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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Cocktails are Cool

 

By Derek Brown

When I think about cocktails, I’m often reminded of the famous writers, artists, characters, and actors associated with them. You can close your eyes and picture a man’s man or rebellious woman with drink in hand setting their own path, surrounded by onlookers who marvel at their class and sophistication. James Bond walks up to the bar, tugs on his French cuffs, and orders a Martini shaken, not stirred. Madonna sips on a devilishly red drink in a designer dress with perfectly coiffed hair. Is this what makes a cocktail cool? No, not at all.

James Bond is, honestly, kind of a chauvinist, and Madonna was cool, wasn’t cool, and is/isn’t cool again. There’s nothing cool about the alcoholic writers who were chugging whiskey and gin to an untimely death, and Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. are as much a parody as pioneers. I can’t imagine putting on Frank Sinatra for my son when he grows older and him thinking it’s cool. What was cool fades, subject to the fads of the time. They were just where they were supposed to be and, though live long in our memory, are ultimately dated. Sorry to all the cocktail drinking sophisticates who bought a tux or gown and are awaiting the revival of yesteryear. You may be waiting a long time.

What about the cocktail? It’s blameless. The cocktail didn’t ask to be cool. It shouldn’t go in and out of style like last year’s wide-legged jeans. The cocktail is just what it purports to be—the Martini is a measure of gin and vermouth with orange bitters; the Old Fashioned whiskey, sugar, and aromatic bitters. Perhaps that’s the cocktail’s secret to coolness. It never elected to be cool. It’s just good, and what followed was the recognition. And that recognition followed across time.

The cocktail was cool in 1803 when it was first mentioned, listed as a morning hangover remedy in theFarmer’s Cabinet. The cocktail was cool when it was first defined in the the Balance, and Columbian Repository in 1806. The cocktail was cool when Jerry Thomas hoisted two white rats on each shoulder of his prim jacket with a diamond stickpin and twirled his waxy moustache in the 1860s. The cocktail was still cool in Cuba when servicemen discovered the Daiquiri in 1909. The cocktail was not just cool but contraband during prohibition in the roaring ‘20s. It was cool again when prohibition ended and, in the late 1930s, Tiki was born by the hand of faux-Polynesian enthusiasts. When the Mad Men era came along, cocktails were cool too; then again in the 1980s with theatrical bottle flipping known as flair. Obviously they’re cool today, since they made it into this book. In fact, the only time cocktails weren’t cool since their debut might be around the 1970s when it turns out drugs were just considered much cooler.

You get my point? Cocktails have been cool longer than that little black dress, rock ‘n roll, and James Dean combined. What’s purportedly cool for the time and what remains cool throughout time are two different things.

“The secret to being cool all this time wasn’t acting like an asshole and wearing a nice suit.”

The cocktail has lasted so long on the cool list because its DNA is the perfect foil for experimentation. The original definition of the cocktail, mentioned above, was spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. That magic combination would start life as something resembling the Old Fashioned and end up being vaporized and experienced as a walk-in cloud of breathable cocktail. In between there have been many thousands of variations. Sometimes it was just a tweak, as with the Oaxacan Old Fashioned created by bartender Phil Ward. The standard rye whiskey that most bartenders use for an Old Fashioned is replaced with Tequila and Mezcal, the sugar with agave syrup. Other times, the change was more artful and sought to reinterpret the entire presentation of a cocktail, such as when avant-garde chef Grant Achatz of Alinea created edible balloons to accompany his cocktails.

I expect the cocktail will continue this trajectory. Spacemen will pour powdered Gimlets into their gravity resistant mugs and my son, though he’ll likely eschew crooners, will happily down a digitally enhanced Collins variation while listening to music that grinds my elderly ears.

The secret to being cool all this time wasn’t acting like an asshole and wearing a nice suit. It wasn’t sitting in a low-lit corner and brooding. It wasn’t perfectly styling your hair, singing, dancing, or drinking to excess. Nope, all those things will pass, and rightfully so. The secret to coolness is something the cocktail has mastered, and few others have. The secret is to be good. The secret is to have substance. And to have that substance be transferable, to be something that can change with the times while keeping its core intact. Spirits, sugar, water, bitters—it’s such a simple combination. Some genius invented it over 200 years ago. And, right after I finish this essay, I intend to make myself one. 

 

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Derek Brown is a spirits and cocktail expert, consultant, writer, and owner of 2017 Spirited Award winning “Best American Cocktail Bar” Columbia Room, and author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World, published by Rizzoli in April 2019. His work has earned several James Beard Award nominations, and he was named Imbibe magazine’s “Bartender of the Year” in 2015. He is also Chief Spirits Advisor to the National Archives Foundation and a Distinguished Fellow at Catholic University’s Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship. Brown’s writing on spirits and cocktails has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and other publications. In 2019, Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema named him one of the fifteen trailblazers since 2000 that have made Washington, D.C. a better place to eat (and drink).