We Love Drinks: Dive Bars

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘furcafe’

With the amazing renaissance of our drinks culture in DC – the craft cocktail movement, the wine bar explosion, and the expanding beer consciousness all facing off against the slick corporate engines looking to make big bucks off bottle service and velvet ropes – it’s easy to overlook the plain ol’ dingy dive bar. But there’s a seedy side to the world of drinks in our fair capital city. And I love it.

What makes a dive bar? Can you really define it? Imagine you were a production designer for a crazy independent filmmaker, would you know what elements to include? Some might say DC is too Type A to have real dive bars, but the sleazy underbelly of politics proves that wrong. With so many bright-eyed babies coming here to “make it big” there’s bound to be a lot of disappointment. Not everybody’s a winner. And the dive bar thrives on losers.

Depressed yet? Good. Relish it. That’s part of the dive bar too. You’ve got to inhale that sick aroma, ripe from years of cigarette smoke and body odor, squint as you enter almost total darkness or excruciatingly bad fluorescent lighting, belly up to the bar and order a shot. Now look around. Let’s see what we have here.

Photo courtesy of
‘Alcohol Is Deadly’
courtesy of ‘Kevin H.’

Based on completely unscientific polling, some key elements of a true dive are as follows…

It used to be this meant the chokingly thick scent of nicotine fumes, but now it means the stale remains of decades of smokers past barely hiding the rank whiff of your neighbor’s cat-piss shirt.

Downtrodden Regulars
Speaking of that neighbor, a true dive must have regulars lining the bar with vacant stares, barflies whose lives have bitch-slapped them by, all worshipping at the altar of demon alcohol.

Eccentric Staff
It takes a strong nature to work a dive bar. You’ve got to be tough. Tats help (extra points if you got them in prison). I prefer the grizzled old bartender whose eyes dare you to ask his story.

Liquor, not Liqueur
There will be no freshly squeezed ingredients in a dive bar. You’ll be lucky if that lime wedge isn’t slightly plasticized from sitting out for a couple of days. The liquor on rail should rip down your throat. And all alcohol has got to be cheap.

Greasy Grub
The more artery-clogging the better. There’s no chef here, just some guy with a microwave or a griddle coated in the grease of lost dreams. You ask for a hamburger medium rare and he’ll reply deadpan, “Cooked or Frozen?”

Shady Stuff
Deals, drops, brawls. You need to watch your back and there’s always a feeling of uncomfortable unease. That guy talking sweet through his whiskeyed breath may turn red-eyed on you at any moment. Creepy.

Hey, cockroaches get thirsty too.

Photo courtesy of
‘Hawk ‘n’ Dove’
courtesy of ‘InspirationDC’

I asked our authors for a round-up of their favorite dives. In the District proper, the dive bar royalty line-up turned out to be Fox & Hounds, Dan’s Cafe, Asylum, and Kelly’s Irish Times.

Darpino believes Dan’s Cafe to be the King of DC Dive Bars. As he says, “To begin with, just its physical appearance is awesome. The no air conditioning is a key factor in its dive bar status. The place is a sweat-lodge with booze. Also the mini-booze bottle system is bizarre and gives the place its ‘own rules’ vibe that can be intimidating when you consider the slightly creepy, unfriendly staff. Particularly the old, old man who sits on a metal folding chair in the doorframe of the back door -what’s his deal?”

If Dan’s is the King, then Fox & Hounds is the careworn Queen. At least, it’s my personal favorite, as I detailed last year. The bathrooms alone qualify it as a dive, an obstacle course of eew. That ragged carpet, the regulars lined up like vampire statues along the bar, the slightly edgy yet completely attentive staff. God, I love that place. The bastard punk Prince is Asylum, which almost disqualifies itself for having a “decor theme” – except that theme is so ridiculously beaten up and bad-ass.

For both Katie and Dave Levy, Kelly’s Irish Times fits the profile of slutty Princess. “I’m sure the basement would fail most medical exams,” says Dave, “which means it’s the perfect dive bar.” Katie warns, “The Times always means bad decisions.”

In Maryland, Erin votes for Silver Spring’s Quarry House Tavern, with its “cheap whiskey, wood panels on the wall, tater tots AND bugs crawling across your table.” In Virginia, Jay’s Saloon gets both Dave and Karl’s vote, with Dave noting, “My number one rule of thumb for a dive bar is that it should be very easy to forget that it may be light outside if you go in for a pitcher of Bud Heavy at 330 in the afternoon.”

Indeed. But this is just a sampling of the beloved dives in the area! I haven’t even touched the subset categories which bring up some debate, such as – are no-frills neighborhood bars like Stetson’s dives? What about college kid hangouts with beer pong like The Malt Shop? Are pool-halls dives or completely different beasts? Is a jukebox essential or not? Can a dive be newly created or does it have to evolve organically?

Share your personal favorites in the comments! I’m very curious what makes your beloved dive truly seedy. They keep life in our city from getting too control freak pristine. Let’s give them some love.

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Writing for We Love DC restored her happiness after a life-threatening illness, and she’s grateful to you, dear readers. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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33 thoughts on “We Love Drinks: Dive Bars

  1. RECESSIONS on L St!!!1! It’s underground, has gross carpeting and bizarre faux stained glass/rock decor. “Godzilla” beers at happy hour as well as Buck Hunter in the corner and Naked Photo Hunt on the terminals at the bar. It’s amazing.

  2. Dr. Dremo’s and The Royal Lee in Arlington were two of my favorites. Dremo’s had beer pong, Royal Lee had karaoke. Now both are shut down :(

  3. I have this idea that if I remember a time the bar wasn’t there, then it can’t really be a dive bar yet. Which made me raise my eyes a bit at Dan’s. But then again, maybe I’m just getting old ;)

  4. @Jennifer. True, I remember many more dive bars no longer around than I do ones still open.

    I’d wager Adams Morgan as an area has the most remaining; Dan’s Cafe, Millie+Als, Chief Ikes, Toledo Lounge are all pushing 20+years and still going.

    Ironic that Asylum is still considered a dive bar. It’s original location was a collapsing building, which was quite spectacular at the time. Now *that* was a sh-t hole.

    Current favorite: Solly’s
    All time DC favorite: The Crow Bar

  5. These are great, everyone! Thanks very much for the recommendations. Keep them coming, we love dives!

    Tory, oh Recessions is nuts, isn’t it!? Definitely hits the bad carpet points.

    Jennifer, wait, there was a time Dan’s Cafe wasn’t around? That just shows you the state of my memory… ;)

    Prokop, ah yes, The Crow Bar… And Solly’s is a great example of a new bar that leapfrogged immediately into dive status.

  6. Here’s where I pour some out for Joseph’s on the Courthouse/Clarendon border. Cheap beer, mediocre, but cheap burgers, and Muffy-the-waitress-from-Baltimore, who always called you hon. The place was a total dive, but in the best possible way. You never knew what time it was, because in addition to dark curtains, there were no clocks anywhere in there. The beer was bad and flat or in dirty bottles. It was a haven.

  7. Someone already mentioned Millie & Als so I will onl add The Tune Inn on Capitol Hill – so nice to see the summer intern types get beat up by the staff – particularly the older ladies on staff…

  8. I was going to mention Joseph’s as well, but of course it’s gone. My brother met his wife there. ’nuff said.

  9. No discussion of dive bars would be complete without mentioning Jay’s Saloon in Arlington. Complete dive and a great patio.

  10. WHITEY’S! Oh my good god, Whitey’s. That place was always special. Especially around Rolling Thunder. Bikers, Locals, a gay Marine named Walt, and a whole lot of cheap coors light. Whew.

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  14. I know it’s slightly outside the Beltway but Vienna Inn (in Vienna, duh) is my fave: terrible service, cheap beer and amazing chili dogs that don’t even come served on plate…just hot dog-sized paper doily-type things.

  15. Wow, you have all convinced me to expand this into a series. Do I love dives enough to hit all of your suggestions? Hmmm… I think I do. :)

  16. Definately the Raven. Mt. Pleasant’s claim to fame. When the old style pdded bench seat can collapse, you are in dive land.

  17. Reads like impressions of what a dive bar is, I’m not sure the author spent anymore time than it took to take pictures in a “dive bar.” The clever bits… are not, what’s cool about cat piss and shitty toilets? You maybe named one legitimate dive bar, check out some of the readers suggestions, and try to focus less on what a dive bar is supposed to be, and more on the relaxed atmosphere void of the junk at the martini bars.

  18. c’mon people, no mention of The Raven or Red Derby? Fox & Hound’s is among my favorites in DC, but it’s patio is way too pleasant and glam to qualify for dive status. and hello, location location location. NOT. A. DIVE.

  19. Victor, three other commenters agree with you on The Raven, so you’re in good company.

    This is why I asked for suggestions – clearly everyone has some pretty strong opinions on what does and doesn’t make a dive, and no way I could cover everything or please everyone! It wasn’t meant to be exhaustive, and can’t be on such a subjective topic.

    I spend a lot of time at a lot of different bars and I love the variety of all (except those with bottle service, yuck, sorry, those are definitely off the menu).

  20. Polly’s meets just about all of the aformentioned qualities – plus is Cash Only.

  21. No mention of the Lucky Bar? By smell alone it should be on the list and the bartenders are funky and strange.

    But the worst smelling bar in DC has to be the Post Pub. The ancient carpet seems to release the fumes of ancient drinkers and smokers. Bugs have been sighted and it’s full of sketchy characters. However, the stank is too much even for me and I love a good dive.

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