As philosophers have long debated the definition of “Truth,” so have bar-goers long argued over defining the equally ineffable “Dive.” Most would agree that a true dive requires some combination of tacky ambiance, dirt-cheap drinks, bartenders who look like they have seen it all and then seen it all again, and a regular cohort of slurring, barnacle-esque clientele. Luckily for all of us living in the East Bay, we’ve got lots of bars that fit that bill — but only a few can be called the best.
If there’s one bar that would scream dive if it still had a functional voice-box, it’s the Hotsy Totsy Club. With its wood-paneled walls, unmistakable neon signage outside, and horrendous lighting scheme inside, it’s no wonder that this perpetually for-sale Albany relic has managed to scare away the hipster crowd for so long. Nothing says “dive” like a bar that requires duct-tape to keep the actual bar from falling onto the ground. As any good dive should, the Hotsy Totsy has the stale air and gloomy atmosphere that leaves its clientele feeling at once nurtured, neglected, and utterly intoxicated. Extra points for the Pabst on tap, and demerits for the new digital jukebox that looks like a UFO. If the Hotsy Totsy wants to retain its dive bar status, it’s going to have to stop investing in fancy technology.
On its MySpace page, Berkeley’s Missouri Lounge declares its interests as “Bum jam, cheap booze, beef sticks, booty bombs and smooth jams, pool, baseball, outlaws, drink wheel, [and] keeping the regulars in check.” Oh, and apparently the bar is also a Sagittarius — which would make sense considering its rabble-rousing independence from all things hygienic and wholesome. Known to some as the “misery lounge,” the ambiance at the Missouri is nothing short of second-rate, and never disappoints. Don’t be fooled by the younger, hipper weekend crowd and nightly DJ sets — hitting up the bar midweek at happy hour is enough to convince anyone that this ain’t no lush lounge. While you’re there, make sure to try the $5 whiskey-and-can o’ beer combo to put a little fire on your breath and kick(ass) in your step.
On the more upscale side, Baggy’s By the Lake offers something that aforementioned dives don’t: atmosphere. This lakeside hideaway has more red velvety furniture, fake foliage, and kitschy wall decor than a brothel in Reno. Although fully loaded with ornamentation, Baggy’s exudes the unmistakably “dive” aura of low-maintenance. Highlights include a dusty disco ball that looks like it hasn’t seen a disco in … ever, a gigantic picture of the bar directly above the bar, plastic sconces, and an entire faux-gold-framed collection of faux-cowboy paintings hanging from the faux-brick walls. But the feature that bumps this bar above all the rest is definitely the cozy “library” nook located in back where you can curl up with a scotch and stare at the aquarium (sans fish, or anything living for that matter) or read one of the dusty books (Hawthorne anyone?) stacked on the mantel above the dusty fireplace. Last but not least, this bar gets yet another nod for the breath-mint dispenser located right next to the “don’t drink and drive” sign by the front door. It’s always comforting to know the owners are looking out for their customers.
Keep wandering the periphery of Lake Merritt and you’ll eventually hit Smitty’s Cocktails on Grand, a dive that might fit more into Sports Bar category if it weren’t for the ridiculously inexpensive drinks, smoggy air, and bizarre woodcuts of clowns adorning its sweaty walls. With shuffleboard on one end of the bar and pool on the other, no matter how few people are in this bar, it still somehow manages to feel claustrophobic. Luckily, the crowd at Smitty’s is usually congenial, hilarious, and drunk enough to act as distraction from any feelings of imminent suffocation.
And what would a “best dives in the East Bay” list be without Oakland’s tried-and-true George Kaye’s and the Kerry House? Located conveniently over the hill from one another, both of these dives boast refreshingly little besides low-expectations and a place to drown your sorrows in alcohol — which must be what keeps clientele always coming back for more. Both also have their unique perks: while Geo Kaye’s offers a stunning view of the laundromat across the way, the Kerry House may be the only Irish bar to share a door with an Indian restaurant. The Kerry House may have pool tables upstairs, but doesn’t have the dog-friendly, smoke-friendly intimacy of Geo Kaye’s. Some might say the Kerry House attracts a slightly more homely, less art-school hipster crowd than Geo Kaye’s, but if drinking is what you want to do, either one will get the job done on the cheap. If you’re trying to decide between the two, you can always hit up both. — Anna McCarthy