Student Survival Guide: Take the plunge

Rhode Island's real dive bars are alive and well
By VICTOR PAUL ALVAREZ  |  January 22, 2014

A GLORIOUS HIDING PLACE Jack's Bar in Warren. [Photo by Michael Cevoli]

Proper folks once referred to dive bars as sinister places where low life boozers escaped to get even lower. To “dive,” if you will. That’s no longer true — if it ever was. There’s a difference between a dive and a dump.

A dive bar is a well-worn, neighborhood joint with inexpensive drinks and a complete lack of irony or glamor. The bartenders — not “mixologists” — are friendly. The bathroom is clean. Pickled eggs are a plus. A robust, but discreet, sports pool where regulars can put a few dollars on the night’s game is a nice touch. Douchebaggery is never tolerated, but a free shot is likely to come your way if it’s your birthday or the anniversary of your divorce.

“What makes a good dive bar is years of wear and tear. Like some of the customers, these are places where people have stopped trying to keep things updated. They’ve settled in their ways and are going to ride it out to the end,” says John “JR” Richard, owner of the Avery in Providence (not a dive) and longtime fixture in the city’s bar scene.

“These are places where people go to meet their friends,” he continues. “Either real-life friends or bar friends, that line can be very blurry. These are the hardscrabble places that serve as that ‘third place’ in some people’s lives. It’s not work, it’s not home. It’s where they go to be part of something.”

A dive bar has rules — and you won’t learn them in your Anthropology class. You will not order a frozen drink in a dive bar. You will not ask the bartender if she knows where to score some blow. You will offer your seat to a regular if you’re not a regular. You will pipe down about your team’s success if it’s not the home team. And you will not fool them with a fake ID, so don’t try. (Sorry. The Phoenix can’t condone underage drinking. Students under 21 can consider this piece a survey course — research for when you can drink legally.)

“Right now, we’re seeing neighborhood bars close by the dozens. People are getting older, the drinking culture is changing, and you’d be very hard-pressed to find places that cater to third-shift workers,” Richard says. “As a result, it’s getting harder and harder to find decent dive bars. There’s plenty of divey places that have been opened in recent years to be new dive bars. But real dives are the ones that have been around forever.”

So when is a bar a dive bar? When it’s not trying to be one.

Here are some of the best in the state.

The Pontiac Tap

24 Pontiac Ave, Providence

No one’s going to mistake this neighborhood bar for an Applebee’s. It’s Dive Bar 101. No pretension, a smattering of sports memorabilia, and the encroaching flotsam of beer signs, Christmas lights, and license plates picked up along the way. The friendly regulars have a healthy suspicion of strangers. Budweiser is still the King of Beers in this joint and the liquor selection looks like it was pulled from your Old Man’s hooch cabinet.

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