Written by freelance writer and dive bar connoisseur Luke O’Neil, Boston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown is probably one of the easiest, most entertaining reads I have encountered in a long time. Personally, I’ve always been enamored with dive bars because of their ironic nature and stark contrast to their pretentious counterpart: the nightclub. The number of dive bars in Boston has dwindled because of rising costs of ownership in the city and ridiculous laws pertaining to liquor licenses. Of the 70 or so bars covered in the book, a laughable 21 of them are actually in metro Boston (Back Bay, Downtown, Faneuil, North End, South End, Fenway, West End etc.) This comes as no surprise with real estate prices in those areas being through the roof.
In his book, Luke highlights some of the best dive bars for college kids and hipsters, and the best dive bars for old timers and townies. He also specifies where the dives are by neighborhood (Allston, Easty, Dorchester, Boston, Roxbury, Southy, etc.), and follows up with a one to two page synopsis of these filthy watering holes explaining what they are like in a way no other person but Luke could. Here are some highlights from the book that will give you a taste of Luke’s witty humor and unforgiving writing style.
From The Black Horse Tavern: “I’ve had people come back a year later and their dollar is still there,” says Dave (the bartender.) “Look, there’s a mouse!” he points out. I’m startled for a second. Not because I’m scared of mice, just because I’ve never seen a bartender go out of his way to point one out. “Did I mention this place is two hundred years old?”
From The Red Hat Cafe: “Female clientele notwithstanding, if your interior decor incorporates dangling white Christmas lights and stacks of empty beer cases into its scheme somehow, you are a dive. I’m sorry, I don’t care how many fresh-faced Econ majors stop by to eat chicken sandwiches and finger bang the touch screen video game screen.”
From Durty Nelly’s: “…all of which are tourist traps and Irish-themed pissing holes for recent college grads who haven’t figured out how to act like adults yet, Durty Nelly’s is just, well, dirty enough to maintain its bonafides. It resists the pub on steroids feel of much of the surrounding area…”
“Next to him a guy in a Hawaiian shirt and hair that looks like a frightened clown’s wig is buying shots for the girls (random hot girls who have already been mentioned earlier.) Look, I like a hot chick as much as the next guy, but come on ladies… You’re making everyone tense. This is a place where people go to forget their troubles, not to be reminded with every floral scented swish of your luxurious hair that they are never going to touch anyone like you ever again.”
We recently caught up with Luke to ask him a few questions about his new book:
To those who are not familiar with you Luke, where are you from originally? Where did you go to school? Did you study journalism?
I grew up on the hard streets of Kingston, MA. We have the ocean there. And a mall. I went to college at Holy Cross, then grad school at Emerson where I studied creative writing before realizing no one gives a shit about poetry, at which I point I started wasting my life on something else altogether: trying to make it in an indie rock band. Woops, then I picked an even better job, journalism, right before it went in the shitter. Somehow against all odds I have managed to convince people to pay me to go to concerts and drink cocktails, which means I am a pretty good at the one thing that matters in the world bullshitting. This interview kind of tells more info about me for your own purposes or for linking if you want http://streetbonersandtvcarnage.com/blog/wtf-does-a-freelance-journalist-do-all-day/
Where did the idea for the book come from?
I’d been writing about bars for a couple years in the Boston Globe, but they were all really nice cocktail bars. The publishers of the book, IG Publishing, had done a few other versions of the book in other cities, NYC, Seattle, SF, Chicago, etc… So when they were looking for a bar writer in Boston they came to me. Probably because they heard I was a sucker for punishment.
What about dive bars do you find most intriguing and why?
I’ve been answering this question in a lot of interviews lately, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but the basic ideas I like are that they seem like they are out of their time and place. The best ones anyway. You are surprised, first off, that a place like this even exists, and when you’re inside most of the real world sort of disappears. There may be modern fixtures, like new tvs and the like, but for the most part you’re sitting in a place that looked exactly the same when your grandfather drank here, doing the same things he did. Dive bars are like a time capsule of drinking history. I also like the fact that they pretty much appeal to really, really old dudes, and really young drinkers at the same time. Kind of bi-polar. The real answer though is that I don’t actually like dive bars.
What was the most difficult part about creating Boston’s Best Dive Bars?
It was hard at first to find them all. I knew about 25-30 from my normal life, but I didn’t have too much experiences in some of the outer hoods, like Eastie, or Chelsea, or parts of Dorchester and Roxbury. Then once I’d find a rough place, it was occasionally a little stressful to insert myself into a situation where I didn’t know where things would go. I am sort of surprised I went through a year of getting drunk in shit holes without ever really getting into a sketchy situation. Kind of wish I got my ass kicked at least once. Would’ve been good press.
There are some pretty rough bars in your book. Did you have any alarming or bazaar encounters in these kind of bars that you didn’t talk about in the book? What was personally the funniest moment for you?
I included most of the fun/weird stuff that happened. One of the most surprising things to me is how much racism still exists in Boston, but at the same time how many integrated bars there are. Not many though. I walked into a few places that I didn’t end up reviewing because I was too scared to spend time there. Couple out in the hinterlands of Chelsea and Eastie that were non-English speaking, and it was pretty obvious I was an alien virus in the bar. In every case I sucked it up though and powered through at least one beer.
What are some places one would be able to pick up your book around Boston?
It’s in most of the major book stores, but also Newbury Comics, and, I think, Urban Outfitters. Plus it’s in cool shops like D2, Magpie, and the Boston Shaker in Davis, and going to be a lot more like that once I get off my ass and hit the bricks like Willy Loman.
What’s in the future for Luke O’Neil? Any other projects?
Been freelancing my balls off lately. Doing some stuff I’m proud of in the WSJ and Slate lately, plus my usual rounds of music and nightlife stuff for the Globe, Metro, Stuff, Phoenix, and AskMen. Mostly just watching my weird ranting website PutThatShitOntheList.com take off into sort of an actual thing. Kind of surprising. People like me when I’m angry I guess. I’m like the opposite of Bruce Banner.
Luke O’Neil has written for the Boston Globe, Alternative Press, Black Book, Weekly Dig, Boston Metro, Wall Street Journal, Stuff Boston and the list goes on. In his spare time he updates his blogs called putthatshitonthelist.com and theethicalscumbag.blogspot.com. If you are from the Boston area, this book is a must have and is my pick for coffee table book of the year. Go and buy it here! Now!