An Ode to the Dive Bar
A New York dive bar draws its last crowd and stirs up memories.
Being in the business of writing about cocktails and bars, I often find myself in some pretty swank digs—various “mixology” dens where the elaborate drinks require complex techniques, house-made bitters and farm-to-table infusions are de rigueur, and the bartender has achieved celebrity-chef star status.
But when I look back at my career, my most memorable and intimate experiences at the bar were at a place where the cocktails were crafted with a soda gun, the hops in the beer were sourced by Anheuser-Busch and the design motif was inspired by a fishing lodge or garage workroom, at best.
The Holiday Cocktail Lounge on St. Mark’s Place in New York City’s East Village was my first real exposure to a proper dive, way back in 1987.
Surly bartenders slung beer and simple drinks—screwdrivers were $2.50 during happy hour, and a steep $3 after. The orange juice was crummy, the off-brand vodka was poured from scuffed plastic bottles, but the drinks were stiff and the company was good.
I’d met a gang of scrappy young artists who’d designated Holiday as their after-work hangout, where they mingled with the blue-collar regulars without hipster irony.
A semicircular bar dominated the dim front room, and booths lined the walls of the back underneath Christmas lights that remained up year-round. It was in those booths where we gathered off and on over the next decade, sharing our formative adult years together.
Last year, word went out that Holiday was closing. (It’s being revamped as a fancy British-style pub.)
I hadn’t seen the gang in a while, but when the announcement came of the bar’s final evening, there was no question we’d be there.
As expected, Holiday was packed that night. I looked around the room and realized the other groups were there for the same reason as us. Everyone had aged, but I recognized faces from those halcyon days of the late ’80s.
Within our group, most of our lives had diverged, but that easy camaraderie born of long nights many years ago had bonded us in ways time couldn’t dissolve. We sat in our old booth, caught up, traded fresh barbs and laughed a little too loud until closing time.
I don’t think the past was somehow better. In fact, I love living in this current golden age of cocktails, beer and wine, and I embrace, and even celebrate, how bars have progressed. Seriously. What, where and how we drink has never been better or more exciting.
But when I walk by the now-shuttered dive, I think of how, at Holiday, unlike many of these new mixology meccas, no one was judged by their class or degree of hipness. No one’s self worth or status was defined by simply being a customer at the hottest, most buzzed-about spot. When you walked into Holiday—and at countless other dive bars—all that trend tripe was stripped away, leaving you armed only with your personality, your art of conversation and your ability to crack a joke.