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Do Upscale Dives Belong in the Modern Bar Landscape?

When you walk into Gilly’s House of Cocktails in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood, you’ll catch folks circling around one of the two billiards tables playing pool for free, likely with a beer in hand. You’ll see an $11 Adios Motherfucker on the menu painted on the wall next to its room-length bar, touting ingredients like overproof rum and navy-strength gin. You’ll likely notice its brightness and cleanliness. Belly up to the bar, and you may spot a black wooden message board trumpeting the blue Powerade they have on a soda gun.

If you’re lucky, you may spot co-owner Erick Castro behind the stick — the same bar-industry titan who helped open acclaimed San Diego spots Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves. The other co-owner, Jacob Mentel, made his bones at places like Polite and Youngblood, which landed on the list of North America’s 50 Best Bars in 2023. Last November, the two officially took over what used to be Gilly’s Cocktails, an old, seedy neighborhood dive bar that began life as Gil’s back in 1968. They tweaked the name, removed the blackout windows to reduce the dank, and added cocktails to the mix, including elevated versions of disco drinks.

Their efforts produced a space that can be described as an upscale dive bar: an of-the-moment concept that’s meant to be a step above a sticky-floored dive offering beers and stale pretzels but a notch below a high-volume joint slinging highfalutin $20 cocktails. It’s a stylistic trend that’s gained momentum in the post-Covid bar scene, and the investment of big names like Castro into the trend suggest it has legs. As it grows, a concurrent question is also arising: Isn’t an upscale dive bar just… a bar?

Where Did This Come From?

The upscale dive bar is a product of post-pandemic industry actualization. When Covid-19 dragged the hospitality world through hell, many a bartender who remained in the trenches realized that building a community one drink — any drink — at a time possessed far greater value than treating craft drinks as precious commodities worthy of a pedestal. Elevated versions of lowbrow neighborhood joints are a physical manifestation of this revelation, but the concept itself is a cumulative result of more introspective attitude adjustments on both sides of the stick.

“After the pandemic, all manner of pretentious drinking has taken a back seat to drinking what you want,” says beverage and hospitality expert Mia Mastroianni. “It’s also OK to have fun behind the bar again. Things are a lot looser.” She calls out the Stoli Blueberi, a handshake shot that’s recently picked up speed, as a great example of this high-low shift. “It’s now fun to use it and shoot it, and fewer people are saying things like, ‘Eww! You can’t use that.’”

The passage of time also adds shape to the upscale dive bar ethos. Most customers these days are aware of the importance of using fresh ingredients and sound techniques to make cocktails. As such, cocktail bars can better focus on the community-building aspects of their business like an old-school neighborhood watering hole would. “We as bartenders don’t really have to educate anymore. People know what a cocktail is,” Mentel says. “You can now see someone walk into a bar on their 21st birthday and knowingly order a Ramos Gin Fizz or a Martinez. All we really need to do is show the same amount of respect to guests that they show us by being here.”

Mentel also acknowledges that Covid’s seismic shift opened the industry to exploring the feasibility of upscale dive bars. At the same time, he points out the concept stems from roots planted in the cocktail scene’s early days.

“There would be no Gilly’s without Audrey Saunders,” he says. “She was the start of casual craft cocktails, and she focused on being hospitable, providing mentorship, and making great drinks in that order. We’re just the evolution of her work.”

A Bar With Purpose

Upscale dive bars have no intention of driving out the traditional neighborhood joint. Doing so would be a horrific example of the industry eating itself; nothing soothes a bartender’s soul quite like a beer and a shot at a slightly dank, no-nonsense spot offering $5 well drinks. Besides, they both share a common goal of building a community through customer interaction and affordable drinks — at least compared to the cocktail establishments charging upwards of $20 for a Negroni riff. Their respective approaches to this goal stem from different viewpoints.

“I think a bar should develop into a dive. You can’t start it. Only your guests can. Let your walls develop over time and add a touch of neighborhood love!”

“An upscale dive bar is just a dive without the baggage,” Mentel says.

This isn’t a knock on true dive bars, per se. There’s nothing wrong with a hole-in-the-wall, and a little dankness isn’t always bad, either. “When you’re in a bar that’s a little seedy, you can almost hear stories seep through the walls,” Mastroianni says.

Bad dive bars, on the other hand, can have major flaws: Think weird odors underscored by the acrid stench of stale urine, asshole bartenders who show nothing but utter contempt for their patrons, and misogynistic barflies who harass female guests or staff for sport. This is baggage, and they’re elements that an upscale dive bar can counteract by creating a more safe and inclusive space.

This isn’t a goal that’s easily met on day one. It must be earned by following through on forging bonds with the community, patiently turning guests into regulars, and allowing the bar’s character to grow over time.

“I think a bar should develop into a dive,” explains Nashville-based bartender and bar owner Jamie White, whose co-ownership credits include acclaimed cocktail bars Pearl Diver and Tiger Bar and low-key, neighborhood beer-and-highball joints Lucky’s 3 Star and Roy’s. “You can’t start it. Only your guests can. Let your walls develop over time and add a touch of neighborhood love. If you have a million-dollar build-out and don’t do this, it’s kind of all fake, isn’t it?”

Why Not Just Call It a Bar?

It’s only natural to slap a label or assign a nickname to a new trend, but whether or not it sticks is another story. Mastroianni believes terms like “upscale dive bar” or “five-star dive bar” may not have much adhesiveness to the bars they’re supposed to represent, partially because a dive bar’s character isn’t driven by how it looks or what it serves.

“There isn’t a typical definition of a dive,” she says. “They could be dim, loud, quiet, whatever. But they all offer the same vibe of being welcoming, low-key, and unassuming. These are the things that drive neighborhood comfort.”

This vibe is the foundation of a spot like Gilly’s Lucky’s 3 Star and Roy’s, and it makes labeling them anything but a neighborhood bar feel a little odd. “Lucky’s and Roy’s don’t need terms like ‘five-star dive bar’ at all. We’d never consider it,” White says. “Lucky’s has developed into a neighborhood dive in the last few years. Guests have a history there and we let them have it. Roy’s is new, but there will be many new stories and memories made there as time goes on.”

It’s unknown how long the “upscale dive bar” label will be bandied about before it’s abandoned. It may even be on the way out already, or it may stubbornly stick around. But if the types of bars that fit the bill continue to build community in their distinctive way, does it really matter what they’re called?

The article Do Upscale Dives Belong in the Modern Bar Landscape? appeared first on VinePair.

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