The Best East Village Dive Bars

Mars Bar, East Village, New York City 10Vivienne Gucwa

When I walked into Mars Bar for the first time I immediately noticed the smell. It was more of a stench, the same odor that permeates my yoga studio after a crowded Bikram class. The second thing I noticed was the man next to me at the bar, who pulled out a deli-bought sub from a paper bag. After a few bites, he ordered a Budweiser from the bartender. Mars Bar does not serve food. Even so, the bartender was remarkably nonchalant about the customer who was halfway through his dinner.

The establishment has been tirelessly documented as a quintessential New York City dive bar — a remnant of an East Village before the Bowery accommodated luxury hotels. Its graffiti-adorned walls, scrawled with disparaging phrases like “Die, Yuppie Scum,” take aim at the shiny high rises and condominiums popping up at an alarming rate.

Now, as Mars Bar prepares to close its doors for at least the next two years – and perhaps longer – it seems like an appropriate time to take a step back and assess the East Village’s best dive bars before they close for good.

Perhaps part of the dive mystique is that they seem to be a dying breed. And before they were permanently extinguished, I decided to search out some other neighborhood hangouts. Frankly, I realized I had spent almost all of my college years going out to hotel bars, Keith McNally restaurants and whatever new nightlife venture was written up by UrbanDaddy that week. On the cusp of graduation, I suddenly craved something genuine in a city where authenticity is a commodity.

First I had to define my terms. What exactly qualifies as a dive bar? Simply the bar on the corner? Would Cheers, where everyone knows your name, be considered a dive?

Historically, the term refers to illegal drinking dens, usually in basements, that existed in the 1880’s in the U.S. But these days, images of cheap beers, dirty bathrooms and old jukeboxes come to mind.

In search of a more concrete definition, I found filmmakers Reed Korach and John Brunetti, who have devoted the last year to searching for dive bars around New York City for their documentary “New York Dives.” “People don’t realize what these places are; they’re like living rooms,” said Mr. Korach.

While the duo’s search took them to notorious joints like Rudy’s in Hell’s Kitchen, they had done little research in the East Village. So I ventured on my own to collect empirical evidence.

I found an expert in drinking and diving who had also done field work in the East Village: Wendy Mitchell, the author of “New York City’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Five Boroughs.” Her top ten included both Mars Bar and Blue and Gold Bar on East Seventh Street.

Mars Bar FacadeShawn Hoke
Phillip Kalantzis Cope
Mars Bar, East Village 8Vivienne Gucwa The many faces of Mars Bar.

Ms. Mitchell’s book lists 10 criteria. While they were all relevant, I found a few that seemed especially on target. Rule No. 1 – “There needs to be an old man who looks like he’s in there every night, or at least the bar should look like an old man might wander in at any moment. A grimy place that’s filled with 22-year-old hipsters doesn’t count.” Rule No. 3 – “If barkeeps are charging $7 for a bottle of beer, or you notice that most drinks are being served in martini glasses, you’re not in a dive.” and, of course, Rule No. 8 – “If the bathroom’s clean, it’s not a dive”.

I knew the mission would be complicated as soon as I started. While cheap beers are a common denominator for dives, Mars Bar sells bottles for upwards of $6 a pop. Yet the bar is inarguably recognized as a dive, even by In-Flight magazine!

After spending just a tolerable amount of time there, my quest took me to Blue and Gold Bar, which had made it into Ms. Mitchell’s prestigious top ten. Cheap drinks were definitely a main attraction, with specials like a shot of Sauza tequila and a can of PBR for $5. Crowds congregate around a pool table in the back, and big groups can stay comfortably for hours if they stake out a booth, of which there are plenty. The remaining elements were classically dive. I was used to hanging my coat on a hook typically placed under the bar, but bars like Blue and Gold offer no such luxury (although I did find a wad of gum when I reached underneath to look). The bathrooms were so disgusting I had to leave.

It was the perfect excuse to go down Seventh Street to 7B on Avenue B. Despite the bathroom’s cleanliness, 7B, also known as the Horseshoe Bar, is definitely a dive. It’s ideal for a crowd – there are pitchers for under $20 and it’s big enough to get sloshed and still have a wiggle room. But it tends to fill up with exactly that – big crowds of raucous sports fans and sometimes, out-of-towners determined to get inebriated. As more crowds rushed in, I snuck out to head home.

Walking west to SoHo, I thought I had done pretty well. There were certainly gems that I had missed, like Sophie’s, Blarney Cove and Manitoba’s, but I felt pretty content and decided to call it a night. Walking down East Fifth Street, I passed by a nondescript entrance lined with dull Christmas lights. I realized that it was Scratcher, an Irish pub where I had gone to on my birthday years ago. New York magazine calls it “the perfect place to tuck yourself in for the night” and after I decided to go in for a nightcap (just to reminisce), I realized why. The vibe was ideally low-key, with dim lights and a low ceiling. There are tons of long, wooden tables where you can sit with your friends and make new ones. There were no rowdy frat boys binge drinking but plenty of Smithwick’s flowing from the taps. I don’t know if a pub can be considered a dive, but at Scratcher I found the authenticity that I was searching for, less than a block away from the Cooper Square Hotel, in all its gargantuan glamour.

With no signage outside, it just might be the East Village’s best-kept secret.

We’d like to hear from you: What are the best dive bars in the East Village?