Can You Manufacture a Dive Bar?

A Citizen-Times headline back in December stuck with me: Shiloh & Gaines, elevated dive bar, coffee shop, opens in Ashville. I remember thinking at the time, is it possible to be “an elevated” dive bar? Should that even be something one aspires to? Can you manufacture a dive bar…or should that title be earned? All these questions, however, faded into the background as I became engulfed in the typical holiday madness that defines that time of year (for those wondering, the war on Christmas hasn’t hit Asheville yet…things are still very holly and jolly). 

I was reminded of this “elevated dive bar” recently when I heard someone say they’d visited, Shiloh and Gaines and liked it. That’s good to hear, and I’d love to check it out, but my questions remain. Can you (and should you) manufacture a dive bar? 

At first, I tended to have a cynical take on the “elevated dive bar” phenomenon. It’s a marketing ploy, I thought, tricking people into thinking they are somehow more authentic (a word I’d love to retire in 2023—see also: iconic) because they have unelevated tastes while still paying an arm and a leg for drinks, which is sort of the antithesis of a dive bar. But then, when researching this very post, I stumbled across an article that change my mind. 

This 2016 Bloomberg article “You Can’t ‘Open’ a Dive Bar” starts with, 

Dive bars are the antithesis of change. Regular customers expect the same person to serve them the same drink, and that it will taste the same, the bar will smell the same, and that nothing will ever surprise them there. Sarah Jewell, who managed Seattle’s Central Saloon, called many of her regulars “ritualistic.” But whether it’s ritual, habit, or comfort, dive bars are the opposite of trendy, and the opening of a new bar is the opposite of everything for which the dive bar genre stands.

I was still with the writer here. There is a certain lived-in quality dive bars have. Furthermore, dive bars aren’t trying to impress anyone, which is also the antithesis of any new business (not a bad thing, but just the way the world works). It’s also annoying to see people who’d consider themselves above dive bars, create dive bars, a sentiment echoed in the following paragraph from that Bloomberg article.

But entrepreneurs rushed to capitalize on that hard-earned vibe and open places that imitate the same spots that have been gentrified out of a neighborhood. (See practically-dive-themed bars like King’s Hardware and Montana in Seattle.) The thing is, you can’t rush dive bars. Like antiques—or, more appropriately, whiskey and wine—much of the value of a dive bar comes with the passing of time: butt grooves in banquettes, moisture stains on the bar in the shape of one million pint glasses, and a bartender spewing the kind of surliness that requires decades of practice. Dive bars aren’t opened: they evolve.

Here’s where I started to change my mind. Specifically, the second to last sentence of “spewing the kind of surliness that requires decades of practice.” Listen, I enjoy surly people. There’s a brewery worker at one of my go-to places that’s delightfully surly anytime I visit, however, despite being surly, he’s professional, polite, and doesn’t make you feel unwelcomed. And that’s always the risk with a dive bar, that you’ll walk in, the proverbial record will scratch, and everyone will turn around and wonder what you’re doing there, the “surly” staff then going out of their way to ensure you’re not welcome. Yes, that is part of the charm and something you can shake off, but sometimes, it’s enough to make you feel uncomfortable and want to leave, and that’s not what going out for a fun night is about, right? 

And while I’m still an avowed dive-bar fan, there are a large contingent of dive-bar patrons that care less about going out and socializing and more about just getting shitfaced, something that the older I get, I realize is not only profoundly depressing but its own form of exclusionary. Two additional passages from this Bloomberg article bring this point home. 

Example A:

So why do so many restaurateurs claim to be “opening” a dive bar? ‘Young people want to have an idealized version of old stuff,” says David Meinert, the owner of venerated Seattle dive bar the 5 Point. (Motto: ‘Alcoholics serving alcoholics since 1929.’) “They want to feel like they’re in this cool, old place, without the dirt and the patina, without the old person or the surly drunk.

Example B:

So, instead, Gabre-Kidan focuses on what he considers the essence of a dive bar: “That they’re not pretentious. They’re just places that you go and get wasted. And nobody is judging you.

Call me old fashioned, or better yet, square, but openly glorifying alcoholism just doesn’t sit well with me anymore. And as I’ve grown and evolved, I realize that plenty of people do judge people who don’t want to get wasted, who maybe want to hang out with friends, listen to music, and enjoy atmospheres, but either don’t want to, don’t feel like, or can’t drink, and what’s nice, and what has me changing my tune, is that these new crop of “dive bars” opening in Asheville are yes, probably still taking advantage of a marketing ploy, but also cultivating a low key space that is attempting to be judgment-free, and welcoming of everyone, people that want to get their heavy drinking on, as well as those who don’t, and there’s nothing cynical about that. 

Shiloh and Gaines, the aforementioned elevated dive bar I was planning on lightly dunking on, offers coffee and cafe services all day and night, catering, it says, to people who just want to go somewhere and gather without being pressured the right or wrong way to hang out. In the Citizen-Times article, the owners mention having board games and bar games, thinking about the fact that they have families with children who might need something to do while the parents socialize. I know some people believe bars shouldn’t be for kids, but I’m not one of them. Looking at the photos of Shiloh and Gaines, it reminds me a bit of some of the bars my parents would bring my siblings and me (usually with our cousins) on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, cheap, no-frills places where they could have some out-of-the-house fun, and we could entertain ourselves. 
Shakey’s, another “new” dive bar, was also recently covered by the Citizen-Times, and I liked that they mentioned that their “new” dive will always have craft soda on tap. It was a small call out, but one that shows that maybe manufacturing an updated iteration of an old classic isn’t a bad thing. I’m always of the mindset that all change isn’t bad, but sometimes it’s nice to get a reminder. 

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