A guide to dive bars
There isn’t an exact science for calculating the precise components that qualify a bar as a dive. You know one when you see one. It’s a place where the regulars and the bartenders are just as much a fixture as the weathered bartop. The stools are worn, the company is fine, and the drinks are cheap.
Chip Lile, co-owner of El Rancho Tavern, knows a thing or two about what makes for a proper dive. He purchased the Ranch in 1999, but worked in the bar way back in his college days. He said there are certain signifiers that let people know they walked into a dive.
“Where we live, and probably everywhere in the western United States, every single town has its dive bar. Every single town has that bar that everybody loves and hates,” he said. “It usually smells like fresh popcorn and beer. And if there is a jukebox, that is a good sign as well.”
It’s easy to describe a dive by describing what it’s not.
“We don’t have fancy brewery kettles to look at. We don’t have a full menu to eat off of. We don’t have these things that other competitors have to offer. We have a room and we have staff.”
Aside from the physical look of the place, Lile said what makes a dive bar a dive bar is that it is a place for everyone.
“It’s not uncommon that you might find an attorney sitting next to a guy who is a sheetrocker in our bar, or somebody from the district attorney’s office talking to somebody from the public defender’s office,” Lile said.
Connections like that have been made for a long time at this location. The Ranch, in some iteration, has been a bar since the very first day prohibition was repealed. Back then it was known as the Dutch Lunch, and it’s been operating as El Rancho since the ’40s. While things do change, they change subtly and slowly.
“Dive bars are like Groundhog Day. It’s the same thing every day and you can count on it. It’s very consistent year in and year out,” he said. “While a lot inside the bar has changed decor-wise, a lot of people come in and say it looks exactly the same as it did 20 years ago.”
Lile gives credit to the previous owners who cleaned up the seediness that existed at The Ranch back in the day when it had a reputation for being worn down and unsafe.
“It was really rough and tumble,” Lile said. But that is part of the dive appeal. The rough and tumble adds to its charm and gives patrons the opportunity to fully relax.
“There is a sense that when you are in a dive bar, there is a sense of freedom. You don’t have to be an attorney at that moment; you don’t have to be a bricklayer at that moment. You are just yourself and nobody is going to judge you for it. You can let your guard down a little bit.
“People like to feel a little less responsibility. Even if it’s just for a moment. It brings us all back to our youth at some stage when we were a little less responsible. It’s escapism.”
Want to escape? Here’s our guide to dives in Durango and nearby.
El Rancho975 Main Ave., facebook.com/elranchotavern/
Pouring Since: The 1940s
Cheapest drink: Drink like a king with $3 PBRs.
Setting and scene: Home to a fantastic surrealist neon sign, El Rancho is the pinnacle Durango dive. Most local barflies have stories associated with the classic watering hole, since it is one of the few places that stays open well past the witching hour. If you want to drink late, you have to go to The Ranch. Don’t expect anyone to roll out the red carpet for your fancy ass at this dive, though. The Ranch is a place for cheap beer and whiskey shots, although the Ranch’s selection will satisfy the craft lover, too. The staff is friendly and professional, but aren’t too timid to put you in your place. This one-star review written by a seltzer-drinking dweeb paints a lifelike portrait of the no-nonsense bartenders: “When I put money on the bar she waved her arms at me, walked away muttering, ‘This is a bar. People order drinks.’”
Orio’s Roadhouse652 Main Ave., 970-259-6120
Pouring since: 2012
Cheap drinks: The 12-ounce can of Rainier for $2.
Setting and scene: Walk into Orio’s – better known as the Roadhouse – on a weekend night and you’ll be greeted by a lively bunch hidden under a haze of cigarette smoke. A smoky room used to be one of the standard dive identifiers, but those cigarette clues have mostly disappeared. Those non-smoking rules may be for the best, but are also for pussies. Beyond the smoke, there are college students sucking down the bar’s signature Purple F**ker shot as pool players chalk up, and cue balls clank into haphazard racks. The country music is loud, but people talk louder. Everyone is ready to cut loose.
8th Avenue Tavern509 East Eighth Ave., 970-259-8801
Pouring since: 2002
Cheapest drink: $4 mystery shot
Setting and scene: The sunshine takes away from the dive feel of 8th Ave Tav if you visit on a weekday morning (it opens at 11 a.m.). Other than the lack of darkness, the bar still has all the other necessary dive elements. On a recent visit, three men drank quietly on the bar stools, leaving one space between them and their fellow early-morning imbibers. The mid-morning quiet allows the drinkers, who seemed deep in thought, to meditate over the glass as a welcoming bartender opened up the register before she sliced some limes. The drinkers will break their train of thought to welcome you, too, with a subtle smile or acknowledging nod. There is a single pool table off to the side that is sure to get a lot of action once the sun begins to set. One can imagine what karaoke night is like after the patrons gulp down couple of the elaborate, sweet drinks displayed on the large sign above the bar. But this is the first shift at 8th Ave Tav. The fun is just getting started.
Billy Goat Saloon39848 US-160, Bayfield, thebillygoatsaloon.com
Pouring since: 1982
Cheapest drink: Have a well drink for $4 any night of the week. They have specials throughout the week, too.
Setting and scene: The Billy Goat in Gem Village serves as a marker for those traveling to Durango. Once you pass the striking satanic-looking goat head signage on the side of the road, you know you’re close. But it’s best to get out the car and stretch your legs over a cold one because this dive checks all the boxes – cheap beer, live music, pool tables, steel horses parked outside, and the men who ride them taking swigs of bottled domestics inside. The bar is still repping its 2002 mention as one of Men’s Journal 50 Best Bars in America, but unlike the kid who peaked in high school, the Billy Goat maintains the dive vibe that caught the magazine’s attention over a decade ago.
The Columbine123 Grand Ave., Mancos, 970-533-7397
Pouring since: 1903 or 1910?
Cheapest drink: Live the high life with a $2.50 Miller High Life draft.
Setting and scene: Many buns have graced the barstools at The Columbine in Mancos. The drinkery must have rotted history’s brain because nobody knows the exact date this old dive opened its doors - a plaque outside says 1910, while a sign inside reads 1903. Either way, the antique bar is living, drinking piece of history. Today, new cheeky signs, taxidermy, and cowboy knick-knacks cover the walls, but the atmosphere is a reminder of bygone days. There have been many rounds poured, stories shared, beers sipped, and friends made at The Columbine over the past 100-plus years. We wish the walls could talk, because we’re sure they’d have some rowdy stories to whisper.
The Last Dollar Saloon100 E. Colorado Ave., Telluride, lastdollarsaloon.com
Pouring since: 1978
Cheapest drink: Your guess is as good as ours.
Setting and Scene: Another historic bar in Telluride, The Last Dollar – known to locals as The Buck – has been wetting whistles for over 120 years, but serving under the name Buck for the 30. Age is one of the central characteristics to a good dive. You can re-create a cozy Prohibition-style bar with high-end cocktails and fancy nosh, but you can’t recreate the soul of a place that exists only if it’s been lived in and loved. Those feelings seeped into The Buck like the spilled beer that’s seeped into the floor. The bar is currently undergoing renovations, but the bar owners promise they will keep the same atmosphere that’s been around for decades. “We are in a 119-year-old building that has led an eventful life,” a Buck Facebook post reads. “For the first time in its long history, it’s getting some much-needed love to get it ready for its next 119 years.”Olde Schoolhouse Cafe and Saloon8750 46778, US-550, oldeschoolhousesaloon.com
Pouring since: 1995
Cheapest drink: You can have your choice of the finest $2 cans of PBR.
Setting and scene: You know you’re in an authentic dive when you walk into Schoolhouse and see the hundreds of dollar bills stapled to the wall. The wood-burning stove keeps drinkers warm in the wintertime, much like the whiskey in their bellies. What’s different about this local spot is the smell of fresh thick-crust pizza permeating the air. The bar has an extensive menu of specialty pizzas, calzones, and other hangover foods. There is also a pool table and harder-to-find shuffleboard. As a bonus, top-shelf drinks go for bottom dollar. Premium drink prices range $6 to $7.