burgundy as the only remaining beacon on the street for down-and-dirty, booze-fueled debauchery. Uber-dark inside (requisite Christmas lights and colored bar candles set the ambiance) and frequented by a punky, mostly black-garbed crowd, it's charmingly cave-like. Blasting rawk music, bodacious barmaids, bawdy behavior, DJs and dancing -- and head-banging -- collide here nightly. The Burg attracts a heavy smoking crowd, who tend to congregate right at the door, also where beloved doorman and bar mascot Torrance Jackson keeps post, ensuring that even when things get raucous and rowdy inside, the vibe remains good-natured and horded by happy hooligans only. 1621 1/2 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 465-7530.
8. The Roost:
One of the most relaxed bars in the area and pretty much the whole city, this red-hued, woody barn-like bar is always a hospitable hang. You can come in your most casual (even sweats and flip-flops are OK!) but we wouldn't, unless you're being ironic. Yes, The Roost is sort of an off-kilter hipster fave thanks to its locale and its farmy charm. The cash-only dive offers its own private parking lot, free popcorn (there's an old-fashioned machine from which you serve yourself with tiny brown-paper bags) and ample seating. The TV set is almost always on and if the game of the moment isn't showing, it's a bad sitcom. There's tons of seating, most of which is surrounded by dozens and dozens of empty liquor bottles, just like your old bachelor pad. 3100 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Feliz; (323) 664-7272.
Don't get out to Whittier much? Well, Embers is worth the drive to get your drink on. From the raspy-voiced bartenders to the well-worn booths to the crickety pool tables to the X-rated souvenir dispensers in the bathroom, it's the ultimate dive, the kind of place filled with characters out of some Quentin Tarantino flick. But the main reason to check out this wondrous, fire-inspired tavern is the art. California artist Frank Bowers has work swathed throughout the place, fittingly, depicting topless Hollywood starlets as devil girls in hell. Bowers died in '64, soon after he created the eerie murals and framed works, supposedly to pay off his tabs. Alcoholic art at its finest, and we can't think of a better backdrop for downing $5 stiff ones. 11332 Washington Blvd., Whittier; (562) 699-4138.
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6. Big Fish:
Cheers references get thrown around a lot at this Glendale grotto, and it's a fair comparison. Walk in and you will overhear lots of people calling each other by name. There's even a laminated calendar that includes regulars' birthdays and limericks written by the owner. Nautical knick-knacks and dusty nooks give the place a den-like feel. If not for the tiny stage (karaoke, comedy and occasional bands are offered) it would be like grandpa's house. A mini-library packed with dog-eared paperbacks and a pool table in the middle of the room get a lot of use, but like at Gramps' place, the TV proves most popular. With many distractions and amiable patrons to chat with, the family-owned Fish is hook, line and sinker worth diving into. 5230 San Fernando Road, Glendale; (818) 244-6442.
Tattle Tale and The Scarlet Lady, both in the same mini-mall, are like frenemies (they get along, but they are somewhat competitive too), so picking one over the other for this list is difficult. Both are dives in all the right ways: unpretentious 'tenders and regulars who prefer to drink during daylight hours, very cheap hard stuff, chill atmosphere and a subtle air of danger that makes things interesting later in the evening. If you happen to be near this rather austere area in Culver City, you might as well visit both. But we're gonna give the spot for favorite to the 45-year-old Tattle Tale (also known as "Roger's Exciting Tattle Tale Room" for two reasons: 1. the trippy, blue and red retro geometric exterior; and 2. TT's popular karaoke nights, which attract a mix of hot messes and musically inclined, each more entertaining, as more bargain booze gets consumed. 5401 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 390-2489.
One of the best spots in town for post-hangover, hair-of-the-dog Bloody Mary breakfasts and for that other ubiquitous messy bar staple: hot wings. The spicy, slurpy tender li'l suckers here are legendary at this point, but they aren't the only reason to visit this Hillhurst hub. The jukebox is chock with great prog and classic rock kings (Led Zeppelin, Journey, Foreigner), the waitresses are sweet and sassy, and the overall feel here is gregarious, fun and loud, especially when a big game is on. Rustic hasn't changed much since it opened in 1971, and other than the cool antler chandeliers, it's pretty plain, with lots of liquor-sponsored neon. But the crowd makes it an interesting place to guzzle most nights, with a slosh of celebs (Kiefer Sutherland is its most famous fan ... when he's off the wagon!), young, shaggy types from nearby Silver Lake and cheap beer-bombed sports buffs. 1831 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz; (323) 662-5757
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Thanks to its Koreatown location, the people-mix at Frank N Hank is like a Long Island Iced Tea: a little bit of everything. Older African-American gents, trendy Asian locals and a funky rocker crowd that files in after the nearby Wiltern Theatre lets out. Aside from the stylized '60s sign out front, Frank N Hank isn't much to look at: faux-wood walls, electronic dartboard, rear area pool table, a sparse but descent jukebox. The proprietress, known as "Snow," along with her family member helpers, create an environment that's undeniably welcoming. In fact, we'd say it's earned the bar one of the most loyal followings in LA: sometimes it's hard to tell who works here and who is just hanging out. Snow bought the place 17 years ago, from the original owners, Frank and Hank, and she left it alone décor-wise. The sole piece of art in the place is a beguiling nude near the entrance, but the lady who keeps everyone's attention is behind the bar, thanks to both her personality and her incredibly potent $4-$6 drinks. 518 S. Western Ave., Koreatown; (213) 383-2087.
2. King Eddy:
On the ground floor of the King Edward Hotel, Eddy is a must-swill for history buffs, and those looking for dive ambiance in its purest form. The Skid Row-adjacent drinking den is the oldest bar in downtown (well over 120 years), known for its colorful past as much as the current stable of characters who wander in daily. Literary figures and crime bosses alike were regulars. These days you'll find toothless trash-talkers, red-faced beer-lovers in baseball caps, curiously dressed cougars looking for conversation (and more), Westsiders roughing it for the night and artsy locals soaking in the vibe for inspiration -- and soaking up the cheap buzz ($3 vodka cranberry!). You never know what you might find inside this bizarre and wonderful, frequently wacky, watering hole, but we can almost guarantee you'll leave with a story as well as a hangover. 131 W. Fifth St., dwntwn.; (213) 629-2023.
Turn the page for our #1 pick...
1. Frolic Room:
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From its famous neon out front to its glamorous Hollywood past, the Frolic Room has a certain mystique about it that makes it a must-dive for locals and tourists alike. The old-school vibe inside is palpable: The bartenders and door guy don sharp all-black or black-and-white attire and the classic art of Al Hirschfield (known for his caricatures in The New Yorker) decorates an entire wall. Then there are the ghosts of the past that haunt the place: Elisabeth Short (the Black Dahlia) and Charles Bukowski both imbibed here back in the day. Proximity to the Pantages theater sees culture vultures descend often; you'll hear regulars and staff alike sharing its history. A row of stools runs down its center and the wall behind them features a jukebox and not much else. The shabby-but-not-too-shabby room is long and narrow, which makes it easy, almost mandatory, to guzzle and gab with your fellow barflies. Make Frolic your top pit stop before hitting the Hollywood clubs that surround it, both for the killer cocktails (going for about half the price) and retro realness, which you won't find anywhere else on the boulevard. 6245 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; (323) 462-5890.
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