Smile Politely

The Dive Bar protocol

Recently on a Friday night, I realized that I have very much become a creature of habit when it comes to drinking in Downtown Champaign. Over the years, I have settled into patterns based on who I hang out with. This particular night, we were out under very different circumstances, and with very different people, and this threw us off much more than we had anticipated.

I have two sets of drinking buddies with fairly specific itineraries for each group. When I go out with my coworkers, the night goes something like this:

  • Wedge or Boltini
  • Cowboy Monkey
  • Tumble Inn

If it’s Winter:

  • Wedge or Boltini
  • Guido’s
  • Memphis on Main
  • Merry Ann’s

The other itinerary was perfected after many nights out with Masumi Rostad, who unfortunately no longer lives in town, and James Barham, who unfortunately still lives in town:

  • Dinner and drinks at Bacaro
  • Radio Maria
  • Blind Pig – If we’re hungry, we go to Esquire instead
  • Brass Rail

What can I conclude about our drinking habits?

  • We don’t like being outside in the cold, so if a bar is more than a block or two away, good luck trying to convince us to go there.
  • We start out at more upscale joints and gradually descend to stickier floors and filthier bathrooms.
  • We also see a similar trend in what we drink. A night could start off sipping a Barolo wine or a fine anejo tequila, and end with cans of Hamm’s and/or Fireball shots.

I’ve compared my drinking itineraries with others and have come up with an interesting hypothesis. Whatever you started drinking in your formative years as a consumer of alcohol has a tremendous effect on shaping your drinking habits and tendencies. It’s like developing your first language. One of my closest friends started drinking his dad’s PBR, and to this day that’s what he prefers to drink. When I became a teenager, my dad started letting me drink wine at dinner and single malt scotches from time to time. As an adult I am most comfortable drinking wine or a quality dark liquor of some sort.

If I try to keep up with my friend by drinking PBR all day, I’m just asking for trouble. It’s like an alcohol version of Montezuma’s revenge. My stomach will never be able to handle that. I need to work my way down to a beer like that. I’ve certainly learned the hard way. If drinking at a dive bar is in my future, I need to follow one of the above protocols, or something similar. A separate occurrence compelled me to come up with another rule of drinking based on this hypothesis: How to avoid the Dive Bar Bends.

Let’s go through a hypothetical scenario. You’re at a swanky place sipping a fine wine or an elegant cocktail, dressed to the nines. Suddenly, you get a very unexpected text:


It’s an old friend from out of town who rarely comes home, so you don’t know when the next time you’ll see that person and you know you’ll have to go meet up. Go for that Fireball shot first, and your likelihood of getting sick all over your nice suit or dress will increase significantly. You will have fallen victim to the Dive Bar Bends.

For those of you who don’t know, the bends is a condition you get from coming up from a scuba dive too fast. As for the Dive Bar Bends, you do the math. After several impromptu visits to Tumble Inn and the Brass Rail, and through much trial and error, I have developed a means of mitigating the effects of the Dive Bar Bends.

Drink 1. Get their highest quality sippable liquor and get a shot of it. Whiskey has always been the safest bet. At the Rail, it’s Maker’s Mark. At Tumble Inn, it’s Macallan. Other places, it might be Gentleman’s Jack or something. Under no circumstances will you order a carbonated beverage first. For fuck’s sake, sip this drink!

Drink 2. Now you want to slowly introduce sugar and/or carbonation.

  • If all you’ll be drinking is beer, then get a can of a transitional beer such as Miller Genuine Draft or Coors Original. What constitutes a transitional beer? Get the bar’s highest quality beer that doesn’t have a very strong flavor. Get an IPA? You fucked up! Start over.
  • If shots are in your future, get an easy-drinking mixed drink made with a clear liquor.
  • If you want to be flexible, or have no fucking clue what you’ll be drinking throughout the night, go with a gin and tonic. The chances are higher that the tonic water at a dive bar will be flat and that’s just perfect in this situation. You’re introducing a little carbonation and a little sugar. You can go in any direction at this point.

Drink 3+. Finally, you can drink whatever your heart desires.

You now have permission to party on. This is no guarantee that you won’t get sick – it’ll give you a fighting chance. It would also be in your best interest to eat something. A number of dive bars in the area serve Butch’s pizza. I always get the white garlic pizza if available. During the summer, Chester’s BBQ sets up shop outside Tumble Inn over the weekend. This or the Cracked Truck are ideal post-drinking meals. If all else fails, stumble over to Merry Ann’s.

In this scenario, it’s all about catching up with and having a blast with an old friend. This way you can mitigate the risk of ruining everyone’s night including your own. You can focus on enjoying and relishing every moment with the friend you rarely see. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Photos courtesy of Chelsea Fisher. 

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