Ben Westhoff’s book-length study of the rise of Southern hip-hop, Dirty South, hit shelves yesterday. But before Westhoff was coaxing Scarface into talking about his time in an institution or waxing poetic about Soulja Boy, he was slumming his way through New York City on a quest for the finest dive bars. Complex caught up with Westhoff on the early days of his book tour for Dirty South to talk dive bars and his book, New York City’s Best Dive Bars.
Complex: How did the dive bars book come about?
Ben Westhoff: Well, there’s this series of dive bar books in cities like Seattle, Houston, and L.A. There was a first edition [of the New York entry] in 2004, so mine was the second edition. The Village Voice, who I write for often, sponsored the book, and they asked if I wanted to do it.
Complex: Without any hesitation you decided to jump in?
Ben Westhoff: I’ve always been a dive bar fan. Being cheap is part of it, but also the aesthetic—I think people from our generation don’t like going to corporate bars. We want a place with a real sense of history and real people. Whatever the word “real” means.
Complex: I appreciate that. I’m a dive bar enthusiast myself. I was pleased to look at your book and see that Tip Top [432 Franklin Ave, Bed-Stuy] got mentioned. Because that’s my favorite bar of all-time.
Ben Westhoff: Tip Top is fucking great.
Complex: It’s fantastic. And seeing it mentioned I began to wonder if, while writing the book, you worried about compromising any of the bars. Was that a thought that occurred to you?
Ben Westhoff: I thought about that a little. But I think that’s kind of a selfish perspective in the end, because these bars, they want to make money. I became friendly with a lot of the people involved with these bars and I came to see what I was doing as publicity that could help them out. But yeah, it’s always a shame when you have your favorite bar that you can always go to and get a seat and then it becomes overrun with annoying people. I’ve seen that happen before.
Complex: It seems to me that that’s happening with Mars Bar [25 East 1st Street, East Village} right now, especially since it has an expiration date. [Mars Bar is a famous dive slated to close in the coming months.]
Ben Westhoff: Yeah, I can only imagine.
Complex: Last time I tried to go it was packed and I think it’s because everyone’s trying to tap into this dying animal before it leaves.
Ben Westhoff: I’m sure. They’ve said that they’re going to reopen, but everyone thinks that it won’t be the same.
Complex: What’s your take on that? It is possible for a dive to change venue and still be the same dive?
Ben Westhoff: No, not the same dive. But, if the owner has the right mentality, sometimes you can get something just as good. Tracy Westmoreland, the owner of Siberia, he opened other bars that all managed to capture that same aesthetic. Just because of the way he rolled.
Complex: What was your process like? You talked to many of the owners of the places you visited?
Ben Westhoff: When I first go in, I’m like a food critic not wanting people to know that he’s a food critic; I just want to experience it as it really is. I don’t want anyone trying to give me free drinks, that sort of thing. Overtime, though, I did become tight with a bunch of owners. That way you get the history of the bars.
Complex: What were some of the more fascinating stories you heard?
Ben Westhoff: The classic example is McSorley’s [15 East 7th Street, East Village]. It’s the oldest bar in New York, and it’s gone through so many incarnations. There are all these stories about the place and you don’t even know if they’re true or apocryphal. But the story goes that a soldier would have his last meal at McSorley’s before he went away to war. He would hang the wishbone above the bar and if he made it back alive, he would retrieve the bone.
Complex: Where are you going these days?
Ben Westhoff: Port 41 [355 West 41st Street, Hell's Kitchen]. All of the bartenders wear bikinis. There are a lot of bikini bars in the city, and many are ridiculously expensive, like strip club prices. But this is dive bar prices and with a super colorful clientele. They’ve got the prototypical “no sleeping at the bar” sign. And when I was there I actually saw a guy get 86'd for sleeping at the bar. It’s like, “Wow, they really enforce that rule.”
Ben Westhoff: I also have an enduring fascination with Rudy’s [627 9th Avenue] in Hell’s Kitchen. They have this big tile mosaic on the wall. And the beer is so cheap. I don’t know if they make it but they have their own house beer. They have free hot dogs. I never get tired of it.
Ben Westhoff: And then they just shut down the Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge. Did you ever make it over there?
Ben Westhoff: That’s too bad. It’s in the Wallabout neighborhood. They had been shut down for prostitution before. The servers doubled as lap dancers. R.I.P. Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge.
Ben Westhoff: Frank’s Cocktail Lounge [660 Fulton Street] in Fort Greene—I never get tired of that place. They have a karaoke night. I performed T.I.’s “Whatever You Like,” and the crowd didn’t boo me off stage. So I was pretty proud of myself.
Complex: I often wonder what some of these places think when I roll into them, not being a regular, among other things.
Ben Westhoff: I think it’s all in how you carry yourself. If you feel like people are looking at you, they probably are. If you feel like you don’t belong, you probably don’t. But at the end of the days these bars want customers. Even though they have all these regulars, they want new blood, new people to talk to. I think, for the most part, you and your money are always welcome.
Complex: Do you feel that, having written the book, you’ve trained your eye and that you could walk into an unfamiliar city and find a good spot?
Ben Westhoff: Absolutely. I have amazing diver bar-dar these days. [Deadpan.] I find myself walking down the street and can spot a dive bar from a hundred yards away. You know, usually you can tell from the outside. It’s a certain aesthetic that shows you what’s lurking inside.
Complex: The cliché about pornography applies here; you know it when you see it.
Ben Westhoff: A hundred percent. It’s very hard to define a dive. Especially in New York City where the prices aren’t always cheap, and cheap is usually the sign of a dive. Just to pay the rent, especially in Manhattan, you’ve got to charge a certain amount. So [in NYC] you’ve got to go by other factors.
Complex: Do you have a loose criteria? I know aesthetic is the word we keep using.
Ben Westhoff: Wood paneling. Tons of wood paneling. Formica counter tops with fake wood grain. Christmas lights. Almost every single dive bar has Christmas lights. They also usually have those upright chrome cash registers. They almost always have those for some reason.
Complex: Did you ever have any problems? Get into any fights?
Ben Westhoff: I witnessed a brawl in this Queens bar called Crehan’s Pub [4104 31st Avenue, Astoria]. My friend and I were playing pool against these two guys and one of them started instigating a fight. He was a Vietnam veteran and he started fighting with this super tall guy—6 and a half feet tall or more—and then I was in the line of fire, so I ducked into the bathroom. Then they were pounding on the bathroom door and I was worried they were going to take the fight into the bathroom and I’d be collateral damage. But it died down.
Complex: Any other bars you’d want to shout out?
Ben Westhoff: How about R.I.P.s? R.I.P. Freddy’s. R.I.P. Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge. R.I.P. this awesome bar in Harlem called Puerto Rico USA Bar. R.I.P. Beer Goggles in Staten Island, maybe my favorite bar in the whole book.