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Dive In

The great dive bar expedition


In a city's nightlife scene, the dive bar is the often underrated critical foundation upon which all the other posh and pretentious joints rest. The dive bar is the place where the bartender remembers your name. It's the last stop on the way home. The dive bar passes no judgment—roll in first thing in the morning or in paint-spattered clothes. The dive bar doesn't care.

Dive bars tend not to be the best-looking watering holes in town, though sometimes they enjoy brief moments as the most popular. Scruffy though they may be on the exterior, dark though they may be on the interior, the dive bar should be proud to earn the label "dive bar." It takes years of tap pulling, bottle opening and liquor pouring to earn the title. Theses are the places that endure, despite fads and in spite of recessions.

They're also the places where history has happened (10th Street Station, which has been a bar since 1982). Where ordinary life has ticked slowly by (O'Michael's, where one waitress has been scuttling drinks for 45 years). Where the mayor has been spotted over the years before and during his reign over the city (The Basque Center).

In Boise you won't come across a bar you shouldn't go into. The last rough and tumble bar that we would have suggested you steer clear of closed up shop recently, leaving a bar scene that, by and large, is nice to you if you're nice to it. If the drinks are cheap (Broadway Bar), expect a healthy ratio of college kids mixed in with the hardcore crowd. When dive bar hopping remember: don't judge a book by its cover. Though you may have been driving past some bars that look the same year after year, recent remodels on the inside have cleaned things up significantly on the inside (Pitchers and Pints). And just because a bar's neighbors may be a little less savory than you'd like (Charlie Brown's) doesn't mean the bartenders aren't fast or the clientele won't mind its own business and let you enjoy a game of darts.

The biggest boon to Boise's dive bar scene for those who aren't regulars in it may be the city's recent ban on smoking in them. Places where smoke once out-ratioed the fresh air (Fireside Inn) are now more pleasant to breathe in. That's not to say a night of dive bar hopping must go without a smoke. Chinden Boulevard may be the best dive bar crawl in town (skip from The Ranch Club to The Boulevard to Moe's Place to Quarterbarrel) and lighting up is still allowed.

As the city has grown and evolved over the years, so, too, have our tastes in booze. While mustachioed bartenders in throwback vests and bowties at the fancy places painstakingly measure homemade simple syrup into a complex concoction of exotic liqueurs, hand-slapped mint, freshly squeezed juices and perfectly square ice, the drink slingers at dive bars keep it simple. A liquor, a mixer, next in line.

With the squirt of a mixer gun, the crack of a bottle cap and the clank of quarters, dive bartenders don't have the luxury of time. There's no fussing over garnishes, no single-handed egg cracking, no lengthy explanations of the nuances in flavored bitters. When the bar is packed and you're next in line for karaoke, you want a bartender who can crank out the rum and Cokes while shaking up a batch of doc holidays (Terry's State Street Saloon). When it's your turn to buy a round of shots, you want the bartender to over pour beautifully layered duck farts (Turner's Cocktails) with enthusiasm because all he's done is pour beers all night.

And almost without exception, the one thing you can always expect at a dive bar is to make new friends. In a place where all the regulars play horseshoes together in the bar's back yard (Little Dutch Garden) or where the stools are well worn by familiar cheeks (44 Club), if you're the new face in the crowd, the person next to you will want to know your story (McClearly's Pub). The bartender will thank you profusely (4 E's in Kuna) and you'll leave wondering why you've spent so much time and money at all the other places. •