Diving Into the Going Out Guide
For our new Going Out Guide Best Bets, I was asked to come up with a list of my favorite dive bars in the D.C. area. Now, I love a good dive. So much, in fact, that I came up with a list that was much longer than needed, and asked some of my regular bar-crawling companions for their thoughts. What we realized was that none of us agree on what, exactly, constitutes a dive bar.
Some spots are a given, like the Raven, a dimly lit Mount Pleasant landmark which looks like it hasn't changed since the Kennedy administration, or possibly before. Patsy Cline on the jukebox, the Declaration of Independence framed on the wall and red vinyl booths that look like they've seen better days -- just like some of the regulars. Longnecks of Bass are as exotic as it gets.
God knows there's always Hank Dietle's, the last sign of non-suburbia on Rockville Pike, and whose sign -- "HANK DIETLE'S / COLD BEER" -- really says it all. They only sell potato chips when you get hungry. Or the Vienna Inn, with its chili dogs and cold brews. Or JV's, home of Northern Virginia rockabilly, country and roots rock. Or, around the corner from a certain newspaper, the Post Pub. And then there's Jay's, my favorite Clarendon escape, with an Astroturf front porch and beer for less than $2.
Then it gets divisive. Among the potential inclusions on my list were the Red Derby, a year-old Columbia Heights bar that bills itself as an "upscale dive," serves a can of Schlitz and a shot for $5, and whose menu includes a decent burger and deep-fried macaroni and cheese squares. It's laid-back, full of neighborhood folks, has a pool table and furniture scavenged from restaurant going-of-business sales. It also sells $6 cans of Russian lager and Colorado microbrews, pours Malbec wines, has "multigrain" grilled cheese and veggie sandwiches on the menu (with "red onion, arugula, avocado & sprouts").
I think of the Fox and Hounds as a dive, thanks to the jukebox, dark interior and super-cheap, super-strong cocktails. Fans of that spacious 17th Street patio were incredulous that I would call it a dive, though that wasn't my point. It went both ways as well: I don't automatically think "dive" when it comes to Townhouse Tavern, though at least two of my friends classify it that way, thanks to the shabbiness of the place, the clientele and the low prices. And does the 70-something-year-old Quarry House still qualify now that they've ditched the Keno for a multi-page beer list with international brews, fancied up the menu and "upgraded" the jukebox?
Another friend called my list a bunch of "old man bars." Well, you also have the new generation of places like Solly's and the Pug -- low-key, unfancy neighborhood spots that feel lived in shortly after opening, and which certainly qualify as dives on most scoresheets, though I think all the flat-screens upstairs at Solly's may merit a deduction. Can a tavern that's been open for two years be a dive already? Does that title have to settle in, just like grime in the corners and scratches on the wall?
"Part of me thinks that a dive should make some people uncomfortable," one friend says, and I agree with her point: I'm not sure I'd take a first date to Lil' Pub or Hank's, but Raven or the Pug might be fine, though Julia warns against the Raven because of "the obligatory bar fights." Touche.
My favorite dive of all time remains the original Dietle's in Silver Spring, which closed a few years ago. A family run joint since Prohibition -- they had Montgomery County liquor license #2 -- it had cold, cheap beer, NASCAR on TV, pickled eggs in a jar of brine behind the bar, old photos on the wood-paneled walls, and a pool table where my friends and I met tow truck drivers, refrigerator repairmen and off-duty cops. It wasn't anywhere people from outside the neighborhood would give a second look. That's why I still miss it.
Want to make a list of your favorite dives and share it with the world? Try our new Go Out List feature.
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