New York City’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Big Apple, Ben Westhoff’s update to the previous edition of this blazer-pocket-sized narrative guide to the worst-lit drinking establishments in the five boroughs, is conversational, instantly nostalgia-inducing, and perhaps the perfect gift for a very specific kind of NYU freshman. Westhoff, a frequent contributor to the Voice, reads from the book tomorrow night in the back room of the Trash Bar (pg 158), at 6:45pm sharp.
How did you find the bars? Personal history, neighborhood wanderings, tips, or some combination thereof?
Recommendations from friends, web sites, Wendy Mitchell’s first edition from 2003 (though many of the bars she profiled are now closed), and just wandering around. I am indebted to my friend Brandon for bringing me to a Staten Island dive called Beer Goggles, which not only has a great name but a crazy history, including a brawl between cops and firefighters, and illegal gambling machines that police smashed up and stuffed the cash into their pockets. There’s also a vending machine that sells herbal Viagra.
Any review of a dive bar—especially, for bargoers of a certain age, one in the East Village—is liable to become a conversation about neighborhood demographics, gentrification, and authenticity vs. slumming. To what extent do you think you’re addressing that in your book?
Quite a lot. There’s no doubt that dive bars are disappearing, and that’s a shame, but there are literally thousands left in NYC, and folks should celebrate them instead of bemoaning the city’s “Disneyfication,” which is bullshit anyway. (I love it how a few years ago New York magazine was literally rooting for a recession, so we could return to that wonderful time of crime and poverty. Well, you got your wishes, assholes.)
Another issue is hipsters invading neighborhood dives, the “authentic” kind with 134-year-old men asleep at the bar. A misconception is that the hipsters are unwanted, but in fact the pubs’ owners usually welcome them and their money. So do the patrons. If you talked to the same five alcoholics all day you too would want some fresh blood.Though my friend Lisa aptly identified hipsterdom as the act of “fetishizing the authentic,” I think when it comes to dive bars that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps some of these places in business.
As for the new, faux dive bars—like Welcome to the Johnson’s and Motor City Bar, both on the Lower East Side, and both designed to look run down—I don’t have much against them, either. The former has really cheap Pabst and the latter has tons of elbow room, both of which are hard to find in that neighborhood.
Sort of along those lines: in the course of your “research,” was there any place where you were made to feel particularly… unwelcome? What’s the bar in the book that’s the closest tobeing your local, either in theory or practice?
As described in the book, at a spot called Crehan’s Pub in Queens I witnessed a barfight between two guys, and ducked into the bathroom to get out of the line of fire. The most terrifying part was when one of them smashed against the door and I thought they’d take the fight in there. That was unwelcoming. At Palace Cafe in Greenpoint I made a joke that didn’t go over well, about the box ofroom-temperatureFranzia white wine behind the bar. At Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge in Wallabout the bartender ripped my notebook out of my hand, and read my (unflattering) notes about her bar aloud.I was sometimes asked for my ID in a fairly-hostile manner; my friend Dillon said he was once kicked out of a Baltimore dive because he had an “out of state ID.”
I recently moved to the Jersey burbs, so I would say my most-fequented NYC dive these days is Port 41, just a few blocks from Penn Station, although, speaking of unwelcoming, they got super pissed at its write-up in the book. They thought I made it sound like there were drug deals going on there—you can be the judge of that. Though I briefly feared for my safety, I still love that place, and not just because the bartenders wear bikinis.
How many copies of this book will you have to sell to make back what you spent on drinks while you were working on it?
Many thousands. It was a great gig, though, and took me to parts of the city I would have never seen otherwise.