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Do Dive Bars Require Dive Economies?

On the western-end of South Street in Philadelphia is a dive bar called Bob and Barbara's. The atmosphere is laid-back, the beer is cold, and the prices are cheap. Almost unbelievably cheap. Even on a Saturday night, with a band playing jazz in the back of the bar, you can sit and drink 'citywide specials' and never pay more than $3.50.

(from TimCullen on Flickr)

At one point during my recent trip to the city, someone joked that it's cheaper for a group of friends to rent a car, drive to Philly and spend a night out there than it is spend a night out in DC. The crazy thing is, when you crunch the numbers, it's not actually all that far-fetched.

Bob and Barbara's is hardly the only dive in Philly - they're all over the place. The question that's been on my mind for days is... why do so few of these places exist in DC?

A friend of the blog suggested that if you want Philadelphia's dive bars, you need Philadelphia's economy. On face value, this seems plausible, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if it's that simple, or if there's more to it.

Presumably, one of the primary reasons that DC lacks many dive bars is overhead cost. It costs a lot of money to run a bar, particularly when the rent is sky high. Thus, the higher your lease, the more you have to charge per drink in order to break even, and if people are willing to pay your high prices, why not?

Dive bars wouldn't be able to survive in DC slinging $2 PBRs because they'd get crushed by high overhead costs. Maybe you could argue that they'd be able to make it up in volume; but I'm not sure. If the bar is inevitably going to be packed, you're doing a real disservice to yourself selling drinks for $2 rather than $5, because there's a peak to how much volume you can realistically do.

Even bars on H Street NE - the gritty, up-and-coming, divey neighborhood in DC have prices that seem typical for the city. My understanding is that Rock and Roll Hotel essentially has the same 'citywide special' that you can get at Bob and Barbara's - except that the whiskey is lower quality and the price is twice as high.

So on this hand, it seems like a commercial real-estate issue. High rents are the result of strong demand for retail space, which ultimately stems from the economic strength of the city. All else equal, a strong economy will keep those rents high.

What about the point that people in DC have more money to spend than people in Philly? This seems like a more difficult theory to get behind. Sure, median income is higher in DC, but so is the cost-of-living, so the discretionary income or any particular person has varies wildly. Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of people in DC, myself included, who simply don't earn enough to be able to go out frequently. I could say that if I had the same job earning the same income in Philadelphia that I'd be living like a king; but that's all counter-factual because none of what I have exists in Philadelphia.

When people think about the strength of an economy, they typically do it in aggregate. A city has x% unemployment, for example. But the actual rate of unemployment is less of a concern to individuals. Either you're employed or you're not. Either you have money to spend or you don't. So in a sense, people with jobs in weak economy cities have it made. They get to take advantage of cheap goods and services but have plenty of money to splurge on them, right?

Could DC ever have a legitimate dive bar scene? I don't know. I think as long as leases for commercial and retail space is among the highest in the nation that we'll have to plan trips to experience real dives.


Alex B. said…
I think you missed the biggest element - liquor licenses, and the areas in which they are valid.

The corner bar, small enough to only serve the immediate neighborhood, is mostly illegal in DC thanks to both zoning and restrictions on liquor licenses.
Yep. Alex B is right. Ryan Avent had a post about this a couple months ago.

Chicago (my home) has tons of former dives ($2 beer with hipsters + old-timers), dives full of working-class regulars, and dives where you can't understand how they stay in business, sometimes only steps away from packed high-end cocktail lounges and high-concept pubs.
rg said…
I love Bob & Barbara's -- had a fun night there a few years ago. It really is all about the zoning: organizations such as the Committee of 100 and CHRS have actively worked against mixed-use zoning and as a result DC has actually lost a lot of neighborhood-serving retail, nevermind adding some. Capitol Hill, for example, used to have many more small businesses on random corners throughout the the neighborhood. Both the Committee of 100 and CHRS would go nuts if anyone even thought about opening a corner dive bar. Hell, CHRS is against new bars and restaurants on an existing commercial corridor; they are leading the fight against any new liquor licenses on 8th Street SE. No one from CHRS will admit it today, but back in the 90s, some of their members favored rezoning 8th Street SE as residential, arguing that it was impossible to revitalize it as a business corridor. I used to take pleasure in pointing out how wrong that argument turned out to be. But I now suspect that it was a disingenuous argument: they were afraid that 8th Street SE would rebound and viewed rezoning it residential as the best way to stop that rebound. Their worst nightmares have come true: there are people on 8th Street these days. And some of them are having fun!
B. P. Beckley said…
I'm all over the place on this topic. What I got out of the Ryan Avent discussion was that Washington would be much better off if it were easier to open local bars/restaurants so that they all wouldn't end up being concentrated in bar zones like Adams-Morgan. Local bars/restaurants are great, and I wouldn't be without mine.

However, I don't think it's very useful to think that all opposition to bars/restaurants (especially bars) comes from Churchlady killjoys who hate fun. One guy's fun is another guy's obnoxious destructive behavior. Where you stand on that probably depends on whether you're the person being forcibly awakened at 2am or the oblivious person doing the waking.

On the other other hand, I do get the impression that some upscale folks would like their neighborhood to be basically just like a suburban gated community but with really narrow lots, no front yards, and top notch restaurants you can walk to but nobody else is allowed in, and that also seems pretty unrealistic.

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