A Beer & a Shot for Three Bucks: Where Have All of New York's Dive Bars Gone?

The sign said it was only three bucks for a beer and a shot, so I opened the door and walked into an almost dive bar on East Broadway.

It’s a fairly decent place, which is why it’s only almost a dive bar. The clientele is a little too well heeled, it’s relatively bright and cheery, and there are MacBooks open at the tables. No judgment from this writer on that, I’m one of the people staring into one.

Still, it’s only three bucks for a beer and a shot and the Po Boys ain’t half bad, so this place will do fine. “Hit the Road Jack” comes on the playlist, and for just a few minutes, Ray Charles can make you forget about petty criticisms and bring you back through time.

Behind me, an older guy has joined the crowd on the wood, and he’s complaining about the same thing I’m writing about. 

“There’s no real bars around anymore, man, it’s sad. Ever hear of a place called Dirty Frank’s? My kinda place!”

Now I know the guy’s from Philadelphia. 

Dirty Frank’s is a Dive Bar Legend. He turns to a young woman and asks if she’s from the neighborhood, and when she answers that she’s from the Upper West Side, he cackles, “Oh, you’re slumming it!”

Everybody cracks up at this, because “slumming it” at this place is a ludicrous comment, uttered between potted plants festooned with Christmas lights. It feels artificial, even a little surreal.

That’s the essential ingredient of a dive bar; reality in all its ugliness. All the warts, the nitty-gritty details; grimy at its best, dangerous at its worst. A dive bar is not a place you should live your life, but it’s somewhere we should all visit from time to time.


Eighth Avenue was an actual red light district back in the day. Porn shops were everywhere. Strip clubs heralded the fact that they featured dancing girls trying to work their way through college. And jammed between the sleaze merchants, the arcades, and the fifty-cent hamburgers, were the dive bars.

I both worked and played in that area. My friends did too, and so that’s where we’d end up drinking. We’d start there and usually end up back in time for last call. Our two favorites were Smith’s Bar and Scruffy Duffy’s, who made the best chicken wings on the planet.

Scruffy Duffy’s is long gone now, but Smith’s Bar got saved from being turned into a Starbucks, at least. It’s no longer the bar I knew, it’s been prettied up, but at least it’s still there. Smith's is the last bar standing amongst the haunts of my younger days.

The conversation behind me has become raucous. Everyone is trying to gross each other out. People have gone from talking about real estate to lancing boils. That’s what happens in dive bars: people get real. 

Of course, a beer and a shot for three bucks might have a little something to do with that.

Raucous stories are part of the charm of dive bars. Nobody is particularly politically correct, although offense is rarely intended. For the most part, you run into good people, but like anywhere else, that part of the population that’s bellicose and belligerent makes appearances too. 

But that element of danger adds to the thrill, even if actual danger is very rare.

Mostly, dive bars are just a good time. 

Even taking into account the rose colored glasses of this old man (“Get offa my lawn!”), it’s hard to come up with many bad memories of those days. Scruffy Duffy’s was my de facto headquarters. I lived for their wings, and the girl I dated at that time is now the woman I married.

It came to an end all too soon. In the mid-nineties, Rudy Giuliani became Mayor, and he started the process of Disney-fying New York City. Almost overnight, Times Square and a big chunk of Hell’s Kitchen were transformed.


I’ve often referred to this phenomenon as “Rudy’s Giant Broom,” because that’s what it felt like; a giant invisible broom sweeping everything away. 

Just like that, all the seedy porn stores and peep shows were gone, and family-friendly, tourist-drawing establishments popped up in their place. At the time, it seemed like a good thing. That area of town was overloaded with seedy spots, and supplanting sleaze with Disney seemed wise.

But you know what they say about throwing out the bathwater. Sure the prominent eyesores were gone, but so were a lot of other places. Curio shops, the places with cheap eats, and dive bars all fell by the wayside in droves.

Giuliani’s Giant Broom did not discriminate. It swept everything away including, eventually, Scruffy Duffy’s and those wings I loved.

Times Square was fundamentally transformed. Yes, it’s pretty, and yes, it’s an economic boon to the city, but it’s also become corporate to the nth degree. That has spread throughout Gotham, jacking up rents and leases sky high.


When businesses like Toys R Us bow out of Times Square, and rob New Yorkers of icons like FAO Schwarz, it’s a clear sign that Jimmy McMillan is right, “The rent is too damn high!”

That’s when you need the low rent places. The dive bars. And yeah, they’re still around, although they’re much easier to find in the Boroughs. Shenanigans Pub on Caton Avenue in Brooklyn is a good spot, just as a for instance.

In Manhattan, true dives are a lot fewer and farther between, but they’re not extinct

BillyMark’s West cheerfully thumbs its nose at the corporatization of Gotham. If you check around Port Authority you’ll find a whole crop of true dives. Dave’s Tavern has what you’re looking for and if you want to get a little bit dirtier, Tobacco Road is right around the corner.


But for me, the days of frequenting dive bars are behind me. Life changes when you get married and have a kid. Life is no longer your own. You move on, whether you want to or not, and you make the best of it. And sometimes life throws you a little something from your past back to you.

My family and I recently moved to the West Side of Hell’s Kitchen. We’re part of the problem now, New Yorkers who live in the high rise buildings growing like weeds from the empty lots created by Giuliani’s Giant Broom. The irony is not lost on me.


A day after we moved in to the new digs, I made a pleasant discovery. There’s a sports bar on 10th Avenue called Lansdowne Road. Right in the window was a sign saying they had those famous Scruffy Duffy’s wings. The owner was one and the same, and he’d saved the recipe.

So even though Scruffy Duffy’s was long gone, I could have my wings again. Even though Smith’s Bar was renovated and repackaged, at least it was still there. The dive bars of my youth weren’t completely gone; some of them had just grown up with me. 

And that really wasn’t so bad.

But every once in a while, you just want to be in a place that’ll only charge three bucks for a beer and a shot. Every once in a while you need to get real and go low rent. And that really isn’t so bad, either.

New Yorkers need to remind ourselves not to get too elitist. 

It’s easy to lose your head in a city like this, that’s so well known, and that does so much for everyone else on the entire planet. You can end up trapped in an echo chamber this way, and that’s never good.

To gain some real perspective on your world, you can’t always look down on it. Sometimes you have to get down with those friends in low places. 

Sometimes you have to get a good look at life without the pretty mask to getter a better handle on it.

And if you’re going to go down that road, you better have a drink ready to loosen you up. Three bucks is a great deal for a beer, a shot, and a whole new perspective.

Check out 15 More Touristy Things Every New Yorker's Gotta Do Before They Die. 

[Feature Image Courtesy HighBrowMagazine.com] 

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