As the Bay Area cocktail revolution sloshes on, dive bars are becoming stomping grounds for off-duty bartenders seeking refuge far from the velvet ropes, secret passwords, and home-brewed infusions that often seem obtuse even to the cocktail vanguard. With their cheap, strong drinks and gritty vibes, these neighborhood holes-in-the-wall are in stark contrast to the restaurants and stylish lounges—we can thank the likes of The Slanted Door, Beretta, Bar Agricole, and Bourbon & Branch—that have pioneered the craft cocktail movement and elevated our liquid palates.
Lately though, the distinctions between high and low on the cocktail front are starting to look muddled as prominent mixologists open bars where they actually want to drink. This means an influx of inexpensive, casual spots with definitive nods to the dive: beer-and-a-shot combos and well-made yet unfussy drinks. Here are three newfangled saloons that are shaking up happy hour.
Jon Santer (Bourbon & Branch, Beretta, Range) and Dylan O’Brien (Bloodhound, Churchill) can be found behind the bar at the East Bay’s new Prizefighter (on the former site of the infamous Kitty’s, where dance parties often erupted into fistfights). These days, the drama has given way to shuffleboard on the patio with boozy classics like the jack rose (calvados, lime, grenadine), drinkable low-alcohol options, and a rotation of draft beers. the oaxacan standoff is the deal of the house: You’ll get a can of Tecate, a half-shot of mezcal, and a booze-free homemade sangrita chaser.
A mere half-block from sister bar Bourbon & Branch, Tradition feels a neighborhood away. Here beverage director Ian Scalzo proposes a toast to classic local-bar libations with eight themed drink lists. Among them, the dive bar section of the menu includes his take on eight classics, from the notorious long island iced tea (barrel-aged and served in a bottle to hide your shame) to the mind eraser, given new life with nocino (walnut) and house-made coffee liqueurs and served in a fishbowl-sized goblet.
Rio Grande (Civic Center)
This pop-up bar from Bon Vivants Scott Baird, Josh Harris, and Jason Henton embraces the lush gaudiness of the lowbrow. Old Mexican newspapers line the walls, mirrored tiles turn sections into a giant disco ball, and rock music blares from the speakers. And there are stripper poles on the bar. The drinks are cheap and cheerful, but the Bon Vivants’ pedigree shows through: A repurposed shot chiller dispenses ice-cold old fashioneds poured over hand-cut ice, and the namesake rio grande (bourbon, reposado tequila, lemon, lime, sugar) comes with a sweet-salty-spicy rim. Also look for frequent fire-breathing performances by bartender Russell Davis. It’s like being on a border-town movie set in the best possible way.
This article was published in 7x7's October issue. Click here to subscribe.