Poor guy. He’s barely peered his head in the door before being admonished with a loud, angry chorus of “Nooooo!” from the bartender, the six or so daytime drinkers scattered around the rectangular bar and the four guys playing pool, unmistakable scorn on their faces.
“You’re flagged, motherfucker!” says a man who’s violently pointing a pool cue.
“Motherfucker, you’re flagged,” the bartender screams, shooing him with a yet-to-be-opened can of Miller Lite.
Then, in unison, all of them: “FLAGGED!”
Poor Guy blinks slowly, absorbs the blow and withdraws back into the sunlight outside, heartbroken.
I’m at DeLeo’s Cafe (405 Dupont St.) on the Manayunk/Roxbourgh cusp, where they don’t take kindly to strangers. Regulars here gaze upon nonregulars with suspicion, some even physically recoiling in the presence of newcomers, hovering nervously around their drinks and waiting uncomfortably for the intruder to leave so they can go back to being themselves. Others take the opposite tack, turning the Asshole up to 11, puffing their chests and cursing loudly with gusto.
It’s called DeLeo’s Cafe, but it’s not a restaurant. DeLeo’s is unmistakably, inarguably and quintessentially a dive bar.
But what is a dive, and what makes DeLeo’s one?
I’ve been having this conversation—what makes a dive a dive—a lot over the last year and a half while working on a guide book of Philadelphia dives. In the (according to friends, family and colleagues who’ve received advanced copies) excellent, informative and drop-dead hysterical Philadelphia’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the City of Brotherly Love, I ventured into every corner of our city and cozied up to more than 100 of the finest dives in search of a definitive answer to that very question.
And here it is: In truth, dive bars are like obscenity—you know it when you see it. One man’s dive is another man’s fancy night out or neighborhood hang. That’s just the nature of this beast.
But generally, it’s agreed, a few characteristics define dives: the smell of stale air; a few hardscrabble regulars; low lighting; red light bulbs; ripped and worn leather booths or barstools; wood walls; faux-wood walls; photos of regulars past and present stapled to the walls; nicotine-caked ceilings; surly service; a vague sense someone in the bar might do you bodily harm, and without actual cause; cheap, stiff drinks; jukeboxes oozing music to help mend a broken heart or break it all the more; and, the piéce de résistance: something odd, out of place or downright illegal—a dog sitting on a barstool, a baby on the bar, an old man playing tonsil hockey with a tranny in a booth, a drunk sobbing loudly to no one but himself—the type of shit that would get you kicked outta some place proper. Places that, if the owner dared raise the price of beer a nickel, they’d hear a dime’s worth of grief from his customers.
Some dives exhibit all or most of these traits. Some only exhibit a few. That being the case, there’s a rating system in the book, on a sliding scale of one to five.
1 - One toothless old man at the bar.
2 - One toothless old man under the bar.
3 - One toothless old man behind the bar.
4 - Leave your valuables at home.
5 - Drink and be merry, for tonight you shall die.
DeLeo’s, for instance, is a five-star, no-doubt dive. There’s a distinct B.O. funk in the air that suits it perfectly. In the last few years, it’s been written up for fruit-fly infestation, roach infestation, mouse infestation and spider infestation. Also, for not cleaning utensils properly, which seems redundant, as they’ve also been cited for not having a proper sink for sanitation.
Poor Guy from earlier who wasn’t allowed entrance to DeLeo’s was flagged for smearing his own shit all over the women’s restroom walls and floor a couple weeks prior. When I walked out of the joint, I noticed the women’s room still had an “Out of Service” sign on the door.
I’d already heard about DeLeo’s stank and shit-covered bathroom walls from Brian McManus—my friend and PW colleague who asked me to shoot the photos for his new book. Still, as I hopped back in my car and drove over there, I thought to myself, how bad can it really be?
After a five year stint as a food and music writer at Houston Press, Brian McManus spent one year as that paper’s nightlife columnist. It almost killed him.
The bars contained in this book are the city's most colorful, character-filled dives. But what exactly makes a bar a dive? To me, dive bars are like pornography: hard to define, but you know one when you see it.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino