Mathew's: A sign out front proclaims, "Portland's Oldest Pub," and the Facebook page offers 1872 as the year it opened. It doesn't seem to bother anyone whether the claim is true or not. This was the second stop on a Portland dive bar crawl organized by local bar manager Johnny. On the short walk from Geno's to Mathew's, the discussion of what makes a dive bar continued. Emily and Shahin, who also manage bars in Portland, chimed in.
Does a place like Novare Res fit the dive bar mold?
Emily: I think Novare...dark, underground...it's definitely not a dive bar but it evokes the same feelings that you think of when you think dive bar.
Johnny: A Belgian dive bar.
Shahin: You know why Novare feels like a dive bar? The bathrooms. There's graffiti everywhere and wet spots on the floor.
Does a place like Brian Boru count?
Johnny: Not really. They're comfortable, I like Irish bars, but they're the most generic kind of bar. It's safe. People go to Applebee's on purpose because they know it's safe. It's not exciting. The cool thing about a dive bar, it is supported much by the entire service industry, but also things get a little gnarly and wild.
You're never really bored. You're not in danger, but you'll see some crazy stuff. Sometimes you need something to get your brain off of everything you do already. Most people that hang out in dives bust their ass and work super hard. Even if you're just there for one, you might as well have a non-boring moment.
But at a dive bar you can also put your head down and ignore everybody. If you're at a classy joint, you can't put your head down and become the weirdo, and you can't get overly interactive either.
Mike, a brewer and dive bar aficionado, shared his thoughts on the kind of history that sets dives apart.
What separates a dive bar from a regular bar?
Mike: It's more about the people instead of a concept. It's a place that's been there for a while, it shows its history. Regular bars have identities, but a dive bar is more of a feeling, a place that's been there for a long time. You have regulars sitting at the bar, it has its own culture that's unique to itself. Dives are "come as you are" places. Not everyone wants craft beer, cocktails, or even Miller Lite. Dives offer something for everyone.
A big thing that allows dive bars to exist, really, going back to the history of the thing, they're bars that've been there forever. They either own the bricks or they're locked into such a low-rate rent that they're able to charge the prices they did when they opened. I hate to bring price point into the conversation, but they can charge whatever they charge and it's not a huge pressure situation. It's not a new, big budget restaurant or anything.
Maybe when the bar was established way back when, the neighborhood wasn't built up but then all of a sudden, the neighborhood gets built up. But hey, that bar's still there, and hey, they own it, so $2 a beer, no pressure to charge higher. That adds to the comfort of the whole place.
Since this is Cocktail Week, the question has to be asked: Do you ever get cocktails at dive bars?
Mike: Typically not. At a dive bar I'd prefer the cocktail to come straight from the bottle into the glass, not mixed with anything else. When I go out for cocktails, I'm looking for something a little more...I think a lot has to do with the bartender, more than the place itself. Not to use the word "mixologist," but I feel like there are people who are more talented at mixing drink than others. At a dive I'd go for more of a beer and a shot.
As the group entered Mathew's, Tim, another local brewer, remarked, "This has to be the brightest bar in town. I hope you're going to write about how bright this place is." Johnny conceded the point: "A dive should be dark, but some dives are like fluorescent bulbs, PBR signs. It's about business, too."
Ben, a bartender and server at a local restaurant, held up a sign advertising Happy Hour everyday from 4 - 6 p.m., when "burgers, fries, and ice cold Buds" can be had for only $5. "How is this a profitable venture?" he demanded.
The bartender was a woman named Tina Campbell, who said she'd been there since January, but actually for ten years off and on. She said a "house cocktail" would probably be something like a vodka and orange juice. Admittedly, she had never made an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, but said she could try if someone told her the ingredients.
The group mostly stuck with simpler concoctions like whiskey and ginger ale or the unofficial state drink, Allen's Coffee Brandy with milk, known across Maine as a "fat ass in a glass." Shahin said a good dive bar deals heavily in milk-based drinks, which help quell hunger as well as thirst.
Tina took a moment between serving ten or so regulars and eating her dinner to explain why she doesn't think Mathew's is a dive bar.
Do you consider Mathew's a dive bar?
Tina: No, not really a dive. It's more like locals that come here all the time or retired people during the day. At night it's a mixture of crowds, dancing, DJ, live bands.
What's your favorite part of the job?
Tina: Interacting with customers.
Tina: The pain in the ass customers.
What's the strangest request you've ever had?
Tina: I've had comments, like, "Do you wash your clothes in Windex? 'Cuz I see myself in them."
Aside from groan-inducing comments like that, you enjoy yourself here?
Tina: Yup. I always do.
Do you feel it's a comfortable place?
Tina: Yes. We like all sorts, types, everybody.
133 Free St, Portland, (207) 253-1812, Facebook. Open Monday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 1 a.m., Sunday 12 p.m. - 1 a.m.