Last week’s Village Voice was laboratory-designed to attract my attention. In type so big my myopic father could read it at 50 paces, the cover promised New York City’s Best Dive Bars, featuring “Ben Westhoff’s favorite joints.”
But who the hell is Ben Westhoff?
Google told me he was a New Jersey journalist who writes The Doggie Diaries column for Pawnation.com. Hmm, I thought, I’ll give Ben the benefit of the doubt. I’ve written on my fair share of foreign subject matter. For instance, I once contributed to Dolls magazine, inking features on the nation’s doll makers. I knew nada about dolls. However, I hid my shortcomings by focusing on my subjects’ stories, the passions that drove them to embrace dolls. In short, I acted like a journalist.
I opened the Voice and began reading the article with objective eyes. “A dive is a place that embraces your inner degenerate, and doesn’t pretend drinking isn’t the main task at hand,” Westhoff writes. Not bad, I thought. He went on to eliminate Rudy’s and Mars Bar from the list, which are tired totems of sleaze—excellent on the right night, but highlighted in every dogeared guide. Instead, Westhoff suggests “10 outstanding—but more under-the-radar— spots… They’re the kind of place where everybody would know your name, if they could see straight enough to recognize you.”
However, as I soon discovered, Westhoff’s words were much like promises uttered on a campaign trail: hollow and meaningless. If his picks weren’t so glaringly by the (guide) book (Tribeca’s Nancy Whiskey, Park Slope’s O’Connor’s, Hell’s Kitchen’s Holland Bar), they were driven by writing so lazy, so uninformed that it drove me to drink.
Of Bed-Stuy’s Tip-Top Bar and Grill he writes that the cook, Corrinne, serves free food that’s “borderline indigestible.” Owner Junior, “who looks about 70… can be found smoking out front, or sitting near the door and carding those who look young, which is pretty much nobody.” Huh? In recent years, Tip-Top has become a haven for the neighborhood’s thirsty and youthful, playing host to raucous concerts and hip-wiggling dance parties. And though the bar provides some complimentary snacks (mainly chips), the best grub comes later in the week, when the kitchen pumps out fantastic fried-chicken and catfish sandwiches.
Elsewhere, snap observations drive the review of Chelsea’s BillyMark’s West, where a “postal servant, armed with a shot, mixed drink and beer, demands that nobody leave until the bottles behind the bar are empty.” For Alphabet City’s
Blarney Cove, much of Westhoff’s description is about getting reprimanded for taking a picture of the bar. Woodside’s Station Cafe “caters more to fighters than to dancers,” Westhoff surmises, after eyeballing a no dancing sign, stacks of empty bottles and no-nonsense Irish imbibers.
This is slothful writing, seemingly based on 30 minutes spent sucking on a drink and a few furtive scribbles in a notebook. Dive bars do not reward drinkers who only dip their toes in. Dive bars reveal their pleasures and their pitfalls after you bend elbows for hours, whereupon you become part of the milieu. Westhoff seems like a dive bar voyeur, not a lover, with no goal beyond cheap gags mixed with snark and descriptions cribbed from Creative Writing 101. These bars possess deep, drunken histories that can’t be condensed to an off-the-cuff observational anecdote. More to the point, he’s from Jersey. What the hell does he know about New York dives?
Screw his list. Here are my favorite bars in which to disappear.
Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge Come before 7 for $3 drinks. Come after 9 to ogle the bartenders strutting in bikinis. Don’t ask about the inflatable kiddie pool sitting in the corner. 200 Flushing Ave. at Washington Ave., Brooklyn, no phone.
El Flamingo If the thumping salsa music strikes you, take one of the lingerie-garbed “sexy ballerinas” for a twirl. But it’ll cost you: While Coronas may cost $3 or $4, an hour of dancing runs upward of $40. 85-12 Roosevelt Ave. betw. 85th & 86th Sts., Queens, 718-606-1633.
Patriot Saloon In this two-floor honky tonk that stinks of stale beer, pitchers of beer run less than $7, served up by barmaids—who dance on the bartop—as busty as they’re surly. Pay extra, and you can suck Wild Turkey from their tummies. Also cheap 'n’ sleazy: The Patriot’s Spanish Harlem sibling, The Duck. 110 Chambers St. betw. West Broadway & Church St., 212- 748-1162.
International Bar While the original East Village incarnation was a delightful dump, the reincarnation is growing its own skuzzy skin. The secret: a ceaseless, $4 whiskey-and-beer special. Chase that with a $5 beer-and-tequila deal down the block at Cherry Tavern. 120 1st Ave. betw. E. 7th St. & St. Marks Pl.,
Turkey’s Nest Hipsters, hasids and thick-necked neighborhood dudes congregate to play pool, watch the Yankees and drink 32-ounce Styrofoam tankards of Bud. This is the only bar where I’ve been strangled. 94 Bedford Ave. at N. 12th St., Brooklyn, 718-384-9774.
A Touch of Dee From the sign proclaiming it’s better to give a shit than to receive one to the old women serving double pours of Tanqueray and tonic (from a bottle, not a tap gun), this time-worn Harlem relic is as comfortable as an old sweatshirt. 657 Lennox Ave. at W. 143rd St., 212-283-9456.
Imperial Bikers MC Though the buzzer-entry headquarters of an African-American motorcycle gang may seem terrifying, the bikers and bartenders are among the friendliest I’ve encountered in all my years of bargoing. After passing your initiation (milk mixed with overproof rum), you’re forever welcome to attend Tuesday night’s karaoke and Wednesday’s fish fry. 652 Franklin Ave. at St. Marks Ave., Brooklyn, 718-789-2451.
Soccer Tavern Smack dab in Sunset Park’s bustling Chinatown, the tavern serves as a reminder of the ’hood’s drunken-Irishman era. Now, grizzled old men suck down cheap draft beer from frozen mugs while watching horse races, not soccer. 6004 8th Ave. at 60th St., Brooklyn, 718-439-9336.
Gotham City Lounge Once a storefront church, this bunker-like bar is now a temple to comics and superheroes, with memorabilia covering every inch of the dark, welcoming room. Don’t like Superman? You’ll love the $3 PBR-and-whiskey special. 1293 Myrtle Ave. at Cedar St., Brooklyn, 718-387-4182.
Paddock Bar Less a bar than a reason to drown your sorrows after picking the wrong ponies, this stall inside the woebegone Aqueduct Race Track serves up tall boys of domestic beer and liquor by the single-ounce pour. Drink two, then garner the courage to place another bet. 110-00 Rockaway Blvd., Queens, 718-641-4700.