There are very few actual “dive bars” left in most of Brooklyn—like, legitimately grimy taverns that you’d feel uncomfortable entering because of shady dealings and an aura of hostility. So we’ve taken to calling places that are actually kind of nice “dives” just because they’re old, what might more accurately be called a “neighborhood bar,” what a generation or two ago was just called a “bar”: a place where locals congregate all nights of the week to swig bottles of Bud and knock back cheap well drinks, where a bartender might even buy you back a drink even if he doesn’t know you, as long as you’re not an asshole—places where you can meet up with friends, strangers who became friends through drinking, or just be by yourself to watch a muted baseball game or listen to classic-rock radio. Here are our 12 favorite such places, from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge.
6004 Eighth Avenue, Sunset Park
It’s situated on a commercial strip once nicknamed Lapskaus Boulevard after the Northern European stew, a nod to the dominant Scandinavian population. Back then, Eighth Avenue was full of bars, though most of them have since closed. Soccer Tavern, in fact, is the last of those places, sort of comically located in the middle of what’s now Brooklyn’s bustling Chinatown, its simple, unchanged storefront cramped by neighboring Chinese-language signage. One of our fathers used to come here to find dockbuilding work—it was like a de facto union office—but nowadays it draws both the few remaining neighborhood holdouts, likely to be found reminiscing about stores and theaters long-since closed, and new immigrants, making for a nice mix.
Three Jolly Pigeons
6802 Third Avenue, Bay Ridge
When we started drinking here 10 years ago, the crowd was mostly older—what you’d expect at a dive. Then we started bringing our friends, and they brought their friends, and soon enough the median age had dropped 10 or 20 years. Claiming to be one of the oldest bars in Brooklyn, this spot has changed a lot over the years—gone is the lunch counter, and the speakeasy-era buzzers in the back room (that’s what those are, right?) don’t work—especially after a fire in the 90s destroyed the front area. It was rebuilt to look much nicer than it appears in a tax photograph from the 80s, with large windows in front that let in streaks of dusty sunlight during mornings and afternoons, when they show the horse races on a back TV screen. Marvel at the extant details—the tin ceiling, the stained-glass atop the men’s room, the astounding woodwork—while enjoying some of the least expensive drinks in the borough as you sit at the bar with not a few stalwart elderly regulars.
440 Fifth Avenue, Park Slope
Since Jackie’s 5th Amendment closed last year (RIP, old friend), this Park Slope stalwart has been eyed as its natural successor, even though they have a habit of kicking out the old-timers Jackie’s always welcomed with open arms. It’s right down the block, for one thing, and is another no-frills spot to down bottles of Bud and watch the game, a relative rarity in the ever-gentrifying bar scene that surrounds it. (Before Jackie’s we lost Timboo’s, before that O’Connor’s, before that Snooky’s. Sigh.) For all but the staunchest regulars, Smith’s is less welcoming than the hear-no-evil-see-no-evil haven that was Jackie’s, but they’ve earned the right to be. Anyway, they’ve got darts, a solid jukebox, dirt-cheap drinks, and a hilariously polarized Yelp page full of loving raves from regulars and angry tirades from newcomers who feel they’ve been snubbed by the bartenders. (“I’ll take the ‘hipster’ spot that serves people with respect any day of the week.”) Seems to us they must be doing something right.
Rhythm n’ Booze
1674 Tenth Avenue, Windsor Terrace
If the qualifications for a dive bar are cheap (both in cost and quality) beer and liquor; a cast of regulars that’s clearly been around for years; and maybe—if you’re lucky—some halfway decent food coming from somewhere in the back (you don’t want to think too hard about where, exactly), then Rhythm & Booze is a dive bar and then some. The food is better than halfway decent (you’ve just gotta try the burger), the regulars sometimes seem out of central casting (there’s frequently an elderly man who will stay perched on his stool for hours at a time, drinking whiskey and reading the Bible), and the suds and spirits flow liberally. But just when you think R&B might be too nice to be called a dive bar, some guy with a thick neck in a Jets jersey gets into a screaming match with a guy with an even thicker neck (also in a Jets jersey), and you realize that the surrounding area of Windsor Terrace might have grown steadily fancier in the last decade, but R&B has pretty much stayed the same—just the way you like it.
Farrell’s Bar and Grill
215 Prospect Park West, Windsor Terrace
Who says there’s no drinking outdoors? Outside Farrell’s, there’s always a small crowd swigging Bud from huge styrofoam cups, puffing on Marlboro Reds or the occasional cigar. Of course, these guys probably have little fear of being ticketed—if they’re not cops, they’re probably firefighters, or at least have a cousin on the force. Farrell’s is, for good reason, often cited as one of the last bastions of old-school, blue collar Brooklyn. The bar didn’t allow women until the 1970s (Shirley Maclaine was famously the first unchaperoned woman served), and it’s still pretty dominated by men today. But that doesn’t mean women aren’t welcome, or that people who wander across the street from the craft beer-oriented Double Windsor won’t be welcome. Get a Bud. Get it in a styrofoam cup. Start a conversation with the guy to the left or the right of you about the Mets or the Rangers (never talk politics…just don’t do it) and you’ll soon find out that old-school, blue collar Brooklyn isn’t so bad. And, hey, this might be the perfect spot to find someone who will help you get your next ticket for public drinking dismissed.
802 Caton Avenue, Kensington
The lighting is dim, though the neon shamrock in the window helps some; the walls are wood-paneled and the three beers on tap are usually Bud, Bud Light, and Killian’s; the jukebox has a decent selection. All of these things could add up to more of a low-key neighborhood spot than a traditional dive bar, but Shenanigan’s regular daytime crew of local men (what’s the opposite of itinerant? It’s these guys), which includes local legend Joel, who works at the nearby Kensington Stables, sports an all-leather outfit year round (in the summer he wears his chaps and vest with no shirt), and is a lively presence at the bar. The thing with Shenanigans is that it veers sharply from sedate on an early Tuesday evening to quite raucous on karaoke Saturdays, but no matter the crowd, the integrity of the place is still present, and the draw of a dive-y, local pub to counter all the higher-end choices in nearby Ditmas Park and Park Slope is undeniable.
Denny’s Steak Pub
106 Beverly Road, Kensington
We have a friend who has lived a few blocks from Denny’s for years but never went in because the place scared her. This maybe makes sense because Denny’s is pretty foreboding and is just about the dive-iest bar we’ve ever entered. Two pieces of advice: do not order wine, and don’t ask for food. Despite its calling itself a “steak pub,” Denny’s hasn’t served food in over a decade. And if we have to tell you why you shouldn’t order wine, well, you don’t really belong in Denny’s in the first place. That said, we like this bar, if only because it’s a dying breed. Denny’s isn’t going to start a karaoke night like Shenanigans. It doesn’t have killer burgers like Rhythm & Booze. It isn’t situated right off Prospect Park and doesn’t have the history of Farrell’s. No, Denny’s is just a dark place to get a beer and shoot the shit. Places like this have been around for decades, but it certainly feels like they’ll be harder to find in decades to come.
9259 Fourth Avenue, Bay Ridge
As Fifth Avenue and Fourth Avenue meet down by the terminus of the R train, there’s only space between them for a single building, which means Kelly’s has doors on both commercial strips; it’s a great place to stop in for a cheap drink or a quick shortcut while running away from the police—the two things you want in a neighborhood bar! When Flickr users photograph it, they like to take pictures of the sign on the Fifth Avenue side because it’s missing some letters, which announces the bar’s ramshackle charm. Inside, its friendly: the last time we stopped in, a group of regulars were becoming best friends with a guy who’d just moved into the neighborhood while the bartender bought us our third drink—and we’d never even met before—in between putting out bags of Utz Potato Stix, which are hard to eat but which nicely soak up whiskey in an empty stomach.
Montero’s Bar & Grill
73 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn Heights
“We don’t have a lot of foot traffic,” the bartender here told us recently—at least not in this weather, when no one’s at the park or riding the ferry. Way down by the waterfront—one of the last remaining bars in an area that used to be full of them, to service all the longshoremen from the nearby shipyards—it’s a trek from any subway station, and that’s part of what it makes it appealing; also, there’s the cluttered decor’s nautical theme (the Times once called it a “waterfront museum with alcohol”), the no-nonsense booze (they don’t even have taps), and the classic, preserved interior, not to mention the famous and beloved neon sign out front. People make special trips just to get here, taking cabs or buses or long hikes, because it’s just that special.
Tip-Top Bar & Grill
432 Franklin Avenue, Bed-Stuy
If you hang a sign at the entrance of your business that reads, “ABSOLUTELY NO DRUGS, YOU ARE BEING WATCHED,” you probably know a thing or two about running a good bar. This kind of homemade approach pervades Tip-Top, making it feel more like your unmarried uncle’s cool rumpus room than a Brooklyn bar (which is a good thing, to be clear): there’s astroturf, a makeshift stage in the back, leftover Obama posters from the ’08 election, and plenty more handwritten warnings all over the place (“HAVE RESPECT, DO NOT WRITE ON THE WALLS,” reads one in the bathroom.) More importantly, there’s the unfailing friendly staff, who’ve seen it all but still make you feel like family even if you’ve just stumbled in for the first time. The drinks aren’t quite as cheap as you might expect—the average beer or mixed drink will run you around $5—but they’re well worth it as the price of admission to one of the last bars standing where you can really, truly just relax. (Worth noting though, that later on in the evening when someone’s put some money in the jukebox, this place is no stranger to wild, impromptu dance parties.) Add to that their excellent fried fish sandwiches and a spacious backyard for the summer.
623 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint
One of two Polish-owned bars in Greenpoint that serve up homemade jello shots out of Rubbermaid bins, Irene’s is more bare bones than its sister bar, Capri Social Club. (Both places, however, have made a place for Lou Bega’s album on their jukeboxes, which is something to consider.) It’s also a bigger departure from the surrounding businesses on Manhattan Avenue—Tørst this ain’t. No, the beer selection here is as sparse as it is cheap—Brooklyn Lager, Yuengling, and Bud are pretty much it—but if you manage to stake out a table or a seat at the bar, this is the kind of place that invites posting up for the whole night, whiling away the hours and watching old locals dance with chairs (more common than you’d think) to the Polish disco selection that dominates the jukebox. It’s also just right as a place to pop in and not be bothered while you kill time before your plans for the evening (or psych yourself up for a date). There are a lot of bars we love in Greenpoint, but none of them are quite like Irene’s.
5721 Fourth Avenue, Sunset Park
When the old owner sold the place a few years back, you couldn’t smoke inside anymore or stay there drinking whiskeys well past sun-up. But that was Bloomberg’s New York for you; we were just happy they kept the inside the same—and, for that matter, the outside, which is blocky with small windows, even though it has a coveted corner spot. Like the other Sunset Park bar at the top of this list, the crowd here feels made up of the last bunch of white European Catholic holdouts in this part of the neighborhood, which has otherwise become thoroughly Latino. (Or maybe they’re ringers who walk down from Bay Ridge?) One of the first times we stumbled in here, a traditional Irish song was on the jukebox but was then quickly skipped in favor of something from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. If that doesn’t sum up the state of Brooklyn dive bars, we don’t know what will.