I started writing professionally about bars in Texas sixteen years ago, concentrating on my favorite category of watering hole, the dive bar, mainly because it can be divisive. That’s also why I wrote Texas Dives: Enduring Neighborhood Bars of the Lone Star State with Austin photographer Kirk Weddle after getting to know the people who own, work at, and frequent dive bars. I’ll save you $35 right now and reveal the book’s big lesson: nobody’s ever unhappy about being at a dive.
After the book came out last year, people asked me: “How do you become a regular?” I responded with an anecdote. Back in 2012, upon finding the Triple Crown—a cinder-block building in San Marcos that was formerly a brothel and was always dark as a cave inside—I showed up consistently, maybe six or seven times over a couple weeks. I tipped the bartenders well, never got drunk, and generally played it cool until the day Big Pete, seated at the corner of the bar with several other regulars, nodded for me to join the group: my time had come.
Whenever I think of that morning, I hear “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” by the Fifth Dimension, playing from the Crown’s jukebox. I grabbed my glass, slow-motion strolled past the barstools, and gracefully planted myself next to Big Pete, offering him an extrafirm handshake that went unnoticed because Big Pete has hands the size of frying pans. Obviously, Big Pete and the other regulars had secretly caucused to authorize my probationary “regular” status.
“You were sitting by yourself and we called you over to play The Price Is Right on the TV . . . because you were sitting by yourself,” “Big” Pete Sanchez recalled last October, remembering the event a little differently than I did. Okay, Pete. I’ll keep the cabal’s confidence.
Besides, my point here is that I’d simply been assimilating to the rhythms and patterns of the bar, and after a while it felt like I belonged there. (Sadly, the Triple Crown has since closed.)
Texas dive bars exist in a noticeable way. They don’t have the same people, but they always have the same crowd, which almost never turns out to be the juiced-up confederacy of outliers and backsliders portrayed ad nauseam in movies, pulpy novels, and through lazy writing everywhere (except in my book). The customers are hard workers, third-shifters, freelancers—just normal folks like me with the desire to sit in a comfortable space, enjoy a drink or two, and let the outside world turn by itself for a few hours.
Want to be a dive-bar regular? Remember that a dive’s main function is to open for business every day and serve its customers. Understand that good conduct is enforced cooperatively by staff and patrons. As with other social clubs, knowing some guidelines going in makes it possible to adapt with minimal friction.
The bonus for following the utilitarian ethics of dive-bar behavior is that, if adopted universally, they make navigating outside the dive, in society’s less mannerly sectors, like IKEA, much easier.
Read the Room (It’s Reading You Right Back)
If you get carded, which happens for new faces, choosing to make a tiresome comment about your advanced age is automatic disqualification for acceptance. “Oddly enough, it’s mostly the early- to mid-twentysomethings that make any kind of stink about it,” says Adam Testa, owner of the Goat in Dallas. “They act like, ‘Harrumph! I’m like twenty-four. Gawd!’ ”
No matter what your reaction is, when you’re carded, all eyes in the joint will turn toward you out of human instinct. You’ll be judged, just like everywhere else, because to the regulars you’re either undercover or you’re looking for peaceful coexistence. They’ll help with the second thing.
Don’t goggle the patrons, but study the walls to see whether it’s okay to cheer for the Cowboys. Flip through the jukebox selections, but think hard before playing whatever you are wanting to play. Acknowledge friendly gestures. Drink your drink thoughtfully. When leaving, I recommend waving to the barkeep with “I’ll be back sometime.”
“That’d be great” is an encouraging reply.
“Don’t bother” means you shouldn’t have played that song.
Keep returning and you’ll soon have a profile based on shared data from both sides of the bar (and Meta, of course).
The golden rule of dive bars: regulars show up. Whether that means the bar can set its watch by your 5:47 p.m. weekday pop-in or remembers your sales route brings you through town on Tuesdays, visiting is expected. I make it a point to check in with my dive friends, probably more often than I do with most of my family.
“Consistency.” That’s what regular patron Clint Boardman told me a couple years ago as we enjoyed cocktails at A Great Notion, in Fort Worth. “If you go away for a while and we don’t remember too much about you when you come back, you’re not a regular at that point. You’re an intermittent.”
You’re Not as Funny as You Think You Are
“No one should feel like they have to entertain anyone,” explains Brooke Traverse, bartender at Austin’s Donn’s Depot. In truth, some extremely unfunny people populate dive bars, so if you can only make others laugh politely, find alternative paths to conversation. Try this: “Who’s the most famous person to come into this bar?” (Bartenders should reply, “You,” then collect tip.) Or ask someone to settle a bet you have with a friend (who needn’t exist). The “bet” can’t be anything answered by a smartphone. Think abstract, like: “Which is the greater artistic achievement, Kris Kristofferson writing ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ or Janis Joplin performing ‘Me and Bobby McGee’?”
Keep It Simple and Tip Honestly
It’s totally badass when the bartender has your drink ready before your butt hits the stool. But that can’t happen if your “usual” is served blended in a hurricane glass with a sugared rim and garnished with fresh-cut basil sprigs. Yes, today’s bartenders (or mixologists, if you must) have awesome skills, make their own bitters, and possess encyclopedic knowledge of pre-Prohibition cocktails. But they don’t typically work in dives, so for pity’s sake, order simply—a beer and a shot, a martini, a bourbon and branch.
Leave a gratuity that reflects your honest financial situation. I’m a dollar-a-drink kind of guy, but don’t overtip on early visits if you can’t sustain it. Leave room to go up when it’s called for.
Don’t Bug the Bartenders
Civilians shouldn’t assume buying drinks entitles them to all the bartender’s attention. “Yes, they do feel that way. And you know what? I’m okay with that,” says Michelle Lapinsky, a bartender at Riley’s Tavern in Hunter, despite my best efforts to get her to claim otherwise. “But yeah, there are some who, if I’m not there one hundred percent of the time with them—because I’m busy with other customers—it hurts their feelings.”
This is also important: time does not stand still in a dive. The outside world intrudes, but chauvinists, bigots, and creepies who fall in love with bartenders should drink elsewhere. “Riley’s was founded in 1933, but that doesn’t mean inside these doors it’s still 1933,” says Lapinsky, who has stories about men’s behavior that embarrass me right down to my Y chromosome.
Practice Controlled but Dedicated Drinking
A common mistake from regulars-in-training is drinking to impress, which inevitably leads to stupidity followed by regret. At Saddle Bronc in San Angelo, where owner Ila Johnson is renowned for charging a financial penalty (usually 25 cents) for any use of the f-word, don’t try drinking so much that you lose sight of common sense.
“The regular customers kind of know what they should do. The new ones get a little—‘I haven’t had that much to drink!’—and all this stuff,” Johnson says. “But we tell them that it’s not just that y’all will get in trouble. It’s the bartenders and the bar that get in trouble, too.”
Don’t Be Afraid of Silence
Dives allow patrons to drink alone in peace because talking doesn’t always solve problems. Concurrently, consider gossip about the bar to be currency that grows in value the longer you keep it pocketed. It may become so priceless you’ll feel it’s best never to be parted from it. After all, these are your dive-bar friends. Show some class.