What constitutes a “dive bar”?
Everyone has an opinion, often strongly held and loudly argued.
But the truth is, no formulas exist for determining a bar's divy-ness. You have to consider factors beyond dodgy neighborhood, intimidating regulars and decaying decor. “Dive” doesn't necessarily mean “dump.” A dive bar doesn't have to have cheap drinks, but it usually does. It doesn't have to be old, but it usually is. Hipster patronage doesn't automatically discount a bar's dive status either, especially in L.A., where pooh-poohing upscale, pretentious rooms is hip.
While researching my new book, Los Angeles's Best Dive Bars: Drinking & Diving in the City of Angels, I sauntered into — and stumbled out of — more than 100 of these most intriguing drinking establishments last year. My conclusion: What makes a dive a dive is an alchemic blend of elements that conjure the almost mystical meld of menace and merriment. These bars are a dying breed, but in spite of this (or maybe because of it) the dive cachet is more appealing than ever to many people.
I hereby present 10 such joints from my book. Each meets most of the criteria on my list (stuff like, “Upon arrival, you suddenly want some charcoal and a pad, 'cause it's real sketchy!” and, “The Crack Factor: as seen in ceilings, or the view of big behinds seated atop bar stools, or the lines on powdered noses and aluminum-foil pipes, or the sound heard during a drunken brawl”).
Los Angeles's Best Dive Bars will be published in May.
Lost & Found
Drowning away the day, quietly glued to the tube with a handful of the hard stuff … that's what the cocktail-loving codgers do at this smoky Mar Vista mini-mall spot. However, after 5 p.m. or so, a noisier — if still leisurely — atmosphere takes over. You see, when men of a certain age hang out for hours at a bar, they tend to get quite loquacious, and if you're a young lady (and by young I mean under 50), you will be treated to classic, amplified-for-your-benefit sound bites from the drunken gent set. “I carry a picture of my wife with me when I come to this bar,” one graying chap proclaims loudly. “When she starts looking good, I know it's time to go home.”
These joke-filled, jolly one-liners are entertaining, yes, but there's a somber side to the lovelorn laughs, as men who spend all day in a bar generally do have problems — or no one — at home. Which is why they keep coming back. Of course, insanely cheap drinks might have something to do with it, too: $3.50 for vodka cranberries, Greyhounds and Manhattans (Absolut in 'em will run ya $4). 11700 National Blvd., Mar Vista. (310) 397-7772.
Pogo's crowd is rough and full of revelry. Hoods (as in Eminem look-alikes in head-shrouding hoodies) almost come to blows over a dart game, only to knuckle-bump minutes later in one corner, while sloshed shrieks of victory from a group of loud and loose Latin ladies in velour tracksuits ring out near the pool table. All the while, cock-rock (think “Cat Scratch Fever”) blasts from the juke. The busty barmaid — sporting a spat of tats — does her best to make sure all are satiated with very strong, very cheap drinks (five-smacker range), but it seems she can't ever do it fast enough. The criminal-looking clusters of customers might be more about the nearby tattoo shop than the actual rap-sheet quota of the patrons here, but either way, there's an air of danger and, dare I say it, excitement that seems to energize the room around midnight. As for the look of the place, it's your standard faux wood, red tables and chairs, neon-lit spot (the Tim McGraw light is priceless) with a very My Name Is Earl–ish ambience (i.e., lots of bandannas, trucker caps and cowboy hats). 17314 Saticoy St., Van Nuys. (818) 705-9396.
Where Else Inc
This wood-paneled hut, hot with the Harley riding set, has one pool table, a dartboard, and a juke pumping out Stones, Seger and “Alcoholica” (as the dudes will hoot when “Enter Sandman” comes on). It's nothing to look at, but it feels surprisingly cozy. However, it can get loud, as the crowd is the type that chants along with the music (“Exit light, enter night, take my hand, off to never-never land” … yeah!). Lazies and crazies too lubed from the cheap liquor to jet out back for a smoke sometimes bust out the Camels and Kools on their stools inside the bar, sans reprimand. The management does draw the line at weed and other mood-enhancers though. These are done strictly — where else? — outside. 8234 Foothill Blvd., La Crescenta. (818) 352-0550.
If the 2 Live Crew anthem “Me So Horny” pops into your head at this fetid little freak house, it's not necessarily because you are. In fact, Gold Diggers is more a kinky-dinky bikini bar than a true turn-on or temptation, as the Asian ladies on display are the sort who say “Me love you long time” without much enthusiasm. The featured femmes onstage could not seem less interested in their dancing duties, and surprisingly, the feeling from the regulars appears mutual, as most seem to ignore the stage goings-on, making the experience of drinking here all the more bizarre. Dig the decently priced and indecently poured libations, black paint with gold specks everywhere, beat-up brass bars around the tiny stage, chipped floors, mostly Latino crowd (if you're not Asian or Latin, be prepared for puzzled stares when you walk in) and dance hits sped up so fast on the (broken?) stereo that they're almost unrecognizable. I think I actually prefer Black Eyed Peas' “Where Is the Love” as sung by the Chipmunks. As adult entertainment, the place is lacking, but as curious dive camp, it's pure gold. 5632 Santa Monica Blvd., E. Hlywd. No phone.
With a name like the Joker, one might expect a wild atmosphere, but this old Santa Monica sipper, while chock-full of accoutrements and amusements (old video games, a futurist jukebox, pool tables, wall-to-wall wood paneling, year-round Christmas lights, pics of clowns and, of course, Batman's nemesis), still has a fairly unremarkable, blah feel. Which may be why so many people tend to reference famous bar scenes from movies when trying to describe it. It's been likened to one of the blood-bathed dives in Carlito's Way, and the pal who first took me there says she and her girlfriends call it “the bar from The Accused.” Yikes. If you start feeling literary, there's a little bookshelf full of tattered paperbacks for your perusal, right next to a microwave for warming up any leftovers you may happen to be carrying around. I suggest bringing in the greasiest grub you can, 'cause with drinks this cheap (wells averaging $4 to $5), going overboard is easy. Soaking up the sauce before even attempting to survive the scrutiny of Santa Monica's overzealous police patrollers is a must. 2827 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 264-9856.
Tattle Tale Room
Local yokels, inebriated expats and overflow from the Scarlet Lady next door make for a sloshed 'n' sundry mix at Tattle Tale, which touts itself as the “#1 Dive Bar” in town on its business cards and rubber-foam beer-can cozies, featuring the bar's sexy mascot, a pinup-style gal dressed in a kitty-cat costume. According to the cozy, “Roger's Exciting Tattle Tale Room” (the bar's full name) is 45 years old; however, the place doesn't exactly live up to its titillating moniker or mascot these days. Small, dank and definitely a dude bar, Tattle Tale is real and friendly, no matter how ravaged some of the regulars may appear. It does get rowdy during the nightly scaryoke sessions, which take on a comic croon-athon feel when the regulars get in on the action. Muffin-top jeaned mamas tackling Madonna, wobbly rednecks channeling Tom Jones, and the occasional serious, kick-ass crooner (notably the female bartenders) make for an American Idol–on-acid spectacle. Love the cool old Tattle Tale sign too. Are the red beams behind its lettering straight, or slanted? The answer often varies with how bombed you are when you leave. 5401 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 390-2489.
This “delightfully crummy place” (as printed on its business card) is surely looked upon by many as Cahuenga Boulevard's ugly sore thumb, a fungus-y, unsightly thing that just won't go away and which you can't really ignore, no matter how hard you try. (It stands on the street's liveliest corner, at Selma, after all.) Though Spotlight's ragged feel should make it appeal to the same rebellious, anti–velvet-ropers who frequent the Burgundy Room up the street, it doesn't, mostly because it's known as a gay dive. An austere reminder of Hollywood's less-greedy past, the Spotlight holds on today thanks to 80-year-old owner Don Samuels, a frail, pale, newsboy-capped chap, who can be found pretty much every night at his perch next to the bar's front door, clutching who-knows-what in a plastic market bag. More power to Samuels, who continually refuses to succumb to persistent fat-pocketed promoters and nightlife impresarios fiending for his prime locale. 1601 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 467-2425.
If you're averse to the pickup “artistry” that's enveloped a lot of the bar scene in L.A., the Roost is your kind of place … no cock-blocking cohorts necessary. It's one of the laxest bars in the city, a raggedy, barn red–hued spot made for nesting and nursing your poison. It's always hospitable, no matter what kind of shoes you're wearing (you'll see flip-flops here all the time), how much dough ya got (drinks are cheap, just bring cash) or who you know (you can come here solo and not feel like a dweeb if you're a dude, or like you're on display if you're a dame). Customers crow for the private parking lot, free popcorn (not stale bowls that have been sitting on the bar for days, but from an actual old-fashioned machine that you serve yourself from with tiny brown-paper bags) and ample seating surrounded by dozens and dozens of empty booze bottles. Also, they're pretty mellow about letting people bring food inside. If you do bring eats here, go Kentucky Fried. 3100 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Feliz. (323) 664-7272.
Slip into this ancient Glendale grotto, hidden inside a lackluster mini-mall, on any day of the week after 6 or so, and you will come upon a cast of characters who, however cliché it may be, recall the TV show Cheers, only not as lighthearted. Though they're fun to sip with, it won't escape you that these are the kinds of daily drinkers you might see on TV's Intervention, the ones who refuse help even though their teary families are begging them to stop the sauce. Named after the vintage firearm, opening in the '50s with a Western theme and cowboy touches like John Wayne pictures and gun replicas, the Winchester has gone through different owners over the years. It's become a hodgepodge of décor sensibilities (blue walls, red booths, mirrors), and current owner Jin Pak (many of the regulars call him Jim) obviously likes music: He added pictures of Madonna, Bob Marley and John Lennon to the offbeat mix, plus the ubiquitous digital jukebox, a phenom that has brought modern music options to otherwise grandpa-ish environs. An amusing place for a random laugh and a bargain buzz, but definitely one of the few bars in town where toothless old-timers will always outnumber any semblance of trendoid. 6522 San Fernando Rd., Glendale. (818) 241-5475.
Embers has all the dive essentials: warm, lumpy leatherette booths, pool tables with balls so old the paint is chipping off (they're made to be hit, so that's saying something), one of those X-rated souvenir dispensers in the bathroom (four quarters yields a tiny pamphlet featuring pictures of “Sexual Positions From Around the World”), and bartenders who possess sandpaper voices but tissue paper–gentle demeanors. They're friendly even to obvious outsiders/gawkers. What's to gawk? Art (and we're not talking about cocktail-napkin scribbles, either). California artist Frank Bowers was obviously inspired by the bar's scorching moniker, and his mystically moody oil works of topless Hollywood starlets as devils in Hades-like settings fill the place — there are two big pieces behind the bar, and individual pieces above each booth. Though he died in '64, soon after he created them — supposedly to pay off his tabs — Bowers' bar work lives on (it can also be found at Sierra Madre's Buccaneer and the Foc'sle Bar in Wilmington). But at Embers, the paintings do more than that: They inspire a new generation of hellhounds to drink themselves one step closer to eternal damnation. 11332 Washington Blvd., Whittier. (562) 699-4138.
More of the city's rawest, rockin' (and raucous) taverns, pubs and saloons, in these neighborhoods and beyond, in Lina Lecaro's Los Angeles's Best Dive Bars: Drinking & Diving in the City of Angels, a book sponsored by L.A. Weekly and due out in May from Ig Publishing, $12.95.