Dive bars


The night Elvis introduced himself, he'd just ordered another free hot dog criss-crossed with ketchup and mustard, served near instantly over the bar on a limp paper plate. 
"Did you put this on the jukebox?" quizzed the crumpled-up stranger, crowding into me on the next stool. 

"....yes?" I had, but I'd hesitated because Rudy's didn't seem like a bar that'd embrace a little Burning Love.

"Cool. I love Elvis. My name's Elvis, too. My mom was watching his movie when I was born, made her cry."

"The birth, or the film," I asked.

Elvis the parking attendant chewed up his hot dog and decided it was the former that'd made mom weep (Presley wasn't a great actor, after all) before taking off onto 9th Avenue. The King had left the building, and another of Rudy's equally colourful regulars took his place and eyeballed me.

If you're a stickler for uber-slick lounges selling trendy bottled lager and chilled Pinot Grigio, you're best staying clear of Manhattan's dive bars. If you're keen to sample real life amongst the fizzy lights of New York, this is as real as it gets; in a city where people live on every corner rather than faraway suburbs, these are the bars they choose for chugging down beers and chewing the fat. They're a godawful mess of black ceilings, untreated brickwork and bulging red neon, but they charm you with the cheapest drinks in town, some provide free snacks and most have jukeboxes that'll take you on a magic carpet ride.

Rudy's (9th Ave, between 44th St and 45th St) provides a fun introduction to the genre and is my favourite bar, bar none. It's not a place you'd cross the threshold of in daylight, or while sober. A man-sized statue of Porky Pig eyes you up outside, while inside the year-round Christmas lights and sodium bulbs cast shadows over the clientele; ancient rockers crowded in the tight booths, clocked-out office kids giggling over vanilla stolis and off-duty taxi drivers putting the world right at the far end of the bar.

Uniting them all, pitchers of Budweiser for $9 and pints of real ale for just $3, and of course the free hot dogs, too. There's always a buzzing evening crowd, and every trip of mine to NYC begins at Rudy's with a beer and a shot, and a catch-up with Gary the Glaswegian barman. There's also a beer garden out-back, something of a rarity given the scarcity of space in NYC. 

It was one night in Rudy's that I met Abi and Carole - two of NYPD's finest - who'd dropped by on their evening off for a bourbon and sprite. They suggested Niagra in the East Village (corner of 7th St and Ave A). Niagra is what happens when rich kids want to build an authentic dive bar from scratch. It's a little too shiny, full of East Village hipsters who love the concept of dive bar drinking, as long as it serves Merlot. That said, this long thin slip of bar looking across Tompkins Square Park was perfect to begin a trawl of East Side drinking dens. An added attraction (if you're a fan of The Clash, at least) is a mural of Joe Strummer on the outside wall, which features in the video to Strummer's cover of Redemption Song.

The Three Of Cups (1st Ave, between 5th St and 6th St) and The Library (Ave A, between 1st St and 2nd St) can either be considered as enlightening, or downright nasty. The cellar of The Three Of Cups hasn't seen an interior decorator for 20 years and you'd swear the regular in the boiler suit has killed before. They might be an acquired taste, but both promise a random and colourful end to a night out.

Carole also suggested I take in 1 Fifty 1 (151 Rivington between Suffolk and Clayton) in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Only a dirty bass line grumbling through your feet and the giant in black at the bottom of the cellar stairs suggests any sign of life to the signless venue. Inside, spotlights guide you to the bar and your nose leads you to the bathroom. The DJ behind the decks breaks two key rules of the dive bar - no jukebox and a questionable taste in music - otherwise 1 Fifty 1 stacks up well. Very much a bar for local people, I was warned to keep 1 Fifty 1 to myself.

"This bar is perfect as it is," suggested James the PR man from the East Village, "if too many out-of-towners and tourists find out, we'll all lose something special." 

I'd swore never to tell another soul and went on my way.

Manhattan's fashionable SoHo is a less likely destination for a dive, but Miladys (corner of Prince and Thompson) was the recommendation of Doctor Shannon, a local practitioner of wellness I met in The Three Of Cups.

"Last night, Natalie Portman was in there," the loose-lipped doctor imparted, "but on any evening you'll find local alcoholics in one corner and Prada models in the other."

The two rooms are reasonably well-lit by dive bar standards (I could read the drinks board without the aid of carrots) and Alex - whom the good doctor had promised would "look after me" - was not on shift. The A-listers had also made other plans on the night I visited, but the crowd - college kids and well-off locals - were in high spirits. A pint of Budweiser for $4 in a SoHo bar meant I was, too.

Rough-and-tumble dive bars in NYC always over-deliver. They won't compete with the multi-million dollar boutique venues or attract the rich and rarely-famous, but you'll find a very honest snapshot of New York living - they're a lot sweeter on the pocket and you might just stumble across Elvis.




"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.