To divine whether you are drinking at a true dive bar, forget the neighborhood. Dive bars, thankfully, live everywhere in this city, a testament to tradition and one inescapable fact: Once we are in winter's teeth, few trips warm us like the short walk to a cheap drink.
And while what's in your glass matters -- none of that fancy craft beer here -- the most telling element of what makes a proper dive is on the wall. Look at the clock. I took my seat at Zakopane at 10:23 a.m. on a Wednesday. The blonde, 50-something bartender, dressed in a white polka-dotted blouse and red pants, was murmuring Polish into a phone operated by the quaint grace of a cord and wall plug. A regular at one end sipped something from a green straw and, at the other, a fellow sucked down Miller Lites behind a pile of small bills and change made shiny by the pale morning light.
"The Price Is Right" flashed on a wide television in the corner, and the room smelled faintly of cigarettes. I opted for the "Polish beer" my bartender offered, then settled in for the Showcase Showdown.
Was this a dive? Yes, and it wasn't just proven in the snack selection (Jays potato chips and cigarettes), the hand-written "CASH ONLY" sign, the jukebox of odd disco and mysterious Polish divas, or the bathroom lacking soap and paper towels. It was all of that and more.
"When do you open?" I asked as the bartender set my beer onto the blatantly faux marble bar.
"Seven," she said.
She meant in the morning.
"And when do you close?"
Again, in the morning.
Though we were in the high-end heart of Wicker Park, the nearby bars aiming for Zakopane's particular shade of grubby wouldn't open until 4 p.m., after their bartenders, presumably, were done with their yoga classes and writing workshops. And therefore, try as they might, those bars are not dives.
Chicago is home to neighborhood bars, sports bars, cocktail bars and craft beer bars, and they all have a place in the constellation of beverage and camaraderie. Some bars try to split the differences, but they are merely hybrids; a ratty bar serving craft beer is not a dive ? it is a good bar with lousy furniture.
Dive bars are special. They inspire art and conversation and are immortalized in movies looking for authenticity for a simple reason ? they are authentic. There is no drama, there is no scene.
In a world of the new, the modern and the now, dive bars are the same as they've always been -- and not for purposes of style.
True dives, similarly, aren't packed with too many self-aware people. Or, they have no one.
I literally have never seen another patron at Sunnyside Tap, at Montrose and Western avenues, which I visited most recently one weekday afternoon about 2:30. The bartender, sitting in the back patio, slowly and quizzically stowed her knitting so that I could order a Modelo Especial. I was comforted to see the decades-old posters still covering the walls, including big-haired '80s pinups and, inexplicably, a 1987 Bears schedule. I asked when the bar gets busy.
"Too many bars around," she said.
Then she fired up the TV -- "Jeopardy!" -- so things might not seem so lonely.
But dives needn't always be so sleepy. The Cove, in Hyde Park, maintains its dive status despite popularity among locals and a certain brand of thirsty University of Chicago students. And Max's Place is indeed "Where friends meet friends," as its sign lording over North Clark Street says.
In Max's on a recent Tuesday afternoon, eight men in baseball caps sat with brown bottles before them. Old Style cost $1 on draft, so I ordered that. The bartender, the only woman in the place, set my mug down. I asked how long the bar had been there.
"I bet one of these guys would know before me," she said.
She turned to a customer and said, "Hey Eli, how long has this place been here?"
"About 37 years," Eli said.
But who's counting?