Dallas's Most Authentic Dive Bars

Pull up a stool, order some cheap whiskey and don’t forget to duck when the beer bottles fly

The bar door swings open, and orange sunlight, hazy with cigarette smoke, briefly lights the sparse, dingy environs. On the hardwood bar top, a half-dozen dice tumble from a Yahtzee cup, landing close to a smudged envelope stuffed with cash. Near the door, a paunchy, graying man holds a stream of receipts that stretches across the tops of a pair of eight-liner video slot machines. Conversations halt mid-sentence as every head turns toward the two strangers who enter. Of the handful of customers and staff, my wife and I are the youngest in the room by some 30 years.

We just want to kill a couple of hours, not stumble into a geriatric gambling den. But the prospects of finding another Oak Cliff bar open at four in the afternoon on Easter Sunday seem slim. So we head for the bar, grab two stools and order a couple beers. A bored-looking bartender, seeing us as a distraction from the TV he is watching overhead, asks for ID to issue our membership cards. With the paperwork hassle out of the way, he pulls two Coors cans from a grimy Styrofoam ice chest, pops them open and grumbles, "Four bucks."

Dim, lawless and—most important—cheap, that bar remains my dive bar touchstone 18 months later. During our hour-and-a-half stay, strangers made us feel like regulars, offering us smokes, sharing details of their lives—the bartender even gave us a chance to buy into the dice game and compete for the envelope's prize money. We passed when his only explanation of the rules was a vague, "You'll get it as you go along."

Customers Wes Dowden and Bobby Fleming unwind at The Grapevine.
Sara Kerens
Customers Wes Dowden and Bobby Fleming unwind at The Grapevine.
There are dives in Dallas for every barfly, whether male or female, old or young, straight or gay, drinking alone or in a pack.
Sara Kerens
There are dives in Dallas for every barfly, whether male or female, old or young, straight or gay, drinking alone or in a pack.

Location Info

Map

Tradewinds Social Club

2843 W. Davis St.
Dallas, TX 75211-3679

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Cockrell Hill

The Grapevine Bar

3902 Maple Ave.
Dallas, TX 75219

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Uptown & Oak Lawn

Ships Lounge

1613 Greenville Ave.
Dallas, TX 75206

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: East Dallas & Lakewood

Club Schmitz

9661 Denton Drive
Dallas, TX 75220

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Northwest Dallas

Lakewood Landing

5818 Live Oak St.
Dallas, TX 75214

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: East Dallas & Lakewood

Copper Spur Saloon

6524 E. NW Highway
Dallas, TX 75231

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Northeast Dallas

Winedale Tavern

2110 Greenville Ave.
Dallas, TX 75206

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: East Dallas & Lakewood

Cooper's Restaurant and Club

2424 S. Cockrell Hill Road
Dallas, TX 75211-8102

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Cockrell Hill

New O'Malley's Club

2720 S. Zang Blvd.
Dallas, TX 75224

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Oak Cliff & South Dallas

Starlight Lounge

4319 Main St.
Dallas, TX 75226

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Downtown & Deep Ellum

Details


Web extra: Check out our slide show for more photos from 10 Dallas dives.

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No, I couldn't get one of my beloved craft beers. Yes, my clothes reeked of stale cigarettes and cheap liquor. And bar smells aside, I felt like I needed a shower after my conversation with an urban cowboy who mentioned how much nicer his neighborhood was "before it got so much color."

But finally, after years of sampling well-worn neighborhood bars and pre-fabricated faux dives strewn with thrift-store kitsch, I had found it: my own personal dive.

And yet, defining just what makes a bar a dive is a tricky endeavor. Ask me and I'd say it's got to be a dark, seedy hole-in-the-wall that flaunts laws against vices such as gambling, smoking indoors and selling alcohol to minors. Others might take it further, claiming that any self-respecting dive must maintain a minimum of two unsavory characters, each sporting outstanding felony warrants or missing body parts bitten off in bar fights. You're not in a dive, they claim, unless there's a feel of danger to the place, a palpable sense that the friendly drunk next to you might suddenly shatter a bottle and twist the jagged end into your eye just because you asked about his misspelled tattoo.

But must it really be the kind of place you wouldn't take a date, your mother or your grandmother—even though she's the alkie in the family? Or can "dive" be a term of endearment, used to describe one's favorite neighborhood saloon? Is its location limited to the grittier parts of town or forgotten strip centers? Or must there a sign behind the bar that says, "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone ordering a banana daiquiri"?

We asked readers of our food blog, City of Ate, to comment about their perception of what constitutes a dive bar. Everyone held strong opinions but—other than universally acknowledging the dive status of Ships Lounge—there was no consensus. One person's dive bar is another person's honky-tonk is another person's neighborhood bar.

Says Johan, "A dive can't be created, it just is. In fact, a dive doesn't know it's a dive."

Dallas Dude defines a dive bar as a "home bar...They are the safe havens from the hucksters and glitz...Once inside, you retrieve your libation from the not-so-friendly but very accommodating tender, you recognize everyone in the dive and greet them as your fellow dive-masters."

And Handsome Lance Manion says it's "a place with low ceilings, serves a stiff pour with a bowl of some slightly stale but edible snack like popcorn or pretzels, and a bartender/waitress that sneers at you when you light up a cigarette but doesn't dare kick you out."

We also surveyed musicians, artists and restaurateurs to get their take on exactly how they defined a dive bar: "That's a good question," says Chris Zielke, co-owner of Bolsa and Smoke. "I guess it's a bar with no pretenses that is simply about selling booze."

Zielke has tended bar at several of the city's upscale nightclubs and has slung drinks at City Tavern and the late Ben's Half-Yard House, both of which fit his "dive" definition. Sure, there can be food—even good food—as long as it's simple and affordable. Just hold the white tablecloths. He cites The Loon and the Cock and Bull as two dives with excellent grub.

As for the element of danger, Zielke says, that just comes with the territory when you have cheap booze: It attracts a seedier clientele and encourages people to drink more.

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