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How to Tell You're Not in a Real Dive: John Nova Lomax Provides 10 Clues

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The next you're wondering if you're in a dive bar or not in Houston, use this super handy guide.

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Welcome to the Dive Bar Power Hour, a full hour dedicated to dive bars. Unlike their more popular sibling, the cocktail bar, dive bars are slightly rough around the edges - maybe sticky too - but even they need love too.

We couldn't conclude Dive Bar Power Hour without the all-knowing-dive-bar-master-of-the-all: John Nova Lomax. A former writer for  Houston Press and Houstonia Magazine, Lomax wrote the book on dive bars in Houston (really, he did). The next time you're wondering if you're in a dive bar or not in Houston, use this guide Lomax

If the "Best Dive Bar" lists from the Houston Chronicle and Yelp are any indication, Houston drinkers have a very strange definition of a dive. Here are a few pointers on how you can tell if you are in a real dive bar, and also how to identify its subspecies.

1. Franchises cannot be dives. I am looking at you, Woodrow’s.

2. In America at least, very few British-themed or Irish-themed pubs are dives. One local exception: The Bayview Duck, in the greater San Leon / Bacliff area, thanks mainly to its proximity to a trailer park.

3. Likewise most places that function first as music venues are not dives. Hence the Continental Club is not a dive, while its sister bar Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge has a better case.

4. Dives open before quitting time at work. A good dive will be open by two p.m., a great one by 11 a.m., and the very best will throw open their doors at 7 a.m., the earliest allowed by law. One such is the D&W Lounge in the East End, perhaps Houston’s greatest all-around dive bar.

5. A number of neo-dives have opened in Houston in recent years. These are hipster-run and as laid-back as true dives, but feature chef-created foods or clever spins on burgers and hot dogs, craft beers, and some have post-mixology craze cocktails. Yelpsters will know all about them. Area examples include Petrol Station, D&T Drive Inn, Grand Prize Bar, Big Star Bar, Voodoo Queen, Sassafras and Moon Tower Inn.

6. Neo-dives overlap somewhat with art dives: laid-back drinking establishments favored by Houston’s musicians, painters, art car enthusiasts, hipsters and poets. Art dives include Notsuoh (the artsiest of art dives) and Lola’s (the diviest of art dives.) Cecil’s, Poison Girl, Rudz and Catbirds are somewhere in the middle of those two poles.

7. Some people will say, "It’s not a dive, it’s an ice house." That’s a bunch of hooey. Unless it’s a corporate knock-off faux-ice house, an ice house is just a semi-open air beer joint dive bar, our own proudly Texan variant of the concept. The clientele determines an ice house’s relative diviness. You will meet a different sort of folks at the West Alabama Ice House than you would at the He’s Not Here Ice House in Pasadena, you know?

8. Speaking of, He’s Not Here is one of the best bar names in the area, second only to Galveston’s Hard Times and Misery Saloon.

9. Which brings us to our last category of dive: the True Dive Bar. In a True Dive, there will be lots of wood paneling and there will be folksy slogans plastered on the walls. The barmaids will call you "shug" or "hon" in raspy cigarette-tinged voices. Unless there’s a free potluck, often of tasty crockpot fare, food will be limited to nuts, microwave pizza, and various pickled items. They are off Yelp’s radar and you probably won’t hear any songs from after 1990 or so. The crowd will be much older than in a neo-dive. A Chicago dive enthusiast once told journalist Mike Royko that he refused to drink in any establishment where the people inside "were still young enough to think they are having a good time." That about sums up the clientele as well as it can be done.

10. True dives inside the loop are dying and endangered. To name a few: Jimmy’s and the Alabama Ice Houses, the Lone Star Saloon, Alice’s Tall Texan, the D&W Inn, Harrisburg Country Club, the Spot Club, and the Shiloh Club. Many of our favorites are outside the loop in ramshackle strip malls: check out the Blue Lagoon, Club Max, TA’s Cargo Club, and Hunter’s Pub. Outstanding standalone outer loop dives include the Dutchman, Bimbo’s Beer and Bar-B-Q, Lynn’s Long Branch Inn, the Sundown Saloon, and the Cozy Corner, where Westbury good ol’ boys imbibe alongside drag queens in glittery gowns.

Former Houston Press and Houstonia Magazine writer John Nova Lomax is the author of Houston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Bayou City and the co-author (with Mike Vance) of Murder & Mayhem in Houston: Historic Bayou City Crime.

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