Dining at The Dive
By Monica Byrne
44 Beach Street
Boston, MA 02111
After the first few times I ate at The Dive, I couldn’t find it on my own again. I wandered through the Chinatown streets, noisy with poultry squawks. Maybe finding the place required a special faith or magical disposition, like finding Platform 93/4 at King’s Cross Station, or Narnia through a wardrobe.
Luckily, The Dive is not so elusive after all; I just have a lousy sense of direction. So let it be known: The Dive can be found on the second floor of 44 Beach Street in Chinatown.
Up the stairs and through the glass doors, we come upon a windowless, cramped room with food kiosks running down its length. Patrons include Chinatown locals, hipster Emerson students, bleary-eyed Tufts Medical students, and transit cops on break. They sit at red plastic tables and sit in red plastic chairs, cafeteria-style. Half of the kiosk fronts are closed, ominously boarded up, fish tanks empty. A colossal industrial fan blasts away in the corner. A guy with a huge duffel bag sits hunched in a corner. It feels like mob-run Shanghai, circa 1983.
There are only two places here worth visiting, but boy, are they worth visiting: Rod Thai and the Juice Bar. For what you get, the prices are criminally low. Most plates are $5–$7, with nothing above $9. I get my favorite dish, Pad See You; my friend gets Crispy Basil Chicken. The workers are kind, patient, and helpful. Free tea and free water are available off to the side, with paper cups to drink from.
While the food is prepared, we head to the other end of The Dive to get drinks at the Juice Bar, staffed by two cheerful young women. Overhead on laminated, sherbet-colored sheets of paper are the vast offerings in Times New Roman font: pearl tea, watermelon juice, avocado milkshake, azuki slush. Everything is delicious.
Back at our table, piles of steaming noodles have appeared. The plastic plates are rugged, squeaky-clean, chipped, and edged with earth-tone floral patterns borrowed from the 70s, like plates you used as a kid in your clubhouse. The bottoms are warped from years of hot dish water, so you can spin them like saucers on the tabletop. My friend notes they would make excellent Frisbees. It’s all part of the charm.
We tuck in. My friend’s nose begins to run continuously as he shovels in his three-pepper dish. My food is delicious; chewy, flat noodles drenched in rich brown sauce, tossed with fresh vegetables, egg jetsam, and beef strips (no imitation beef here). We eat until my friend groans “there’s fire in my stomach,” and I groan “there’s cement in my stomach,” and we both lean back in silent stupor to give our tummies a chance to digest. This would be an appropriate time to mention that the girls’ bathroom is painted a charming shade of Pepto-Bismol pink.
Yet, I hesitate to relax; this is a dangerous moment. The Dive is staffed by militant custodians who sometimes take the plate out from under you even when you’re still picking at it. They mop continuously, between the tables and under the chairs. You have to protect your plate because when they’re not mopping, they’re scanning for signs of inactivity.
But at a certain point, no matter how tasty the food is, you just can’t eat any more. I have known certain Paul Bunyans who can scarf an entire plate of food at The Dive, but I can’t claim to be one of them. We leave our plates and wadded-up napkins at our table, where the faithful custodians swoop upon them, barely waiting for us to vacate.
Happily, we stumble out into the warm Chinatown night with stuffed bellies and still-stuffed wallets. The Dive is a perfect stop for hungry students who are looking for great ambience that is its own thing; not some chi-chi candlelit decor. Now, get there quick before Rod Thai and the Juice Bar realize how cool they are … or before everyone else does.