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Words In Review: Why everything is a 'dive bar'

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Seattle sure has a lot of clean, pleasant, well-appointed “dive bars.” Bill Radke asks why this term has taken over our watering holes.

Last week, Seattle chef Ethan Stowell’s restaurant group bought The Attic Alehouse in Madison Park.

The Attic is a friendly neighborhood sports bar. You can get a French Dip sandwich or a Cobb salad, a prosecco or a pink Whitney Cosmo. It’s nice! But would you call it a dive bar? The Seattle Times did: “Chef Ethan Stowell buys a historic Seattle dive bar”

Tom Flynn says this is typical of what's happened to the term "dive bar": People are applying to to any neighborhood bar or tavern.

Tom Flynn started working in bars when he was 10 — his dad owned one — and he tended bar for 15 years. So I asked him: What is a dive bar?

Tom Flynn: Well, I think a dive bar is kind of implied in the name, that it's below society. A dive and its customers are both kind of desperate. It's not a place where the well-heeled gathered to watch sports for example or sing karaoke.

Bill Radke: Weekly trivia night.

Flynn: Exactly.

Radke: Which they have at the Attic Ale House & Eatery in Madison Park.

Flynn: Right. They serve pretty good food there, or did, and plan to … dives generally don't serve food. If they do serve food, it might be a pizza from a toaster oven or old chips and peanuts, that kind of thing, but certainly not a menu in a nice kitchen in back. There certainly isn't craft beer on tap. Generally, you're gonna get a cheap bottle of beer, a cheap draft, no fancy cocktails, the kinds of cocktails that are a booze and a mixer: bourbon and Seven, scotch and ginger, that kind of thing.

Radke: And I think of there being one bourbon.

Radke: I think of a dive bar as doing the absolute minimum to keep its liquor license and keep the doors open. They're not fixing the broken hand dryer in the men's room.

Flynn: Exactly. There might be a daily or every couple-of-day appearance of cops looking for people with outstanding warrants or responding to some sort of violence that's happened in the bar.

Radke: So what happened to the term “dive bar”?

Flynn: Well, I have a couple of theories. I think in the '80s, people of my generation aspired to find these authentic dive bars, and I think a big part of that was the popularity of the author Charles Bukowski and the movie that was filmed about him, “Barfly,” starring Mickey Rourke. There kind of became this fascination with dives. And then more recently, the television show “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” by Guy Fieri, I think also kind of gave everybody the OK to call anything they wanted to a dive if it was just a neighborhood joint.

Radke: And Guy Fieri seems so thrilled to be there! What is so attractive to so many of us that we want to call something a dive bar and we want to think of ourselves as the kind of person who hangs in a “dive bar”?

Flynn: Well, I think it's that desire for authenticity, for kind of tasting the other side or “slumming it” — that's what we used to call it in the '80s and '90s: “We're gonna go slumming to the local dives.”

Radke: I would feel a little guilty about throwing around “dive bar” because I feel like I’m trying to steal some kind of street credibility, that I'm having a craft brew on top of a label that applies to someone who's living an actual life.

Flynn: Were on the same page there. I think there is an air of desperation in dive bars, but I think it's also important to treat the people who work and go there with dignity, you know? Bars serve an important purpose for a lot of people in this country who maybe don't have family, don't have a stable home and they find community in bars; and dive bars are certainly that way. You know when you're in a dive bar, and a big part of it is the community that you find there — people know one another in dive bars. These are the kinds of customers that, as a bartender, we used to call professionals; that are there when the bar opens and have a set schedule every day and feel like they have a say in running the place. And it's kind of a “board of directors” feeling when you're in a dive bar in the middle of the afternoon.

Radke: Words change, Tom. Why does it matter to you personally whether we call a lot of things a dive bar, including The Attic Ale House And Eatery in Madison Park?

Flynn: I've worked in bars off and on since I was 10 years old, my dad owned a bar. As I was learning the trade, I learned about bars. And I think that words matter because they allow us to show nuance, to show individuality, to discern differences. You know, that's absolutely the case with dive bars and taverns or clubs or saloons. It's not fair to people who have put a lot of work into running a neighborhood tavern, for example, to refer to their hard work as a “dive” because I think the term “dive” does signify something completely different than a neighborhood tavern.

Radke: I feel like Ethan Stowell is happy to have people call his place a dive bar.

Flynn: Right, I agree. I think this is a battle that I'm losing, you know?

Former bartender Tom Flynn now write and teaches in Minneapolis. We are losing the “dive bar” battle but we don’t have to surrender! Let’s you and I raise a toast to language. Let’s choose words that are descriptive and filled with appreciation for what our favorite bar is actually like. And if other people still call it a dive bar … you know what? Here’s the good thing about that. At least there’s some desire for authenticity (kind of). Some part of us wants to be unpretentious. We want to be in community, with our fellow flawed human beings — that’s the ideal. Come together and keep it real with mahogany and brass, and bubble gum vodka and ironic bingo. But at least we like to be together!

And if you think Tom and I are wrong about dive bars, let me know! Is there a different word you think is an invasive species? Or do you have a phrase you love and you hope doesn’t fade away? Let me know what words matter to you. Email me at

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