Some trivial arguments come and go, while some become icons. Mandatory Milwaukee is all about the latter. This week: Debating what constitutes a dive bar.

The internet can be a useful tool. With some clicking and a little typing, you can learn all about volcanoes, listen to billions of songs, purchase fine garments, and catch up with an old friend who lives across the globe. It can be great! Unfortunately, the internet can also be a source of heated debate. On top of the disinformation and dangerous rhetoric that’s running rampant and widening our societal/political division at an alarming, irreversible rate is the distinctly online phenomenon of people passionately arguing about things that 1. Do not matter whatsoever, 2. Have no clear answer, and 3. Will NEVER be answered in any definitive way that will be accepted by everybody.

You know the sort of things I’m talking about: Could Michael Jordan in his prime still dominate in today’s NBA? What color was that dress? Laurel or Yanny? Does a hot dog somehow qualify as a sandwich? These sort of questions are as annoying as they are ubiquitous, but that doesn’t stop large swaths of keyboard warriors and self-proclaimed pundits from spending far too much time and emotional energy making a case for, rallying against, or confidently offering a declaration about literally every nebulous thing in the realm of existence. Is this what Al Gore had in mind when he invented the internet?!

Here in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin for that matter, one longstanding source of argument—both online and in real life—that is equally emphatic and unanswerable is focused on…what’s a dive bar? Spend as much time on the internet as I unfortunately have to for this job and you’ll find innumerable instances of folks unflinching declaring some drinking establishments to be dive bars, some business owners proudly branding their watering hole as “a friendly neighborhood dive,” and countless commenters going to battle to assert their opinions about why such places are or are NOT actually dive bars.

It’s a pretty weird thing to have such a firm stance on, especially when taking into account how broad and poorly defined the term has become over the years. To some, “dive bar” is a pejorative title that’s hurled at places they don’t feel are up to their standards. Others offer it to businesses as a compliment (or accept it for their own bar as a badge of honor). And no matter where you might stand on a “dive bar” being a good or bad thing, you almost certainly have an opinion on it. I’ll prove it. I bet when you saw the Puddler’s Hall photo above, you unconsciously (or who knows, maybe very consciously) filed it into one of two categories in your mind: Dive Bar or Not A Dive Bar.

For the record, I do NOT think Puddler’s—among my favorite Milwaukee bars—is a dive bar, but I bet it would fit some of your definitions of a dive to the letter. Others were probably cracking knuckles when they saw the Puddler’s pic in preparation of typing a letter to the editor listing all the reasons it isn’t a dive. After spending too much time (a.k.a. any amount of time) seeing strangers lobbing their dive bar-related opinions at one another on the internet, here’s are some illustrations of just how much “dive bar” distinctions can vary from person to person.

Dive Bar Food

• No food at all
• Only stuff like chips, nuts, jerky, and pickled eggs…maybe frozen pizza
• Simple menu with burgers, fried food, Friday fish fry
• Full menu, made with love

Dive Bar Locations

• Only in small towns and rural areas
• Pretty much anywhere
• Only underground or places with few/no windows to let in natural light

Dive Bar Decor

• Anything goes
• Only stuff like taxidermy animals and old beer signs
• Noticeably dirty, smelly, and in open violation of health code and that’s the way we like it
• Gambling machines and/or pull tabs
• Cozy, quaint, and inviting

Dive Bar Staff

• Owner/operator who tends to the bar and, if applicable, serves food
• An affable character tending bar (has to be old)
• An affable character tending bar (can be any age)
• Literally any bartender on earth

Drink Selection

• Small selection with all domestic beer, few if any draft beer lines, no top shelf liquor
• Mix of domestic and local craft beer both in cans/bottles and on tap, some higher quality liquor, maybe some hard seltzer
• Anything goes

Drink Prices

• So cheap you wonder how the bar stays in business
• On the lower side
• Not much different from every other bar, so not really a factor

Dive Bar Clientele

• Locals only…and people who’ve stumbled upon the bar by sheer chance if they keep to themselves
• All are welcome! We’re strangers now, but will be friends before you leave (as pictured above)
• Either overtly close-minded or something discovered within two minutes of talking to the bartender or regulars

Dive Bar TV Situation

• No TVs at all
• Some TVs, playing whatever (sports, game shows, local news)
• Enough TVs with sports on to have some folks crying, “It’s not a dive, it’s a sports bar! Wah-wah-wah!”

Dive Bar Music

• Jukebox or TouchTunes
• Radio or music video channel serving as bar’s default soundtrack
• Live music sometimes
• Never live music
• No music at all (people either talk or TV audio is left on)

Dive Bar Hours

• Opens at 6 a.m.
• Is open 365 days a year
• Has regular hours that can be found online
• Only open specific nights of the week (“Tuesday through Thursday, or whenever Barb feels like it!”)
• Closes early and with little notice or consistency

I could go on, but I hope you get the point by now. The more you dig into what this type of drinking establishment is, what it’s not, or what it could be under certain conditions, the more it should become apparent that the almighty “Dive Bar”—like most treasured things in this life—simply falls into the murky “you know it when you see it” category. What makes a dive bar a dive bar is paradoxical, circumstantial, malleable and, yes, it’s oh-so debatable.

Though countless hours, infinite keystrokes, a lifetimes worth of breath have been wasted in an effort to determine exactly what a dive bar is, there’s no single definition. To me, that’s the best part. Dive bars are special and, in a world becoming more sterile and uniformly gray every day, are becoming increasingly scarce. So instead of arguing about what constitutes a dive bar with strangers on the internet, we urge you to go out and find your own dive bar—whatever that term means to you—to visit, support, and cherish while you still can.

About The Author

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Co-Founder and Editor

Before co-founding Milwaukee Record, Tyler Maas wrote for virtually every Milwaukee publication (except Wassup! Magazine). He lives in Bay View and enjoys both stuff and things.