We Found The 7 Best Dive Bars In Charleston!
What is a dive bar? The criteria for a great great dive bar is undefined and that’s kind of the point. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is frequently remembered for his famous non-definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Maybe we can’t define what makes a dive bar a dive, but we know it when we see it.
The dive bar that can be defined is not the eternal dive. There are dive bars with nice bathrooms, dive bars with no jukeboxes (though that is almost a gamebreaker,) dive bars with no pool tables and many a dartboard. Some dive bars might have nice wooden floors while some might have dingy linoleum. The essence of a dive bar cannot be held and can hardly be named. It is an absence: absence of shtick and of pretense. Yes, the wallpaper may be peeling and the tools in serious need of duct tape, but the pretensions and posturing are left at the door.
Dive bars are not made; they happen. There’s no such thing as a “recently opened dive” and while divey-ness can be encouraged it cannot be cultivated….just as trying to be cool is an automatic disqualification for coolness. Dives come into being by striving to be nothing more than a watering hole.
The thing is, you can’t rush dive bars. Like antiques, or more appropriately whiskey and wine, much of the value of a dive bar comes with the passing of time like the moisture stains in the shape of one million pint glasses. A great dive always has its own personality. How can we characterize the American dive bar so everyone agrees? In short, we can’t, though true dives possess a few basic attributes. They must have history, they must have regulars, they should be open in the afternoon (or better yet in the morning), they cannot be expensive, and, please, no craft cocktails.
You might disagree with the operating narrative and no doubt dislike some of our choices. But that’s our point. A dive bar is personal. It’s where friends gather, drink, have fun, and argue but still walk away kindred spirits.
Just like a dive bar takes time to become a dive, compiling this list took time. A dive bar list just doesn’t happen. It takes some knocking around and numerous visits. Of course this is not a ranking because that would contradict everything we hold dear about dive bars.
1. A.C.’s Bar & Grill
If you are on King Street and looking for a spot to grab a cheap beer and some classic bar food (think burgers, cheesesteaks, nachos) then A.C.’s is the place for you. A.C.‘s slogan is “up all night” and they mean it….well at least until 2 a.m. closing. But it does have a late night kitchen that stays open more than most. Their Champagne menu consists of Miller High Life. Pool table, vintage beer signs, and at times a snarky staff. No complaints here; it is a dive.
A.C.’s Bar & Grill
467 King Street
2. The Recovery Room Tavern
Many refer to it as “the Rec Room” and this dive on upper King Street has a little bit of something for everyone. Strong drinks, cheap beer, and plenty of activities to keep you going all night long. Order a PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) and some tater tachos (tater tot nachos) and you will fit right in. And while you’re in the groove with a few signature Long Island Ice Teas, you can get your game on with Pinball, Foosball, Pool, Hoop Fever, and Bocce out back. The crowd is always a nice mix.
Recovery Room Tavern
685 King Street
A former members-only club, this quirky spot is a dive you can love. Cheapest drinks in the downtown area. Home for Fernet-Branca drinkers with a PBR chaser. Talking too much about a dive is actually self-defeating so just take us at our word and give it a try. Yeah, they have a pool table and there’s a pizza joint across the street, D’ Allessandro’s, that will deliver. Lately they’ve had some pop-up kitchen nights.
227 Saint Philip Street
4. Burns Alley Tavern
Semi-hidden bar, Burns Alley is located behind La Hacienda Mexican restaurant on King Street. Their motto is, “If you find us, you won’t forget us.” This is a place for cheap shots, local and domestic beers, and a rowdy but friendly crowd. Confiscated IDs used as decor, lots of neon, pool table, arcade games, sketchy bathroom (with funny stuff written on the walls), live music, no food. Divey enough? For sure!
Burns Alley Tavern
354B King Street
5. Salty Mike’s Deck Bar
A dive bar with million dollar views of the marsh and marina. Super laid back. There are pool tables and live music on occasion. No beer on tap, food upstairs (some decent seafood offerings) plastic cups for drinking. We went back and forth with Salty Mike’s. Why? The drink prices were hitting the dive bar ceiling. Yet, sometimes you just want to relax in a no frills place and you can do that here.
Salty Mike’s Deck Bar
9 Lockwood Drive
6. Gene’s Haufbrau
Since 1952. Dive bar? We don’t know what else to call it. This is a place that grew into its diveyness. That’s always a plus. Pool, darts, shuffleboard. Wings, Burgers, Sandwiches. Large beer selection (cheap beer, of course). The best thing about Gene’s? They don’t realize they are a dive bar and that makes this dive special.
817 Savannah Highway
7. Moe’s Crosstown Tavern
Moe’s is truly our kind of place, down home, ever so slightly divey, and no pretensions at all. This is a quintessential neighborhood tavern. Best no-frills burger in Charleston. Want a clue why they don’t know they are a dive bar? They will remember you. Too many so-called dive bars put on a gruff face. Are you listening, Tin Roof? And a bar serving perogies, real perogies, really shines. Moe’s is a keeper.
Moe’s Crosstown Tavern
714 Rutledge Avenue
Only 7 dive bars? Sadly only 7. What has happened to that great American institution, the dive bar, those unpretentious, sometimes dingy places, where people from all spectrums of life could get a cheap beer, talk, and not feel judged?
The bars, and many of their patrons, are being priced out of neighborhoods. Places like New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and even Charleston and Nashville and Cleveland. They can’t cover rent on a $3 bottle of beer. We now have the faux dive bars trying to create something overnight. Following a concept. Craft cocktails and artisanal food. What? A Disney facsimile of a dive bar. Understandable, and we can always opt out if we choose. But what about the place that lacks dive bar soul yet tries to co-opt its essence? That, to us, is more troubling.
We shy away when a bar calls themselves a dive on their website (even though some on our list do). Customers determine if a bar is a dive, not the bar. Once again, a dive bar cannot be cultivated; it just is. We spent a lot of time on this list and these are personal choices, but two bars in Charleston raised our ire. Trying to manufacture a dive bar vibe is a no-no. It just doesn’t work. The worst offenders: Tin Roof and The Mill. They are what they are, but maybe they should stay in their lane. They do a lot of things well, but they are not dive bars. Sorry!
Some reading this article might be surprised that The Griffin is not included. Why would they? To our thinking, they are a pub – and a very good one. Yes, Anthony Bourdain filmed there, but the content was different. Don’t mix apples with oranges.
We miss the Palace Hotel. It is temporarily closed. If open, they would definitely be on the list.
Dive bars are special places. Everyone should have their own special dive bar. Remember, the first dive bar you go into is your definition of a dive bar and we all go into a different dive bar first.