As much as I enjoy the new bars and restaurants revitalizing the social scene in Downtown Cincinnati and Over the Rhine, I can’t help but lament the loss of the small neighborhood bar, especially the dive bars.
Historically, in the late 1800’s Cincinnati was America’s beer capital of the world. Brewery lore suggests the number of bars and taverns in the Over the Rhine numbered in the hundreds. They were busy social places quenching the thirst of the German immigrant residents. Prohibition killed that. The beer industry never regained that glory (though the craft beer scene is trying), Changes in culture brought about a change in the way people drank alcohol and better sewage management made the city water safer to drink so you didn’t need to ferment it first.
But you don’t need a historical backdrop to have a neighborhood bar, all you need is a couple of people who want to have a social outing in familiar surroundings and alcohol. There’s no marketing. These aren’t corporate or cool places. People just come or they don’t.
There are local watering holes pretty much everywhere, of course and some are nicer than others. My favorite of these are considered dive bars.
Dive bars are generally, small places, often tucked into a small strip mall, or in an old or odd free standing building. A recurring cast of characters (the regulars) make up a big portion of the business. Think of the TV show Cheers, but on a darker (literally the lighting is always terrible) and dirtier scale. The term “seedy” got its reputation in neighborhood dive bars. The bar stools, tables and chairs have been through a lot, and are well-worn and often rickety. When the local spot near my Mom’s house got new bar stools, the regulars almost staged a riot.
And don’t get me started about the bathrooms, which, especially for women, seem like an afterthought. Plus, there’s usually wall graffiti which isn’t tolerated at nice, new places.
These are places that may serve simple bar food like wings and burgers, but more likely only “serve” chips and beef jerky sticks. The drinks are cheap and they are not cocktails. The glasses are clean enough. The bartender is probably older, something you tend not to see at newer bars. The music comes from a juke box (many hooked up the to internet) or music service with songs chosen by the patrons, not from a curated playlist made by the owner or the bartender. The atmosphere cannot be beat. You never know who is going to sit next to you or what they are going to say, or what type of song is going to be played next.
I used to have a half-dozen or so dive bars to choose from, but now downtown/OTR only has two: Madonna’s on 7th and Milton’s on Milton and Sycamore. Knockback Nat’s on 7th is often thrown in the conversation but you can tell they are trying to be more well-liked, something a real dive bar doesn’t care about. O’Malley’s in the Alley used to be a great dive bar, but it completely remodeled and changed it’s clientele so now it’s just a regular bar.
Overlooking Downtown, is one of the city’s greatest neighborhood dive bars. City View Tavern in Mt. Adams is in a free-standing building on a largely residential street. They have a small menu (the Big Ted burger is the specialty…it comes with regular or bbq chips) and are also known for their spicy Bloody Mary. The back porch isn’t big, but it has a great view of Downtown and Northern Kentucky. This is a no frills place that prides itself on being a good neighbor. It has all the hallmarks of a great, traditonal dive bar.
I don’t have anything against the new places popping up all over the area, but the cost of the swanky surroundings is reflected in the price of my drink. The higher cost of my drink and the swanky surroundings means many people can’t afford to come in (or are actively encouraged not to). The type of people who come to drink make up the character of any bar. I like the wider variety of people dive bars attract. The dark, dirty dive bar is a more egalitarian, more interesting and, cheaper place to grab a beer. I hope they never go completely out of style.