It’s good if the place looks a bit beat-up. The outside doesn’t matter that much. Peanut shells or sawdust all over the floor is always a good sign. It’s a real dive bar if the owners haven’t bothered to keep up with the times. Chez Jay, in Santa Monica, is amazing. So is the Frolic Room (323/462-5890), on Hollywood and Vine.
It’s all about access to great stories: you want people there who have them. I love waterfront bars, like the Liar’s Saloon (631/668-9597), in Montauk, New York. Same guys sitting on the same stool for decades. These guys know the real story of Jaws, the guy who caught that shark. There’s something about having a salty old guy or woman behind the bar doing shots with customers.