The Neo-Dives: 9 Bars That Keep New York’s Downscale Drinking Tradition Alive

Inside Mother's Ruin, Nolita's neo-dive.
Inside Mother’s Ruin, Nolita’s neo-dive. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

New York’s true dives are falling like barflies, victims of soaring rents and changing demographics. The Subway Inn — the ancient midtown Manhattan tavern that is currently being kept alive only by a (probably hopeless) legal battle with its landlord — is only the latest victim of an epidemic that has already claimed Mars Bar, Jackie’s 5th Amendment, Blarney Cove, Timboo’s and more. Simultaneously, though, a kind of kindred alternative in low-key drinking has cropped up in corners of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. It comes courtesy of, of all people, the mixology crowd. A handful of creative drink-slingers have raced so far away from the posturing ways of circa-2009 cocktail bars that they’ve taken on a variety of divelike trappings (mass-market beer, happy-hour pricing, televisions, free-pouring) to earn their regular-guy merit badges — call them the neo-dives. These bar owners still make good drinks, but they take pains to do so among simple surroundings and with the laissez-faire attitude of any white-haired Irish barkeep along Third Avenue.

Of course, for a bar to become a proper dive takes decades of stasis and neglect, as well as regulars and bartenders who have aged along with the premises. So if what you want in a watering hole is history (and the layer of film that comes with it), these are not the bars you’re looking for. However, if the things you like about dives include a certain live-and-let-live quality; a predilection for beer and whiskey over cocktails; an aberrance of uniforms and fancy dress; an unspoken blanket invitation to one and all; and entrances that are difficult to find — not because they’re secret, but because they’re nondescript — you’d do well to check out one of these nine options.

The name says it all. Basik owners Jay Zimmerman and Derrek Vernon set out to create a no-frills, unpretentious neighborhood bar and that’s what they did. There’s a five-drink cocktail list, but many patrons ignore it in favor of a can of Bud or a shot of rye. Wine is served in simple glass tumblers, and there’s a wide-screen television just to the right of the bar. (The sandwich board outside makes no bones about the fact that this is your home for Monday Night Football.) The Wisconsin Dog — smothered in onions and cheese — could be seen as a hipper answer to the free franks handed out at Rudy’s, the classic Times Square dive.

The Drink
Near Basik, tucked away on a side street, the Drink — its metal gate ever in place — looks like the kind of anonymous getaway men of previous generations might have used for a tryst. When it opened, the punch service was ballyhooed. Since then, it seems to have receded in importance, and the Drink has assumed its natural state as a basic watering hole that just happens to have punch, and a damn decent back bar. A sign in the roomy, pleasant backyard reminds customers smoking is not permitted. Everyone smokes.

Lady Jay’s
If you didn’t know Lady Jay’s was owned by chef Sam Mason, you might mistake it for a run-of-the-mill gin joint. But since we do know Mason’s involved, there’s a certain patina of self-consciousness to the Miller High Life clock, the old Pabst sign (“Bring Your Wife Next Time”), the bowling pin game, the mounted jackalope head. The selective graffiti in the men’s bathroom might be put there on purpose, or it might have arisen organically — hard to tell. Whatever. It all adds up to a comfortable place to bend an elbow.

Post Office
It’s true that Post Office has too many windows, which let in far too much light to feel properly divey. Nonetheless, it does have a beer-and-whiskey focus, the fine old wooden bar, some seriously battered bar stools, and a purple, gray and cream tile floor that, given time and grime, could become a classic in ugliness. Also, there’s the somewhat unnervingly large role the American flag plays in the décor. Dives have never really been a breeding ground of knee-jerk patriotism.

With each new bar they open, Alex Day and David Kaplan step further away from the formality and epicurean exactitude of Death & Co., the cocktail bar that made their reputation. With 151 (“For Everyday Drinking” reads the sign), they’ve almost made it to the curb. The bar actually was a dive — also called 151 — before they took it over, and they have publicly pledged not to change it too much. Sure, it’s a lot cleaner now and you can get a radler or fancy frozen drink if you like. But the true tone is set by the low ceilings, linoleum floor, dim lighting, and 1950s-renovated-in-the-‘70s décor.

The Ship
Accessed through an unremarkable door on a dark block of lower Lafayette Street, this bar from Little Branch’s Joseph Schwartz is a literal dive — you must descend what feels like two stories to get to the actual bar. The cocktail list is pretty sophisticated (New Orleans Buck, Prescription Julep), and the drinks are executed with the same precision you expect at Little Branch. And there’s no denying the metal straws and fine bathroom fixtures. But it’s hard to think swanky thoughts when you’re at the bottom of a cavernous space that’s purposely designed to look and feel like the belly of an ocean liner. A man can get lost in his liquor down here.

Mother’s Ruin
Plenty of cocktails are downed at this massively popular Soho bar, and the food is good, too. Still, a large part of the joint’s appeal is its raffish, downmarket quality. The beat-up semi-circular bar looks like its been through hell; the bartenders don’t dress in anything fancier than a T-shirt; and, owing to the crowds, the air is sometimes tinged with the familiar dive-y perfume of human sweat. The menu language is almost an apologia for attempting to sell cocktails at all. A recent description of the bar’s signature daily slushy read, “booze, green stuff.”

The Rum House
The former Rum House, which this slicker new Rum House replaced, was a true dive, one of the last left in the Theatre District. Thankfully, the renovation didn’t quite shake off the dishabille quality of the space. There’s just something about a nautical theme (see the Ship and the Drink, above) that says: plain drinking. Perhaps it’s the image of hard-bitten sailors in waterfront taverns. The back bar has some nice bottles, but is otherwise quite limited, and they make Old-Fashioneds here the way they do at any old bar in Podunk (orange, cherry, etc.). The old-style neon sign outside with the arrow pointing to the door contributes to the overall aura of democratic dipsomania.

You know that certain kind of dive bar, the ones that, if you squint your eyes and carefully examine the décor, you realize the place was rather handsome once upon a time, before dust and gravity did their silent work? (Think of any old tiki bar you know.) Splitty looks like what the “before” shot of such bars would have looked like. The interior design is wonderful and whimsical, an extended riff on ‘60s-era campers. But, given time, it could devolve into a state of fabulous, kitschy dilapidation. Cocktails are good, but simple. You can also get Miller High Life. And behind the bar, a line of shot glasses stand at the ready.

Earlier: Subway Inn’s Eviction Order Blocked Yet Again

9 Bars That Keep New York’s Downscale Drinking Tradition