Harry L. Chaikin
Philadelphia has plenty of swank spots to go for crafted cocktails and boutique wines, but we’re also awash in the guilty pleasure known as the dive bar. They’re usually dimly lit, staffed with surly bartenders, and a little scary, but they don’t have to be risky business, at least not with these tips from intrepid drinker Brian McManus, whose guidebook, Philadelphia’s Best Dive Bars (Gamble, $12.95), comes out this month. Use them next time Rouge doesn’t feel right.
Walk in like you own the place. Upon entering, proceed directly to the bar and sit down, money in hand. Don’t look around. “Newcomers are immediately suspect,” says McManus, adding that dives usually have a hard-core rotation of 15 to 20 regulars who can easily sniff out new meat. “Act like you’ve done this before, that this is not your first rodeo.”
Do not order a martini. “These bars don’t hire mixologists,” explains McManus. “They don’t even have the proper glassware. It’s like going to a vegetarian restaurant and ordering a steak.” Stick with beer or straight liquor. Even if you’re feeling adventurous, don’t stray beyond a single mixer (e.g., a rum and Coke).
Mr. Happy is not behind the bar. Most Philly dive bartenders emit attitude like radiation from a dirty bomb. Even with their friends. It’s just a perk of the job. “Don’t take it personally,” McManus suggests. “If you’re strictly being a dive-bar tourist, it can be a thrill. But I’m not a fan of places where I get consistently bad service.”
Save your quarters. You’re not going to make friends fast by playing 50 Cent in a Billy Joel bar. Many dives still have the “old-fashioned” CD jukes with a limited selection, and with those, you can’t go wrong. But some have converted to the fancy Internet machines, where you can access anything. In those cases, resist.
Beware the bathrooms. Graffiti. No soap. No toilet paper. And that’s in the nice ones. “Some of them can be pretty jarring,” says McManus. His advice? Hold it. “I’ve gotten pretty good at not breaking the seal at places like that.”