I'm an ardent defender of the virtues of a good dive and urge all ethical tipplers to invest in preserving these spaces.
Definitions of what makes a dive bar vary wildly. The best wisdom I can share is this particular kind of beauty remains in the eye of the beholder. On dives, people often invoke the late Justice Potter Stewart's wisdom on obscenity: You'll know it when you see it. But seeing is only half the experience, and yet it would be offensive to turn dive bars into a purely voyeuristic exploration of how others imbibe. I recommend folks find their spots. Get to know the regulars and the staff and support some no-frills joints around town.
Far from being an insult, I think dive bars — though they'd never label themselves as such — occupy a time-honored spot in any well-mannered and beleaguered society. They remain one of the few places where we come as we are, where a mix of ennui and apathy beckons folks to liminal spaces. Where a banker and a teacher and an artist can all clink glasses and commiserate across generations. Sociologists would call them third spaces — the areas we inhabit and form community outside of our homes and places of work. Such spaces are rare gems these days, and classic dives offer them in the dingiest places full of a little danger — or at least forcing you outside your own comfort zone.
Community is probably the fairest of the virtues that dives offer. Whatever life's burden, barkeeps will ply you with cold beer and camaraderie. These spaces serve as way stations on your journey and breathers from life's troubles. It's cheaper than therapy, yet not without its perils. You may never even know the name of your bartender or the regular with whom you bond over the music or shared history, but you'll know enough to ask about their life next time you drop in and see them there.
To be clear, there's a fine line between a no-frills community joint and a dive. Anywhere with an ounce of artistry to its menu is disqualified. Joe's Inn wouldn't qualify as a dive bar, but its bathrooms were miraculously extracted intact from one. Dive bars require no ambitions to be an attraction. They ain't no places to put on airs.
The best ones are tucked away in dank basements — literally the origin of the term in the 19th century — or older buildings whose interiors accumulated layers of kitschy decor in dimly lit dens. The bathrooms are strictly utilitarian, and almost impossible to ever truly clean. You won't find the tap list overrun by local craft beers. You might find a pitcher of Bud or Michelob Ultra. And that's just about right.
Most important to remember, the five-second rule never applies at a dive. You could kiss your food up to God a million times and still potentially need to go to Urgent Care if you tried to eat off the floor. Speaking of food, dive bars are the last redoubt of kitchens that care not about Richmond's rising status as a food mecca. There's food — as required by law — and it's edible and usually lacking in nutritional virtues. But being that down to earth is a refreshing and authentic break from modernity's ceaseless striving.
Dives also don't happen overnight. The gestation period for these mythical and mystical places takes years of wear and tear. It takes awhile to achieve that hardened, aged look. And it takes a while to develop connections to a dive joint. Both, in my humble opinion, are investments of time worth making.
Dive Right In
Need to find your go-to haunt in town? Here's a roundup of places where everyone could know your name if they cared about remembering it. Regulars welcome, but check your pretenses at the door.
Lilly Pad Cafe
9680 Osborne Turnpike
Technically just outside of town, but wins for best scenery overlooking the James near Dutch Gap. The remote location — rumored to be frequented for trysts on the sly — inspired a running joke painted on the side of the building that encourages patrons to have their next affairs there.
Bryan Park Bar and Grill
5516 Lakeside Ave.
Great live music, good beer prices and some classic video games like "Golden Tee" and bowling that leave little to be desired in this community haunt.
425 N. Belmont Ave.
Deli sandwiches are a step above typical dive food in quality if you can survive the wait as the staff makes it on the 1950s-era sandwich grill. Beer by the pitcher, closets for bathrooms, and, best of all, in a basement.
Rare Olde Times
10602 Patterson Ave.
An Irish-themed joint boasts house band Uisce Beatha, Irish for whiskey, and an acknowledgement in the name that the type of community you get from a place like this is less often than one would hope. Nine-tenths would be there in a jig.
The Locker Room
5035 Forest Hill Ave.
Smoke gets in your eyes — even in the nonsmoking section — at this place with a jammin' play list. Locker Room is Southside's answer to the Mos Eisley Cantina, and an unofficial town hall for locals who have called the neighborhood home for decades.