Twenty-somethings and hipsters in the Bay Area seem to have a fetish for dive bars. Reasons vary. Maybe its a reaction to the pretension of a lot of the more pricey bars in the city. Think of any number of wine bars in the city. Could also be a desire to make lemons out of lemonade -- if you can't afford anything better than draft PBR, then make a bar that serves you draft PBR into something cool.
The catch of course is that some of the more popular dive bars among young people here in SF aren't that divey. Case in point -- ZEITGEIST...
Years back a 50-something Latina described sharing a drink there with one of her sons. Way before raising a family she had been a wild youth, hanging out at places that even now, decades later, would still be considered pretty rough. Seeing all these young kids with money drinking cheap beer on park benches, using the porto potties instead of a proper flush toilet, she complained to me,
"What is it with young kids these days that they pay big money for crap in order to feel cool? We didn't think about these things when we were young, we just hung out."
She had a point.
Which brings me (in a roundabout way) to what I call Two True Dive Bars.
The Hyde Out, if you read the Yelp postings, gets a 4 star rating in Yelp. But so does Zeitgeist. The real reason for Hyde Out standing out among the SF dive bars is client based. The average age of the clientele is in the early 40's. You also have situations like what happened when I went in to kill time before picking up dinner from the Chinese takeout joint next door.
Me: Is this seat taken?
Anonymous Man: Yeah sure, have a seat.
A few minutes pass, I sip my beer quietly while watching the TV.
Anonymous Man: So whats your name?
Me: [Not wanting to reveal to much to a stranger.] Oh, uh John.
Anonymous Man: Pleased to meet you John, you from San Francisco.
Me: No, from the East Coast. What about you?
Anonymous Man: [Leaps from barstool.} MY EX-WIFE SENT YOU!!! YOU'RE A SPY SENT BY MY EX-WIFE!!!
Me: Hey man, its cool, I'm just in here grabbing a beer, I don't know who you are.
Anonymous Man: Oh. [Calming down] OK. You come here a lot?
Me: Not really, just killing time before I grab some dinner...
Anonymous Man: YOU'RE A SPY, MY EX-WIFE SENT YOU....
I caught the eye of the barmaid, who waves her hand away as a sign I should just ignore him.
Me: (Stupidly trying to calm him down) Hey, I just came in here for a beer, this is the first time I've ever met you.
Anonymous Man: Oh, alright. Hey, I'm sorry about that. [Grabs his wallet, starts looking for cash.] Can I buy you a drink, make it up to you.
Me: Its OK, I'm on my way out anyway....
Anonymous Man: YOU SEE, I KNEW IT, MY EX-WIFE DEFINITELY SENT YOU!!!
I get, walk out the door to grab my dinner.
Onto Tia Piacera...
If you read the Yelp review and walk past the restaurant, it just looks like a nice Italian restaurant, one of many along Polk Street.
Look inside more closely. There's a bar area. Compare the clientele at the bar area with the dining room. There's a big difference in the clientele between the two areas.
- The dining room patrons seem to have more money.
- The bar customers are older, and a lot frumpier.
- The bar customers stay at the bar -- they don't go grab dinner in the dining room.
- The dining room customers don't go anywhere near the bar -- making a beeline from the door to their table, and from their table to the door.
If it wasn't for the common entrance, you'd think these were two different business, a bar and a restaurant as opposed to a restaurant with a bar.
I've stopped to grab a drink at the bar sometimes to kill time between engagements. When I go into a place like Zeitgeist I drive up the average age of the customers. At the Tia Piacera bar -- I drive the average age down by a couple of decades.
My last visit there, I pull up to the bar during their 3 pm to 7 pm happy hour. All of the seats are taken up by 50-somethings. I take a seat at the end of the bar. The TV is on -- but instead of football or the evening news they are showing children's cartoons. A 50-something man & woman are sitting next to me. They are not a couple, but do seem to be friends. Its only 6 pm, but he's completely annihilated already, and blabbering. She's still got some wind in her. After chatting me up for a few seconds, the couple moved on to their next watering hole for the evening.
In the end, the test of a true dive bar isn't decor or the label that is pinned on it on Yelp. Its who is drinking there. If you want a real dive bar -- avoid the twenty somethings. Look for place with a strange man accusing you of being a spy for their ex-wife. Or the place where the 50-somethings have commandeered the bar, and the respectable diners cower in fear while eating their bruschetta.