Dive Bars

A Conversation with Annene Kaye-Berry

 

The Hangar. Dear John. The Bullpen. The Office Branch. Rebo’s. SoCal dive bars, all, their names evoking an odd jumble of environments, excuses for drinking, and, in the case of Rebo’s, the word “sober” in reverse. There’s a perverse sort of mystery about them, something akin to entering a scruffy, down-at-heel antique shop, that appeals to some of us.

Having seen Jim Sclavunos talking about Tiki bars in a video for online music magazine The Quietus, I reached out to him to see if he was acquainted with any dive bar aficionados who’d be willing to talk to me about what makes the dive bar cool. He referred me to his friend Annene Kaye-Berry, saying that she knows a lot about dive bars and happens to be one of the smartest people he knows. A former journalist, copywriter, and author, Kaye-Berry is co-owner of Beach Bum Berry’s Latitude 29, a Tiki bar and restaurant in New Orleans. 

 

AKB: I grew up in Long Island. Long Island in the ’70s was a place where you could get into a bar with a birth certificate, and that birth certificate was usually purchased from the back of a magazine.

EAG: Oh my God, that’s amazing.

AKB: Also, driver’s licenses had no pictures. Nothing. It was a piece of paper with your height, and weight, and hair, and eye color. That was it. So my best friend and I actually shared one for years and their big trick was asking you what your zodiac sign was. That was the cool places. The places where, you know, some hair metal band or whatever passed for that at the time was playing.

What we used to refer to as old man bars, which was a dive bar, nobody ever asked you for anything at that point. But I wasn’t so interested in those when I was 14 because they were kind of scary. I started going to bars when I was 13 or 14 and they were all hippie kind of wine bars. They might have like four mixed drinks in their heads that they made. One of them was always a tequila sunrise.

It wasn’t until I moved to New York in 1977 when I was 17 that I actually started going to what I perceived as, at the time, old man bars, and the cool factor has remained level this whole time. A lot of coolness comes from mystery. And there was this real mystery about this dark place that grownups went to drink in during the day because in America—possibly with very few exceptions and they were very rarefied, like the three-martini lunch and stuff like that—people over 30 didn’t do that.

EAG: Right.

AKB: And a lot of us, you know, myself and my friends, most of whom were at legal drinking age at that point, we didn’t have set schedules. We had weird jobs and some of us were working in food and bev at that point. It was an adult space to start with. It was a very adult space, full of alcoholics, and beautiful, and just empty. They were never crowded. They were not where you went to necessarily attract attention. You kind of more wanted to be able to blend in to these spaces, however you’re going to do that. They were the first Irish bars and old man bars, especially the Irish bars in New York, which I think go into the category of being a dive in a lot of people’s minds. They were some of the first places to get video games.

EAG: Really?

AKB: Yeah, yeah.

EAG: That’s fascinating. How did that happen?

AKB: I think they were just trying to…I mean, the ’70s were dire in New York. There was no money anywhere and they were trying to do whatever they could get to people to come into their place. I remember going with Jim to an Irish bar on 23rd Street where we used to play Space Invaders or something like that because your alternative was to go to Times Square and go to the arcades and those were full of very challenging people. Like human traffickers and drug addicts. I mean, a lot of really good people, but also it was like you had to really prepare yourself for it and you might have to leave at any moment. And this was something that these places provided that was very comfortable, but it was also very cutting edge at the time. The idea of walking into a place and seeing something that was beyond the pinball machine was insane.

 

“You’ve been accepted by a bunch of men in their 50s who have nothing better to do than drink all day. And then those two women that show up all the time, whoever they are.”

I brought this up because it highlights a really special thing about dive bars, which is that you can plaster a patina over what the basic structure is. So you have this dark, cool place, as in temperature-wise, where people go to drink at all hours of the day and night. They’re usually open later than anywhere else, too. Where there’s a certain amount of mystery and unpredictability to what’s going to happen once you go in there, because it’s not necessarily your space. There’s always the question of whether the people that show up there every day are going to accept you, basically, by ignoring you or they’re going to challenge you. And I think that remains kind of a thing. I think there’s a test, walking through the door.

But on that level, with that commonality, you can layer all sorts of things on top of it, like this is what I call now a bar-bar, which is just a bar, but we’re going to make it an Irish bar. Or we’re going to go into a different direction and we’re going to make it a sports bar, which is intrusive. You don’t want to hang out in a sports bar unless you want a TV, like six TVs, surrounding you all the time.

EAG: Screaming at you, yeah.

AKB: Yeah. But an Irish bar doesn’t intrude on you. Again, there’s a level of friendliness there that you won’t necessarily find in regular dive bars. I always think that should be a separate delineation. But they’re both really cool places to be and if you go through the matrix and you’re accepted into these places where the bartender knows who you are, like a couple of the regulars know who you are and everything, it is a feeling of having arrived. But the thing is, where are you? I mean, it’s just this really funny thing when you start talking about the whole concept of cool. You’ve been accepted, but you’ve been accepted by a bunch of men in their 50s who have nothing better to do than drink all day. And then those two women that show up all the time, whoever they are. I don’t think that’s changed that much over the years.

EAG: Excellent. Okay. Yeah, there is that, that dynamic of, Wow, okay, I made it. Maybe I’m not quite a regular here, but they’ve definitely let me in. All right, but who’s let you in and what is this weird gambit that you walked in order to be accepted here? There’s a sense of satisfaction of having crossed some crucial, unspoken line.

AKB: But that’s a human condition and again, it brings back to this basic thing. This is just a basic part of human beings: they’re willing to risk things and walk through their own personal fire pit for all sorts of bizarre reasons that are incredibly meaningful to them. There’s a lot of stuff about drinking, the drinking culture that makes that super interesting. We’re like in the craft cocktail business, basically. And it’s the kind of the same. The things that people set up in their minds is [about] what they have to do to be endearing to a bartender when really, the bartender doesn’t want very much out of you. They want you to be friendly. They want you to talk to them when they’re bored. They want you to not talk to them when they’re busy. They want you to tip as necessary. You don’t have to be fucking Frank Sinatra. I mean, this goes all the way across the board. They want you to just have a good time in their place. You don’t have to impress them or do much of anything but be a decent customer. And yet you see all these articles that say, like, “Eight Things That Will Make Your Bartender Hate You.” There’s a hundred things that will make your bartender hate you, but they’re not on this list. The other thing I love about regular bars is that a lot of the artifice is gone, is removed, and those remain places where just good straight service is valued by everybody in the room. All those expectations are not there. You don’t have to dazzle the guy with your knowledge of Scotch whiskey because you’re there drinking and enjoying yourself with your friends, hopefully. And that is enough, and there’s not a lot of public spaces that you can say that about at this point.

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Photo: CNN

Anthony Bourdain

It’s a delicate thing, to attempt a telling of the story of someone you care about. When it’s someone you’ve never met, things get weird. And they get weirder still when that person is not only recently deceased but also fiercely championed, on a deeply personal level, by millions of other people who, like you, never once met him.

At any stratosphere, death brings with it the kind of competitive clamoring that humans can’t seem to go without. Who knew him best? Who were his real friends? Who talked to him at the airport once? The television shows, books, articles, video clips, and comments from the media provide ample fodder for speculation, misrepresentation, and performative public outcries. Everyone wants to be a part of the mass consciousness, even (especially) when it borders on the ghoulish.

So, you focus. You focus on the story. How does the story of Anthony Bourdain go? We could say, for instance:

Once upon a time, a gangly kid named Tony who loved the Ramones and the New York Dolls moved to New York City for the heroin and ended up an author and host of various TV shows, and having noodles for lunch in Hanoi with a sitting American president.

Or:

There was once a kid who sailed to France on the Queen Mary and hated it until he found out about oysters and other things he could eat that made him look like a badass. He loved comic books and The Simpsons. As a rule he didn’t like sci-fi, but he loved William Gibson‘s work. He went on to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America. He became a chef, then a writer, then world famous, making friends with an incredible cross-section of people, including some of his heroes, like Joey Ramone and Iggy Pop.

Or maybe:

For a time, there was on Earth a TV host and writer and chef whose cookbooks employed phrases like “Fuck dessert,” and who said things in interviews like, “Ask yourself, before you start dabbling in what somebody, somewhere is calling molecular gastronomy: ‘Am I a genius? Am I Ferran Adrià? Am I anywhere near as talented and as visionary and as firmly rooted in a place with as much food culture as Catalonia? Or am I just kind of jerking off, here?’” But millions of people all over the world loved him because he inspired them to be themselves, to be better versions of themselves, to follow their dreams, to be unafraid.

Or even:

Tony loved and respected people as much as he loathed and reviled them, and he made no bones about either. Deemed cocksure by detractors, he was often visibly nervous on his shows: rubbing his thumb across his other fingers, or shutting down a bout of uncontrolled laughter—and hiding a protruding snaggle tooth—by quickly sealing his lips. He openly, and with regularity, expressed disgust for public figures, and treated people who were in no position to help him with utmost respect. And he packed an incredible amount of life into not-quite-62 years.

Was there ever a person so deeply and unapologetically flawed who captured the attention and the hearts of so many? After his death, I heard variation upon variation of what one particularly rational, even-keeled friend had quietly shared with me: “I can’t believe he’s gone. He was…well, he was my friend. I only knew him from his shows, but he was my friend. I genuinely saw him that way.”

In autumn of 2018 I was in New York City and briefly visited the former site of Les Halles, the restaurant where Bourdain last worked as a chef. While the mountains of flowers and cards that cropped up in the weeks following his death had, by late September, been mostly removed, the windows still bore heartfelt notes in the form of graffiti. The messages were, again, variations on a theme:

I don’t really know what to say, but I miss you more than words can describe. Maybe that sounds weird since we’ve never met… Thank you Chef for all you have done and for showing us the world through an unfiltered lense [sic].

If there is a heaven, then anyone who couldn’t live anymore deserves a head of the line pass to get in, because you’ve suffered enough. I love you man.

Thank you, Chef.

Here’s a phrase I often press into service as a yardstick for coolness: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto*. Written by the second-century Roman playwright Terence, it translates roughly from the Latin as: I am human; nothing human is alien to me.

It isn’t a perfect tool. Not every Everyman is cool; not all cool people are comfortable being one with the unwashed masses. But mostly, if you can be down with humanity in a wide variety of settings, chances are good that you’re probably pretty cool.

And Bourdain was down. He was totally fucking down.

Everyone else at that level of stardom, I will happily argue, is either the product of a PR machine or simply not as forthcoming about their personal failures. Bourdain was neither; he was particularly adept at outlining his personal failures, willing to be raw, and willing to be wrong. Here I am, he conveyed through his work. Here I am, no better or worse than anyone else, and wow, we’re a fucked-up bunch. But look at all this beauty.

Laurie Woolever is a writer and editor who for the better part of a decade worked as Bourdain’s assistant and collaborator. They co-authored Appetites: A Cookbook in 2016, and had been working on World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (to be published in 2021) at the time of his death.

Via email, Woolever wrote: “He was adamant that he wasn’t actually cool.”

He was wrong about that, of course.

The only story about Bourdain I’m qualified to tell goes like this: Once there was a man named Tony, and he was as fucked up as anyone else but he did something with his life—many somethings, in fact. He was funny and kind; rude and crass. He loved music and art, and all the ways in which people forge real connections. He was curious and intelligent, vulnerable and sarcastic. He made the world seem a much more beautiful and welcoming place than many of us suspect it is. I felt, and still feel, that he was one of my people. That he was my friend. When he died, it felt extremely personal. And it still does. I miss him.

Photo: Bobby Fisher

 

*I like to think that Tony would have been amused at this use of  the word “puto”.