The dive bar is a unique American drinking institution. Sure, there are shabby, well-worn bars the world over, but there’s something about the sticky floors, the graffiti-tagged bathroom walls, the wine selection that is “red” or “white,” and how the main room looks better with the lights off. Visiting dive bars in NYC make you want to nurse a cheap but potent vodka soda and read a Bukowski novel.
Being a great dive bar, though, isn’t a race to the bottom. The drinks are always cheap, the bartenders are usually friendly, and there’s often an everyone-is-welcome vibe. We may never know why, more times than not, dive bars in NYC frequently have male names (see below), but we do know we love the spirit and camaraderie of these drinking dens.
And there are some very divey dive bars in NYC. Here are the 10 best.
The first rule of this South Street Seaport dive bar is knowing how to get in. In fact, the door has no visible handle. Uninitiated first-timers may stand there an embarrassingly long time until a regular shows up, reaches to a hidden latch behind the top of the door, and swings it open.
Inside Fish Market (111 South Street) is a perpetual party. The owners frequently work the room, tiny plastic cups and plus-sized bottle of Jameson in hand, pouring free shots for everyone, whether you want it or not. This would all be enough to make Fish Market one of the best dive bars in NYC. However, they take it to the next level by offering an excellent menu of Chinese-Malaysian fare to soak up the booze.
One of the newest dive bars in NYC, Paul’s is a convivial drinking hole in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn with handsome exposed brick walls and some leafy accouterments to add cheer. The bartenders and loyal patrons are friendly, the drinks are excellent, and the food menu of small bites is a step above.
The most popular reason to gravitate to desolate Red Hook, Brooklyn, Sunny’s is a beloved neighborhood institution. The bar has been pouring drinks since 1890 when it was a hangout for sailors and longshoremen. Today it is mostly bedraggled Red Hook locals (who look like longshoremen) and “tourists” (the name locals call anyone who is not from Red Hook), who perch themselves at the bar or in the back garden for hours to quaff stiff drinks, laugh, and slam their empty glasses down.
There isn’t anything international about the International Bar. The dark interior and half-moon-shaped bar beckon drinkers any time of day. The bar has been open a few decades and has moved around the East Village a bit, but it seems here to stay, anchored near the corner of First Avenue and East 6th Street, improbably wedged between a McDonald’s and a Dunkin’ Doughnuts.
First off, if you refer to this East Village bar by its official name, WCOU, patrons will point and laugh at you until you sheepishly slip out. It’s been referred to as the “Tile Bar” for decades and the name is so embedded in the bar’s lore that in 2020 when the bar owners bought a new awning, they threw in the towel on calling it WCOU and had “Tile Bar” scrawled across it, making it more or less official.
This New York dive bar is famous for its nightly happy hour, which lasts until 8pm. The well drinks are priced so lightly that we heartily recommend eating dinner beforehand.
In April 1966, patrons of this West Village bar held a “sip in,” to create awareness of the normalization of discrimination of gay bars. Now part of the National Register of Historic Places, Julius’ was once frequented by Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Rudolf Nureyev. Originally opened in the 1860s, it is truly an old-school NYC haunt.
Today, the patrons are a mixed bunch, skewing a bit more to older gay men. The vibe here is very friendly, so perch yourself at the bar for a drink or two and you’ll be chatting with the people around you in no time. The burger at Julius’ is one of the most underrated bar burgers in New York.
You don’t have to be a winner to drink at Winner’s Bar, located in Elmhurst, Queens. And it might not make you feel like much of a winner, but it will help you get sloshed for as little money as possible. How’s that for winning? Winner’s is a great pitstop before, during, or after a food crawl through some of the best Thai restaurants in NYC to douse your burning palate with some well drinks—just like a winner would.
Since 1880, this extremely narrow slice of boozy debauchery has been pouring potent libations on Houston Street in NoLIta. It’s so dark inside Milano’s (51 E. Houston Street), you have to halt a few steps in to let your eyes adjust. The bar walls are bedecked by dusty minutiae that probably hasn’t been touched or tampered with since the Eisenhower Administration.
Perhaps the last dive bar to grace the Times Square area, Jimmy’s is a long, narrow bar midblock on West 44th Street between Sixth Avenue and Times Square. Opened by former boxer Jimmy Glenn back in 1971, long before the Disney-fication of Times Square, the well-worn, not-on-a-c0rner bar has walls plastered with framed photos of boxers. The best time to come is the early evening when office workers hit the bar for a stiff drink before heading home.
Gentrification? What gentrification? This seedy West Village bar is plonked smack in the middle of the posh West Village, across the street from Michelin-starred restaurants and upscale gyms where wealthy millennials take yoga classes.
Meanwhile at Johnny’s, a cadre of locals has been cozying up to the worn wooden bar, sipping oddly affordable well drinks and pints of beers under the glow of Christmas lights since 1990. Just look for the neon sign outside that simply says “BAR” and you’ve found the right place.
Insider’s tip: In the neighborhood? Make sure to check out our recommendations for West Village restaurants.
David Farley is a West Village-based food and travel writer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC, and Food & Wine, among other publications. He’s the author of three books, including “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town,” which was made into a documentary by the National Geographic Channel. You can find Farley’s online homes here and here.