Etiquette of the dive bar

First, let's be clear: When we say "dive," we mean a place that keeps it simple. Beers. Shots. Highballs. Blue collars. A long room with boxy televisions and history on the walls. A dark, cool space where the simple pleasure of drinking can be boisterous or serene. In short, the sort of place we'd all like to go to for a taste of authenticity, served up in a short, lined shot glass. But how do the uninitiated avoid offending the regulars? For your reading pleasure, we canvassed some badass local bars to get their take on ...

1. Dress relaxed

You might not think much about walking into happy hour wearing a business skirt or a sober-looking tie, but you might want to do a quick wardrobe change — unless you don't mind a little ribbing. One time at Your Mother's Bar (61 N. Walnut St., Mount Clemens; 586-468-4444), a smoky, pleasantly divey little joint thick with characters, we walked in wearing black slacks and a cravat in a well-formed Windsor knot. Pretty soon, some of the regulars were joking about "the attorney." There's little you can do at that point. We ordered them to get out in the alley and line up against the wall, thereby breaking the ice, but take a lesson: Dressing down can help defuse class tension before it begins.

2. Keep it simple

Don't order fancy blended drinks or anything that requires freshly scraped nutmeg or exact measurements of any kind. Order beers, shots and drinks with the ingredients in the name. With divey roots but a swanker newish location, Honest?John's Bar and Grill (488 Selden St., Detroit; 313-832-5646) often doesn't even keep olives behind the bar. Lovably irascible owner John Thompson explains: "C'mon: This is a Detroit bar. I can't believe people who come in and say, 'Can I have a Diet Coke with a slice of orange and two cherries?' This is a bar! Not a fruit bar! And trust me, I've ruined my life drinking martinis. You don't need olives. Just ask for a gin on the rocks or a vodka on the rocks. No lemon twists," adding with a smirky laugh, "Well, if you really want, we'll give you a lemon."

3. Eat like a local

In a world that's suddenly swooning over comfort food, why pay full freight for Kobe beef sliders? You can drop in at character-filled Sidelines (27554 Warren Rd., Westland; 734-427-3980) for the real thing at $1.25 a pop — or $1.50 with cheese. Or take an updated dive like the Bronx Bar (4476 Second Ave., Detroit; 313-832-8464), where their sandwiches and burgers are served on bread so good its baker's name is a hallowed secret. And, though it's not a dive, classic, no-frills practices survive at Miller's Bar and Grill (23700 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-565-2577), where table service has been paperless for years — all on the honor system. Unless you want to be known as an outsider, don't ask for a menu or a tab. Just order the burger and a beer. When you're done, tell the bartender what you got. The system works, in part, because the prices are so reasonable, there's hardly any reason to lie. 

4. Drink like a pro

To order your drinks more efficiently, employ the unwritten code of the dive bar: Use the "tip rail." Often found in old-man bars, it's the small, indented groove big enough for a beer bottle, set behind the flat part of the bar. The bartender's job is to keep your part of the bar, the flat, level part, clean and clear. But the tip rail is his area — and putting anything, like a tip, in that space means it's his to interpret. Andrew Dow, owner of the Painted Lady (2930 Jacob St., Hamtramck, 313-874-2991), says, "When you set your drink upright in the tip rail, you're asking for another. But if you set it in the tip rail on its side, you're saying you're done and ready for your tab. With shot glasses, you can't easily set them on their side, so you set them close to the tip rail." Bartenders commonly follow up with a question to interpret your tip-rail play. And tip-rail etiquette is especially helpful with opaque beer bottles that bartenders can't eyeball. Sadly, these old practices are going by the wayside. But, as a conscientious dive-bar tripper, you can do your part to help keep the code of the tip rail alive. Honor it.

5. Avoid hazards

Crowding in late on a busy night often means finding a spot to sit or stand. But no matter how soused you are, try to be aware of your surroundings — at least enough to realize when you're standing in front of a dart board or backing up against a pool game. Similarly, if you happen in on a jammed night at Jumbo's Bar (3736 Third St., Detroit; 313-831-8949), avoid the table next to the punching bag machine. As soon as you sit there, two super-competitive, athletic men are likely to spend the rest of the night running up and whomping the bag with all their might, a jarring experience at this otherwise friendly joint. Totally don't sit there.

6. Reserve judgment

One of the pleasures of drinking in a dive is the sensation of being in a free space, bumping up against the myriad characters you'll find. Most are aloof, if not amiable. But some people do just get up in your grill and talk. Sometimes angry, sometimes a little too cozy, they have something on their mind — and they're going to give it to you good and hard. Resist the urge to judge them. They're the main entertainment. Besides, you may be crazy yourself someday, and then who will you talk to? And though it's not true to the letter of the law, you may not want to dial 911 about every victimless crime you see. Why? The reasons are sketchy. When asked, one local patron at Hamtramck's last "house bar," the Atlas (Brombach and Yemans), explained it like this: "Bars are places where illicit behavior is accepted — and often warranted." As in AA, but with free-flowing alcohol, what happens here stays here.

7. Show respect

In sleepy hours, the classic dive bar is at its best — a dark, smoky space where you can relax in anonymity. At times like this, many people don't want to talk, preferring to enjoy their potation in peace or gaze into the flickering television. Unless there's a damn good reason, this is not the time to burst in screaming and carousing. Respect a bar's prevailing temperature. "Honest" John Thompson, quizzed about the dive-bar musts, responds loud and clear: "Respect. You're there as a guest, not somebody who's going to make fun of people. There's nothing worse than a bunch of kids who come in and decide to make fun of an old guy who's been there his whole life!" In short, try to keep things in the spirit of a visit, not an invasion.

Do the dive: A shortlist of shot-n-beer joints

Box Bar
777 W. Ann Arbor Trail, Plymouth; 734-459-7390

Cas Bar
7800 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-581-9777

Diamondback Saloon
49345 S. Interstate 94 Service, Belleville; 734-699-7899;

Elbow Room
6 S. Washington St., Ypsilanti; 734-483-6374

Jean’s Bar 12002 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck; 313-892-9689

The Old Miami
3930 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-831-3830

Rusty’s Saloon
3984 W. Jefferson Ave., Ecorse; 313-388-1217

Seven Brothers Bar
11831 Joseph Campau St., Hamtramck; 313-365-6576

Texas Bar
14619 Kercheval St., Detroit; 313-824-5190

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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