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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.”