Dive bars require character, characters, layers of grime

Good luck with the 'upscale' imitation

Friday, July 19, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 29

“Upscale dive bar,” it read. The press release made its way across the media landscape last week, its language regurgitated without question or irony. The reaction on social media, however, was swift and comical, mocking the simple three-word description of a new “watering hole” coming to Charlotte Pike.

“Upscale dive bar.” Say what? I don’t know what that means, no matter how much you tell me about craft brews, a Tex-Mex inspired menu, CBD cocktails and craft tinctures.

This is the brainchild of James and Louisa Green, who six years ago opened the narrow shotgun called Headquarters Coffee and Tea, a quirky and cozy joint on the corner of 49th and Charlotte. They seem like nice folks, and I’ve enjoyed sitting ass-to-elbow sipping their brews.

Now they’re opening a bar called Otto’s down the road at 4210 Charlotte in an old auto repair shop. They want to fill a perceived niche. That’s funny because right behind Headquarters is Betty’s Grill, an honest-to-god dive bar with an orange checkerboard painted on the sidewalk and a concrete dog guarding the steps. The decoration was not done in a fit of cool irony or part of a design palette, but because Betty’s simply roots for the Vols.

Dive bars are made over time, they accrete diviness like nicotine stains on the walls. It is a dubious but hard-earned moniker. They are never upscale and their charm, such as it is, resides in smoky, circulating air that whispers, “We don’t give a damn.”

Regulars are family, and newcomers are welcomed from behind a gauze of suspicion until proven free from the slightest whiff of pomposity. Dive bars never call themselves dive bars.

Today, though, in a mad search for descriptions to make a business stand out, it seems anything goes, even oxymorons like “upscale dive bar.” That’s not to say oxymorons can’t be used to good poetic effect, and popular music is littered with them. Act naturally, right Buck?

Welcome to the new Nashville, tastefully scruffy, chic with shab and an edge as dull as an offset spatula. This is rural urbanism where reclaimed barn wood and barrel staves create what passes for a now generic atmosphere. Suggestive but hollow.

Calling a dive bar upscale, though, is anathema to everything we hold up as authentic, genuine and real. Isn’t that what we’re thirsting for these days, among the proliferation of new bars and restaurants each week?

You want a bar with scars and wrinkle lines? You want to find a place that harbors the collective conscience of a neighborhood while holding on tenuously to a lease that’s battered from every corner? Then go to Betty’s. Go to Springwater. Hang out at the streetcar bar at Brown’s or play shuffleboard at the Twin Kegs. Admire all the parking lot chrome at Brewhouse West. Sing along with Santa at his pub.

You get the idea. That’s barely scratching the thin veneer of cheap, dive paneling around town. Yes, arguments can be made about some newer dive bars in the making, like The Centennial in West Nashville, and it’s OK to just call them bars without modifiers and claims. What happened to a bar just being a bar?

Along that line, I suppose, are lounges, which imply a step up in quality, perhaps better seating, but not necessarily. There’s a whole continuum of dives and joints, bars and lounges, watering holes and hideaways. These are the places where we sit on stools, catching our boot heels on bar rails, slowly spinning our beers as the pressed cardboard coasters go soft with icy beads of condensation.

Good bars survive the whims of change because they offer a no-frills sense of community. Dive bars, though, survive on paycheck Fridays, liquid lunches and idle afternoons. That’s where their humanity lies.

Back when Shirley’s place anchored Five Points in East Nashville, you would often find push mowers lining the wall inside, wafting of hot grass clippings and gasoline. Too risky to park outside, the mowers and owners would pull themselves in while washing down the dust and pollen of a day’s work. Of course nobody batted an eye.

These are the personality quirks of dive bars; they are earned.

All of which brings us back to “upscale dive bar.”

That’s two strikes right there. It’s untenable hubris. You can’t be upscale and a dive bar, and you can’t call yourself a dive bar, especially when you aren’t even open yet. If it weren’t so funny, it would make me want to scream.

Will I go check it out when it’s open? Sure, just for kicks. I might even try a kombucha mocktail. I’m sure everything will be on-trend, whatever trends are ruling the day. I might shake my head a little at the perfectly restored vintage pickup truck outside the old garage stall doors and wonder if that makes it divey or upscale.

It’s such a weird dotted line connecting the two, I might just order a beer and wonder, “What in the world were they thinking?”

Jim Myers is a former restaurant critic, features columnist, hog wrangler, abattoir manager, Tennessee Squire and Kentucky Colonel. Reach him at jim@culinarity.com