By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Mar 31, 2024 at 8:56 AM

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For some, the word “dive” may be considered a bad word – though certainly not for anyone walking into High Dive, coming up on ten years of making waves serving up shots, shows and socializing on the corner of Center and Pierce in Riverwest. 

"It’s crazy,” said owner Jason McBrady. “There’s been a lot of really great times, an incredible amount of shows and traveling bands, some amazing employees and customers. It’s been a wild ride.” 

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A wild ride that McBrady didn’t exactly predict for himself almost ten years ago. After spending most of a decade as the River Horse then lasting a few years as the Impala Lounge, the bar at 701 E. Center St. was looking for a new owner and some new life – so several community members looked toward McBrady, a longtime familiar face both in the neighborhood and behind the bar at fellow Riverwest hangout Bremen Cafe. 

“I was approached by some community people and looked into it, and said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not!’” McBrady laughed. “And that started the whole thing. I sold my motorcycle and took all my savings and threw it in here.”

With a fresh owner, fresh name – courtesy of McBrady’s friend after rejecting plenty of his own brainstormed ideas – and a fresh lease on life, High Dive took the plunge and officially opened in 2015, fortuitously just in time for that year’s Riverwest 24 bike race. Whether one was needing a pitstop after hours upon hours of cycling or worked up a thirst just watching all the action, the new bar immediately thrived as a community hub during the race. The cycling eventually came to a close that day, but the good, no-frills, energetic communal vibes inside High Dive have continued to chug along – now for almost a whole decade. 

Looking back at it all, McBrady couldn’t choose a single favorite moment or memory from the tap’s past ten years; instead, he just landed on the general mood of a good night behind the bar at High Dive.

“I love it when it’s busy and people are just having a really good time, dancing and really enjoying themselves and packed,” he recalled. 

Walking in, High Dive clearly takes the “dive” part of its name seriously – and literally, as the walls and ceiling are covered almost entirely in blue like you’ve just fallen into the deep end. While the bar was shut down for well over a year during the COVID-19 pandemic, two separate artists went to work on the High Dive interior – one transforming the walls oceanic with vibrant sea creatures and playful submarines, the other painting the ceiling Sistine Chapel-style into a view from beneath the water with swimmers and relaxed beachgoers floating above customers’ heads. The colorfully calming result is just the right amount of aquatic atmosphere, turning the small main room into an intimate under-the-sea escape. 

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Other than those flourishes, however, High Dive is far from splashy. (And in fact, McBrady jokes that, considering the lack of light in the bar at night, most people probably miss all the delicate detail overhead that took months of work.) High Dive is indeed a dive – in all the best ways, though, from the fairly tight and dimly lit interior that’s still somehow cozy rather than claustrophobic, only adding to the neighborhood vibe, to the friendly prices across the menu. Most beers cost just $5, for instance, with the price for many domestics dropping down to $3 during the day. The bar also makes signature scratch mojitos when the weather cooperates and McBrady’s home-grown mint comes back in – so stay tuned for that soon too.

But as with any true proper dive, what makes it great isn’t what’s on the walls or what’s on the menu, but who’s all found inside. And for almost a decade, High Dive’s worked very hard to serve as a community spot, from its annual role as a cycling respite during the Riverwest to hosting community events and showing some local sports on its few TV screens – far from a traditional sports bar but one happy to do anything that gathers people together.

“We don’t eliminate areas that people want or would enjoy,” McBrady noted. 

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The bar’s biggest events are its concerts, hosting regular shows showcasing acts from near and far, across all sorts of genres – particularly electronic music and DJ performances, much to McBrady’s pleasant surprise. He may be more of a self-avowed rock-and-roll guy, but he loves anything that gets people in the doors and happy – because while the walls may all be painted, he views High Dive as a blank canvas for others, a place for his patrons to create the small four-walled world they want.

“The bar is a spot for people to gather and enjoy each other’s company,” he said. “It’s a palette for whatever the community wants to use it for – not anything I guess, but for a great many things. It’s the way I run things: I let people dictate more to me. I’m just here to keep it all together, more or less, but I afford people wide latitude. I don’t like micro-managing people; I think you get the best out of people when you let them run with it.”

With energetic entertainment, a comfortable communal emphasis and effortless atmosphere, High Dive helps give dives a good name – and is certainly worth wading in for a visit. 

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Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.