A New York chef once told me that a dive was a dump. But that’s a major misnomer, because in a dump, there’s rarely any pride. Though a dive’s ambiance may be a little rough around the edges, there’s still plenty of pride in that guy holding it steady at the register, below a 40-year-old photo of his mama anchored to the wall. It’s in the cook holding court at the griddle, who knows his perfect patty melt can rival any high-brow chef’s filet mignon when it comes to curing the mid-day hangries. There’s even pride in the neighborhood regular who introduces her friends to her well-kept secret, begging them to only tell others who might appreciate its authenticity.
A dive is primarily about one thing—great food. But a valuable litmus test is in the organic ambience. Much like the atmosphere in grandma’s living room, it just evolved. Maybe it hasn’t had a fresh coat of paint since ’63 because, like tree rings, it allows one to count successful years in stains. That faded photo of a 1972 Knothole team stays put because the first baseman is a grandpa now and he sits at the adjacent booth with his grandkids when they visit once a month for the meatloaf special.
Sadly, many of our dives are disappearing. If you can locate a dog-eared copy of Cincinnati’s original dive directory, Diving Out by Joyce Miller and Michael Boylan, you’ll find this 32-year-old dining guide is now mostly obituaries. Gone is the Greek spaghetti doused in olive oil and dusted with mizithra cheese that Bill at Basil’s invented before he retired back to Greece, as is the sauerbraten lovingly marinated for days in Henry’s kitchen at Habig’s. Why are we losing our dives? Well, my conspiracy theory maintains that it’s an Industrial Food Complex master plan to crush the little independent guys into oblivion. I say that jokingly, but the chains have launched a full-court press with tchotchke-choked, pseudo-dive constructs like Buca di Beppo and Cracker Barrel. Others, such as Applebee’s and Bob Evans, attempt to glorify dive menu staples like BLTs and turkey and mashed potato dinners. Where dives were once unbeatable for price, dollar menus have usurped that as well. Walk into McDonald’s or Taco Bell at 4:30 in the afternoon and you’ll find plenty of retirees saving a buck or two on the meal, eliminating the tip, and no longer patronizing that little place around the corner.
But there’s yet another reason our beloved dives are disappearing, and that’s the owners themselves. Chip Boehmker, former owner of Herb ’N Thelma’s, explained it best, 10 years before he sold the place. Chip’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all proudly ran the establishment. As we sat, chewing the fat, Chip’s wife Chris stopped in with sons Danny, David, and Joey in tow to bring their dad a home-cooked dinner, since he was bound to the bar for the duration of the evening. Chip said he flipped burgers and served the beer himself, 16 hours a day, so his boys could go to college and not have to follow in the family footsteps. With fewer kids interested in taking over the family dives (where less and less profit is made) and even fewer loyal customers, restaurant legacies are often quietly liquidated for a few bucks at equipment auctions.
But hope is not entirely lost. The dive isn’t headed toward extinction just yet. The current resurgence of American entrepreneurism (the kids call it “maker culture”) might keep small family restaurant traditions alive. People like Matt Cuff of Just Q’in who preaches the gospel of barbecue (not to mention the Good Book) from a roadside shack in Newtown. Then there’s Sun Kim at Sunny Deli in the Carew Tower, who slings a pretty traditional Reuben alongside Korean bibimbap. And don’t forget Joe and Suzanne Fessler, new owners of Herb ’N Thelma’s, who can’t stop bragging about the best burger in town. Just like the Boehmkers did for 73 years during their tenure. There is a happy ending here, folks. But it requires diners to make the intrepid choice, to leave the beaten path, to venture into the unknown. Turn away from the franchises and follow the beckoning glow of the stuttering neon sign, the one you’ve merely passed by a million times before. You never know, you might just become a regular.