Scott: Tap into Philly dive bar culture

Scott shares his love of dive bar culture in Philadelphia.

Zach Scott

Zach ScottI have been to the land of the cheap swill on tap. I have seen the mountain of empty Red Bull cans. And I have to say, college bars are not for me.

I can’t feign total disgust, however, for that would cross over into self-loathing. I’m guilty of stopping by for the occasional brew. How can you avoid it? With a location in such close proximity to my current abode, the convenience factor has never been overlooked. So for me to turn up my nose at the unkempt masses who swarm these locations under the pretenses of karaoke or “White Girl Wednesday” would be vigorously hypocritical.

That said, I think it’s important to remember that there are alternatives out there, and some are tragically underrated.

Sports bars, Irish pubs, wine bars, speakeasies, barcades – the city is littered with exciting alternatives to locations where the bartender is wearing a backward baseball cap. Some of them have even avoided being featured on “Bar Rescue.”

But among them is an undervalued and unappreciated genre of alcohol establishment. Dive bars, I’ve noticed, seemingly come with a reputation for being shady locales amongst my collegiate peers.

As a frequent patron, I can certainly understand where that impression comes from. The amount of times I’ve plotted a quick escape route or complimented a gentleman on his eye-patch are more than people who generally care about my safety and well-being would like to know.

But where others see sketchiness, I see character.

Dive bars just have a certain familiar – even familial – flair that you just can’t find elsewhere. One of my most frequent haunts features a 38-year-old bartender who points at me and says “trouble” every time I walk in the door. You’re not going to find that sort of customer knowledge elsewhere.

And no, this isn’t just a ploy to get more tips – although it does totally work like that. One time I was dragged in there by an eager friend when I was just overcoming the type of stomach bug that would normally turn my choice poison from bourbon to “whatever will make the pain stop.” The bartender, being the wonderful example of a human being that she is, recognized right away that something was wrong, asked me about it and then offered to give me some juice free of charge. She was legitimately worried about me, and it showed. My own mother isn’t that kind and generous, and she also can’t mix a drink half as well. Think about that next time you’re at Maxi’s, where they serve pizza that seems to be actively trying to kill you.

Whether it’s because of the size or just general atmosphere, I don’t necessarily know, but I can honestly say that I’ve never encountered as welcoming a drinking environment as I have in a good dive bar. I’ve had back-and-forths with the bartenders and my fellow colleagues of hooch where we just ripped on each other, mocking the very notion of sacrosanct and recanting on earlier eye-patch-related compliments. I’ve had some stimulating and productive discussions on a plethora of topics, varying from politics to economics to a critical and scholarly presentation into the exact origins behind why [insert other city’s sports team here] sucks with such immeasurable force. And I’ve done it all while having just a really good time, the intent of which I worry gets misplaced by my collegiate peers sometime after the pregame.

You may have noticed that, up until this point, something would seem to be missing in this column of mine. I have named the shockingly low number of zero dive bars.

My only rejoinder is that a part of dive bar culture is only sharing your favorite places with people you genuinely like. I’m sure you, precious reader, are not a bad person. But I can’t say the same about the other guy.

When I mentioned this column to an acquaintance of mine, I got cursed out. She was terrified that I was going to name a place she had shown me. A place that is very near and dear to her heart. A place that I fell in love with somewhere between my first $5 glass of whiskey and that beautiful moment when “Mojo Hand” by Lightnin’ Hopkins played from the jukebox.

Of course both she and I want that place to succeed. It’s a tremendous bar with a great atmosphere and a knack for pouring liquor into glasses just the way I like. Neither of us wants it to struggle for customers. But we also don’t want it to be filled with undesirable patrons.

I want people to discover it independently of my recommendations and decide that it’s the kind of place they fit in. I want those people to bring their friends – people they know will also fit in – and convert them. I want it to be like a community that welcomes outsiders, which is completely different than a place that just sees a revolving door of new faces.

And I want you to be a part of the larger dive bar culture. I want you to decide to go check out that small place you walk by on your way to work instead of deciding that the Draught Horse is easier just because you don’t have to change out of your sweatpants. So I encourage you to step out of your normal comfort zone – if you haven’t previously at least – and find a place like the ones I’ve talked about. If you have more fun than you expected, don’t worry about saying thanks. Just cover my next round.

Zack Scott can be reached at or on Twitter @ZackScott11.

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