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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.