Dallas has often been described as fickle, pretentious or something in between fickle and pretentious. We're not certain about the correct word, but "Republican" seems to fit.
People in this city simply find it difficult to break away from whichever pack they follow. Some won't venture beyond LBJ, others refuse to visit "hard door" clubs, and still others spurn anything but places with membership lists. Still, buried somewhere in the soulless Dallas nightlife is a desire for, well, soul.
The dingy, often dark, shabbily artful establishments known as "dives" thrive on this desire, drawing many of the same people who also make the rounds at Dragonfly, Candle Room and other upscale spots.
"It's the aesthetic," says Matthew, poet laureate of Dallas nightlife, of a dive's attraction. "It's the clubs that are always what they were, that existed before the bullshit."
Clearly there are times when people yearn for something familiar, something reminiscent of the wood-paneled den where they snuck their first drink or the cheap bar they frequented in college. "Most of my fun has been in hole-in-the-wall dive places," admits Becky, whom we encountered drinking at the distinctly upscale Candle Room. "Dives are flat-out great bars," agrees Adam Salazar, bartender at several non-dive hot spots including Republic, Passport and Seven. "They have true regulars."
Re-creating that sense of nostalgia, however, can destroy a simple little bar, especially if the so-called fickle 500 swarm in and refuse to drop their pretensions (hip folks playing redneck in designer trucker hats, for instance). "There are the people who want to go 'slumming' and pretend to see how the other half lives," Matthew acknowledges. "Those are the real assholes." In addition, a tight clique of regulars may drive away newcomers while a truly rough crowd turns the place into a seedy joint rather than a relaxed hangout.
So what makes a dive a dive?
"A dive has a mutt quality to it," explains Clate Bowen, drinking cheap beers at Lee Harvey's and whose name sounds sufficiently like Cletus to merit a mention in this column even if he didn't have some intriguing things to say. "A mutt is not perfect, but it is usually the pet that's more devoted and lovable than any other pet."
Patrons expect soiled countertops and outdated décor. "You think NASCAR, stale smoke, tennis shoes, ads for Pabst," says Mark, considering the question while drinking at Nikita. When the Burning Question crew visited Lee Harvey's, in fact, we ordered Pabst in cans (shouting things like "get that man a blue ribbon" seemed like good fun at the time, but upon reflection...). "Any place where they have wet T-shirt contests is also a dive," he adds. "I've seen it before; it's bad." Now, we're not sure whether he's calling wet T-shirts a bad thing--in which case he's clearly insane and must be located and locked away before he does anything rash, such as endorsing modesty--or the general process of degradation. But the comment suggests an initial amusement with the clutter and novelty but an understandable fear of walking into a Deliverance scenario.
"I've been to several different types," says Chris Moler, bartender at Candle Room. "I've been where fights break out, but there are upscale dives, too."
And therein lies the problem.
Someone once warned about false prophets, the kind who point toward the sky when asked about their decision-making. Artificial dives, such as Double Wide or The Loon, mock those seeking salvation in a night of downscale revelry. "That's what they consider genuine," Bowen says of crowds inhabiting both sites, "which is a sad commentary." Nothing wrong with the bars, mind you. The Burning Question crew loves as much as we can remember about our trips to The Loon, which isn't much. One is just a bit too deliberate (i.e., pretentious) to rate dive status, and the other, by most accounts, is a cleaned-up place riding on its former hole-in-the-wall standing.
"I think anything with a theme is bogus," says Louie Canelakes, owner of Louie's, a ragged but quite popular spot. "Our theme is food and drinks. The customers have to fill in their own blanks."
Sorting out a real joint from a façade can be somewhat complicated. Matthew speaks of intentional irony vs. unintentional irony, which we found (after six or seven martinis) difficult to jot down, much less comprehend. "When a bar is not aware of itself being a dive, when a bar is in fact just a bar, then it approaches the true," he explains.
Matthew considers The Slip Inn and Lee Harvey's as representative dives. "They took old joints and just washed them a little bit," he says. Not that any of that washing is noticeable. During our tour we also visited Lakewood Landing, Winedale Tavern and a few other establishments leaning toward the unseemly. Louie's, however, may be the best of the few true dives--in part because its inhabitants refuse to preen and in part for the haphazard décor.
"The walls were empty when we started," Canelakes says. "Everything here was brought to us by customers and beer companies. You can't manufacture a history."
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Try telling that to Karl Rove.
When we sobered up enough, we figured out the relationship between the crushed beer cans in our car and the strange, circular bruises on our foreheads. We also decided a dive is nothing more than a comfortable reminder that simplicity and a T-shirt, wet or dry, still have a place in the night. The best examples allow trend-followers to drop all pretensions for an evening and enjoy a conversation without simultaneously scoping the room. Unfortunately, a burst of popularity from the fickle set, a deliberate attempt at trailer park aesthetics or a truly down-on-their-luck crowd can force a dive into oblivion.
A real dive provides something different and familiar at the same time. Or, as Bowen reminds us, "It is what it is, whether it's glorious or ugly."
In fact, it may be both.