A Sort of Brief and Sort of Accidental Guide to New York Dive Bars with Jon Coombs
“Have you ever heard of Montero?” asks Jon Coombs over a video call. Him in New York, us in London. Interest piqued, we respond that, in fact, we have not. “I need to take you there,” a smile spreading across his moustachioed face. “There’s nowhere else like it.”
As the VP of indie record label Secretly Group, Jon has spent more time than most in small venues that are strange, interesting and memorable. An offhand comment about a rickety watering hole in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue gets us thinking: Drake’s, Jon, a few of his favourite NYC dives. What could possibly go wrong?
“By design, a great dive shouldn’t need much,” says Jon, on the subject of what makes a dive a dive. “Assuming you’ve got your bases covered – cheap, jukebox, maybe those little metal plaques marking the seats of regulars, etc. – what really makes a bar stand apart is a strong intergenerational mix of clientele. It warms my heart when you walk into a spot and see a Lifer at the bar chopping it up with some kid who probably learned about it on TikTok. A common ground for everyone, Boomers and Zoomers included. Montero’s in Brooklyn Heights has all of the above and more.”
With a Saturday evening and a loose itinerary stretching ahead of us, below is a vaguely chronological tour as arranged by Jon. There were originally going to be a couple of extras (sorry Sunny’s and Big Bar), but, well, Montero and karaoke got in the way. You know how these things go.
140 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036
Founded by the late boxer, trainer and cutman, Jimmy Glenn, Jimmy’s Corner is half a block, but a million miles away from the flashing lights, questionable hot dog vendors and grown men in Elmo costumes of Times Square. ‘America’s Greatest Dive Bar,’ we duck beneath the wonky canopy and into a parallel universe of boxing paraphernalia, so, so much boxing paraphernalia, a wall of bourbon and a dark, narrow and, at 4PM, already-packed space.
A sign behind the bar reads ‘Let’s Not Discuss Politics Here.’ There are American flags, dollar bills and peeling photographs of once-legendary New York pugilists, mean mugging for eternity, including Glenn with Ali. Like a shrine to fighters of old, but with cold bottles of Sam Adams, we grab a few and jostle for space, inadvertently bumping into, and subsequently upsetting, a rotund Italian man in the process. Sorry about that.
“I’m not sure when or how I learned about Jimmy’s,” says Jon, “but I owe one to whoever clued me in. I’m not in that part of town very often, but it’s reason enough to visit. Of the many nights I’ve had there, a favourite was November 30, 2017 with Angel Olsen and her band after a sold out show at Town Hall. The venue is almost directly behind Jimmy’s on the same block. The high / low juxtaposition of a sold out Town Hall with, arguably, an even more sold out Jimmy’s was the perfect way to cap the night.”
Capri Social Club
156 Calyer St, Brooklyn, NY 11222
A dive bar that looks so much like a dive bar that it looks like a purpose-built set, it’s no real surprise to find out that Capri Social has regularly appeared in film and TV. Kevin Bacon got ‘shot’ here in 1996’s Sleepers, and NBC and CBS have filmed plenty of dodgy police procedurals inside its dim confines.
Just around the corner from Jon in Greenpoint, it’s still-sleepy in the early evening. A solitary figure hunches low over a long-nursed Blue Ribbon at the wooden bar, weathered and undulating with age and elbows. A neon Bud Light sign that looks like it could be on its last hurrah crackles in the corner. There’s a juke box and the beer is cheap. “A local hang-out,” says Jon.
We find a corner and observe as friends, couples and solitary figures amble in for a quick drink, or their own couple of hours of peace and Pabst. It’ll be packed later, but we’ve got places to be.
Montero Bar & Grill
73 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11201
If Capri was mellow, then Montero is already-wild at 8PM. An old boatman’s haunt from the days when Brooklyn was a down-at-heel, blue collar fishing and harbour town, this still feels like a relic from a time when men worked hard and drank harder, but well, there are lots of women in here, and there's also a guy belting out That Don’t Impress Me Much by Shania Twain (he does a great job). Karaoke here is serious business. One man has brought his own mic stand, another a personal harmonica for a frankly demonic rendition of Like A Rolling Stone.
“I remember one night,” says Jon, “when a regular at the bar, who happens to be blind, floored the crowd with his song. The karaoke host, who is easily in her late 60s, then pulled the plug on signs ups and songs while she walked the blind man home. She dropped him off, came back, and the party resumed.”
Ryan from Drake's does a version of Don't Look Back in Anger that would have Liam quaking in his Sambas. Singing here means being surrounded by patrons, the baying crowd in the pantheon. A regular called Eddie G hunches over a notebook, slinging out requests. “Dives really do feel as American as blue jeans, don’t they?” says Jon. “I’d like to think there’s something intrinsically American about the “all are welcome in” ethos of dives. So maybe it’s that. A dive is one of the rare places where class distinctions flatten.
“All are equally welcome, regardless of the colour of your collar, or if you’re a saint or a scumbag.”
The Long Island Bar
110 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Just down the road from Montero, our friends Joel Tompkins and Toby Cecchini run one of New York’s great bars, restaurants, and bars/restaurants. For decades this was a family-run Spanish spot, today it’s the perfect place to end a night with a burger and a nightcap martini.
We slide into a booth, greeted by Dawn, the wonderful manager. Long Island definitely isn’t a dive, but it is the ideal antidote to a night of light beer and heavy renditions of Bob Dylan.
*An honourable mention goes out to Spring Lounge in Manhattan, specifically during the day.