The Undeniable Allure of Dive Bar Food
Collage by Andrea Edelman Kay
Food & Drink

The Undeniable Allure of Dive Bar Food

Food is rarely the main attraction at a dive—but it can be a core tenet of an establishment's personality.

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“Proust can have his madeleines, I'll take a Schlitz.” 

That’s the response from my friend Anna McGorman—VP of culinary and operations at Milk Bar and veritable dive bar connoisseur—when I ask her what makes a dive bar memorable. Throughout the majority of our twenties (and, if I’m being honest, now into our thirties) we have frequently found ourselves together at 2 a.m. smoking cigarettes and swigging cheap beer at a slew of roadside dives across the country, usually after making the misguided decision to hop in an Uber for “one last drink” before heading back to our Airbnb. If there’s food available, the likelihood is that we’re ordering it, whether it be a pile of Rhode Island stuffies at the salt-soaked Ocean Mist off of Matunuck Beach Road (tag line: ‘Just a Beach Bar’) or a bag of chips ripped open at one of the low tables of New Orleans's Snake & Jake's Christmas Club. 

Dive bar food gets a bad wrap, but to me, it can be a core tenet of an establishment’s personality—even if that personality is embodied by a basket of cheese puffs tossed across the bar. The food is cheap, unfussy, and usually delivered without much fanfare, much like the shots of well whiskey and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon that have actually drawn you there in the first place. I’ve had some of the worst meals of my life at a dive bar, and I’ve also had some of the best, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you what many of them were. Food is rarely the main attraction at a dive, even when it’s a glowing orb of sanctuary along a dark and empty highway—and that’s the whole point. As Knoefel Longest wrote in a 2014 piece for Eater, the dive is “one of the very few businesses not really making an effort to get your attention.” Adding: “Respect, yes. Admiration, no.” 

Late-night food at Dino's Bar & Grill in Nashville, where even Bourdain has indulged in the burger and fries.

Andrea Behrends/Dino's Bar & Grill

All that said, a good dive knows how to strike a balance for its patrons—no element needs to stand alone, but the “Flavortown Algorithm,” as Guy Fieri likes to call it, means the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

“Menu factors in. Beer temps are taken into consideration. Overall vibe matters. You gotta plug it all in and see how the whole thing comes out,” Fieri tells me over email while filming the next season of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. After hosting 419 episodes of his food show, Fieri knows better than anyone that while no two dive bars are made the same, all of them share one essential commonality: charisma. “Some joints are a little more food forward. Some maybe hit on the bar side a little harder. Could be just the perfect location. It all matters and however all of those elements come together and present you with the best time at the right time, that’s what makes a place special.”

For Anthony Head, a writer living in Texas and the co-author of Texas Dives: Enduring Neighborhood Bars of the Lone Star State, judging a dive bar by its menu “misses the point of its raison d’être, which is to simply be open for its customers to assemble.” He notes that navigating the practical and health-related red tape required to serve food is simply not worth a lot of bars’ time, and if they do serve it, then it’s a very limited menu to act as a stomach liner halfway through the night. “No one flips through the Michelin Guide looking for stars awarded to anything with ‘bar & grill’ in its name.”  

Yet during the pandemic, many dives were forced to transform themselves into makeshift outdoor restaurants in order to stay open. Suddenly, that means-to-an-end comfort food became a manner of survival. As I reported in the summer of 2020, Joe Jost’s in Long Beach, California, adhered to the state’s reopening laws by setting up folding tables and chairs in the parking lot to serve beers and food—something that was only possible due to its curiously iconic and near century-old menu of hot dogs and pickled eggs. Dino’s in Nashville, meanwhile, grilled and delivered its burgers during lockdown like its life depended on it (which it did). And no wonder it worked: Residents, visitors, and road trippers zipping down the city’s Gallatin Avenue, where the bar lies, have been eating its cheeseburgers and fries since the 1970s; Bourdain scarfed one down in an episode of Parts Unknown, and I have a hazy memory of inhaling one just before closing time, oblivious to the patty juice trickling down my arm.

“These types of places are the fabric of America,” says Fieri, whose Restaurant Relief Fund raised $25 million to assist unemployed restaurant workers during the pandemic. “They represent the mom-and-pops, the young entrepreneurs, the timeless classics, the college stories, the good old days, the newest, the latest, and the greatest. When I hit the road for DDD back in 2007, I knew that there was a lot to discover out there but I had no idea just how vast and exciting our roadside (or otherwise) food culture was.” 

As for Head—whose favorite Texas dives includes Casino El Camino, just off Austin’s Monarch Highway, which serves a mean burger with roasted serrano chiles, and San Marcos’s Showdown, home to southwestern delicacy the Frito pie—he believes the beauty of these dive bars lies in their histories, some of which clock in at around 150 years old. The Shooting Star Saloon in Huntsville, Utah (population 585), for example, serves “Burgers, Beers, Soda and Chips. NO Fries!!” and has been in operation since 1879. 

Why the longevity? Dives are affordable, accessible places that generations have enjoyed, many of which Head notes are family businesses that have been handed down through the years. They possess “a humble atmosphere, one that's not striving to be a life-altering experience but one that meets you exactly as you are,” says McGorman. And perhaps most importantly, they are spaces that satisfy regulars and travelers alike, crossing age demographics and tax brackets, thanks to an increasingly rare quality: a disregard for keeping up with the trends. A dive bar just is what it is.

“Dive bars are essentially continuing conversations which began long before you arrived, and will continue after you leave,” says Head. Hopefully, over the same single patty with cheese that has never been taken off the menu.