What is a dive, and just what makes it a dive?
Yes, these are the questions my friends and I discuss at dinner.
There always will be a soft spot for dives -- and Cincinnati has some great ones. Not every restaurant needs to be the latest, trend-driven, most popular eatery. Sometimes, you want a place that feels like it has been there forever, a place where you don't have to spend a lot of money but can still get a satisfying meal.
First we distinguished dives from greasy spoons, and here's our consensus:
- A dive has alcohol; a greasy spoon does not.
- A dive may or may not have food, but a greasy spoon always does.
- You're likely to go to a greasy spoon for breakfast after hanging out at a dive.
Next we had to further define "dives." Our thinking:
- You won't see fancy preparations at dives. (Sorry, there will be no craft cocktails or multiple kinds of wine here.)
- If a dive has food, it won't be fancy, but it likely will be delicious -- and it won't cost much.
- The service might be a little surly, but it will always be efficient.
For more input, I asked my followers on Facebook and on my Wine Me, Dine Me blog to share their favorite dives, and answers poured in from all over the city -- a mix of bars, restaurants, you name it.
For the last several months, I've visited some of these beloved dive bars to figure out what makes them so divey -- and delicious. Here are my authentic yet completely unscientific findings.
Herb and Thelma's:
718 W. Pike St., Covington
What makes it a dive? It's a neighborhood institution, with a lot of history, simple food and good beer.
If you weren't looking for Herb and Thelma's, you might drive past it. It's right at the curve of Pike Street in Covington, in a building that dates to the Civil War era. When my husband and I walked in, I could see older local men shooting the breeze over Hudys at a table, sports playing on the TVs over the bar, and a man cooking burgers on a stove. As we headed to the bar, the man -- owner Joe Fessler -- noted that we hadn't been there before. He explained the menu -- burgers, fried bologna, a sausage and chips -- and we got to ordering (and drinking beer).
When I think of a dive, I think of a place my grandpa could have hung out, both as a young man and as he got older. This is the place: There are walls of beer memorabilia (I recognized some commemorative bottles that my dad had when I was a kid), tons of Bengals and Reds items and local high school items as well. The walls are stained with a bit of nicotine; the eatery prohibited smoking only relatively recently. The furniture has been there for years, and Fessler said that the stove is from the 1940s; it has seen 75-plus years' worth of burgers.
My husband and I both ordered burgers: fried, then steamed, juicy and delicious. The burger patties are hand-made, with few toppings (no tomato is available, just onions and pickles). H&T's buys its food locally. It's simple, but precisely what you want to go along with one of its six local draft beers. (Hudepohl is the best-seller.) Our bill, for two burgers, a bag of chips and two beers, was around $17.
Gas Light Cafe:
6104 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge
What makes it a dive? It has inexpensive drinks, a neighborhood atmosphere, a lot of regulars and greasy bar food.
This place got a ton of votes from fans on Wine Me, Dine Me -- and for good reason. It's a classic neighborhood joint, with a burger menu, lots of beer and sports. It's a little dark and dim, with Naugahyde booths that have contained high school kids, families, couples and friends over the years. My friend and I managed to belly up to the bar -- during the evenings, you put your name on a whiteboard in the back if you want a booth -- and settled in to order drinks and food. It was crowded, as it was toward the end of March Madness, and we ended up next to a guy who eats there nearly every night. (He vented that he just wanted to eat his grilled cheese without the place being crowded with basketball fans. That's the true sign of a local dive -- (understandably) cranky regulars. Our bartender was efficient, getting our order -- two bacon cheeseburgers and waffle fries -- in quickly. When the fries took a lot longer than they should have, the kitchen brought out a separate order after they were finished as a "thank you" for our patience. (We gave them to the regular to go with his grilled cheese.)
1926 Dunlap St., Over-the-Rhine
What makes it a dive? Strange hours, cheap drinks, more wood paneling than you can shake a stick at and beer memorabilia.
Some of my favorite divey bars are being remodeled to appeal to new visitors from around the city and country, but not Dunlap Cafe. It's under new management and open during odd hours, but it appeals to the working-class neighbors north of Liberty and has since 1936. Here, you will be surrounded by wood paneling, a beer can collection that's probably older than you are, tables with plastic tablecloths, friendly bartenders and a cast of regulars. Grab a Maker's and Coke for around $4 to go along with the lunch special of the day, such as grilled pork chops or meatloaf with mashed potatoes. It's open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and toes the line between dive and greasy spoon (mostly because it serves breakfast).
1345 Main St., Over-the-Rhine
What makes it a dive? It's a historic bar with music memorabilia, a steady flow of regulars, inexpensive drinks and a limited, burger-driven menu.
I'd call MOTR a modern dive. It feels like it has been around forever. (It hasn't, though; it opened in 2010.) It's a little rough around the edges, the opposite of pretentious. Yet it embraces the diversity of Main Street and the Cincinnati music community in a modern way that touches on the traditions of dives that have gone before. The drinks are inexpensive and not at all fancy. The food is not fancy either but appeals to vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters. MOTR has a few rotating taps, a generous liquor pour and tons of live music. It also has a killer brunch: Hungover locals sit at the bar and enjoy breakfast tacos and casseroles to the sound of a rock 'n' roll jukebox.
Madonna's Bar & Grill:
11 E. Seventh St., Downtown
What makes it a dive? It's dark, neon-lit and has great, simple homestyle food -- and drink specials.
This dive, which is somehow always dark (even at lunchtime), has a pool table and several TVs. It appeals to third-shift workers in need of a meal and it's also a place where local restaurant employees go after work. Why? It offers nightly drink specials, a friendly (but efficient) vibe and a BLT that might be the best in the city. This is a place where the bartenders know your name. (If they don't, come back often enough and they will figure it out.)
1686 Blue Rock St., Northside
What makes it a dive? This is a historic building with a cheap but delicious bar food menu, equally cheap drinks and mohawked bartenders -- plus euchre and karaoke.
Boswell's Alley, tucked away in Northside, is quintessentially Northside: Our bartender was friendly and chatty under the Christmas-light draped bar, and the menu featured classic bar food, such as Bos Bites, diced, deep-fried, sauced chicken balls. There are vegan options, too, and the mixed drinks we ordered were strong and inexpensive.
What's your favorite local dive? Tweet me at @winemedineme with the hashtag #wmdmdives!