City Paper is not for tourists
Last April, I found myself with a group of friends stumbling around Capitol Hill on a cold Saturday night, looking for a bar. We were large in number but low in sophisticated attire and pocket money, which ruled out most of the places on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. We settled on Remingtons, the gay country/western stalwart, located between a chiropractor and an opthamologist.
Upstairs, no one paid us a bit of attention, save a pair of taciturn cowboy types drinking Miller at the end of the bar and regarding us with dark eyes. We stomped around while someone karaoked to Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” and downed shots that tasted like apples candied in acid. We played Family Feud. A guy in carpenter jeans sang “Rocky Top.” It was as uncool a scene as could have been found in D.C. that chilly night, and if I’d known then that it would be my last in Remingtons, I would have tipped the bartender better.
A week later, Remingtons announced it was closing. The loss stung, and so did the timing. The past year and a half had not been kind to the Hill’s dives, known for their confluence of congressional staffers, neighborhood regulars, and professional drinkers. In early 2013, the ancient Hawk n’ Dove reopened under new ownership with a major facelift, one that erased every wrinkle along with every bit of character from that pleasantly dark dump. 18th Amendment, home to rugby hooligans and other assorted characters, closed two months later; Lil Pub, a bar I had heard referred to as “stabby” and where, in fact, the original owner had been stabbed to death decades ago, followed shortly after. Then went the sporty Pour House and its upstairs bar, Top of the Hill. One by one, Capitol Hill’s dives and near-dives fell, leaving Capitol Lounge and the venerable Tune Inn among the last standing.
What happened to my bars? In the old 18th Amendment now sits the handsomely lit Barrel, the sort of place where one might sip a fine whiskey among bearded urban rustics, but definitely not the bar in which a gal on a budget would want to run up a tab. Pennsylvania Avenue SE is beginning to smack of 14th Street NW, that miserably buzzy strip bursting with small plates and something called “burlesque cocktails.” (See: Red Light District cocktail and dessert bar.)
The Hill isn’t the only part of town with a weakening neighborhood bar scene. Mr. Smith’s recently confirmed that it’s losing the location it has occupied for almost 50 years due to increasing rent, news that follows several years of closures of decades-old, storied bars in Georgetown, including the Guards and Garretts. Mr. Smith’s is reopening—but in the space that, since 1967, has housed Chadwicks, which will move out at the end of August and currently has no plans to open elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the gentrified gleam of 14th Street is cropping up all over the city (see also: a Charlie Chaplin–themed bar in Shaw that serves upscale ramen and dumpling shooters, which have exactly naught to do with Charlie Chaplin, which is an absurd theme for a place you go to drink, anyway). Between the closings of the city’s most worn-in bars and the opening of the tailor-made millennial spots, it could appear that the D.C. dive is in retreat.
But there are signs of resistance. A small but potent wave of no-frills new bars has come to the District recently, including at least five in the past two years, with a strong whiff of anti-14th Streetism. Think concrete floors at Jackpot in Chinatown (not artisanal concrete floors that were designed for a basement-chic look, but concrete floors that were there because the place is a basement), and buy-one-get-one deals at Bravo Lounge and DC Reynolds on Georgia Avenue NW (an arrangement practically unheard of outside a suburban Chili’s happy hour). Bloomingdale’s Showtime, a tiny bar that opened in June 2013, offers so few bells and whistles that owner Paul Vivari says he’s seen a few folks walk in and walk straight back out.
“That’s what great about this place,” Vivari says. “If you’re coming in here and are expecting basically anything, you’re going to be very disappointed. That’s why people like this place.”
These new spots aren’t all grungy or priced for college students—All Souls, which opened in Shaw last December, is far too elegantly minimal to ever be called a dive—but they all lack a certain fanciness, and they all aim to serve their neighbors, a strangely neglected group in D.C. It’s a small, subgeneration of bars that, given two decades of wear and tear, could be the spots where my children drink PBR.
Call them the new dives, the future dives, the neighborhood bars, the places for normal people, whatever—we’re finally getting some new ones.
The concept of a dive bar is, of course, a contentious one. Questions of what makes a dive and which bars are the real dives in this town receive a nonsensical amount of serious discussion, at least among the demographic (mostly young, mostly white, mostly affluent enough to buy drinks in significantly more upscale joints anyway) that concerns itself with questions like “how authentic is the bar I’m drinking in right now?” Popular opinion suggests a dive is made out of some holy combination of factors, including but not limited to age, lack of light, a crusty bartender, cheap drinks, the presence of people less wealthy than the individual defining the dive, old men, and the sale of potato chips. Less tangible factors include a ghostly aroma of cigarette smoke, how necessary it is to wear makeup to this bar, and what some uncreative souls might term “sketchiness.” (Basically, the Raven.)
A world of contradictions exists in the D.C. dive bar schema. What many here would call a “dive”—a few crusty regulars and a lot of domestic canned beers—would be known as a “neighborhood bar” in a city like Pittsburgh. A less categorically minded individual might dub such a space simply “a place to get beers.” (I have hilariously heard Galaxy Hut, a nice, off-beat spot in Clarendon, called a “dive.”)
Consider a place like A&D, a pretty bar with $11 cocktails and an oh-so-cute chalkboard that, according to Yelp’s Dive Bar category, is a dive. In Washington City Paper’s 2014 Best of D.C. Readers Poll for best dive bar, second place, rather remarkably, went to Showtime, whose extreme youth alone should disqualify it from the title. Third place went to the Red Derby, which predates Showtime but is a mere seven years old—surely not nearly senior enough to be named one of the city’s premiere dives.
That whole taxonomy also leaves out countless unpretentious bars scattered around the city’s neighborhoods that cater mostly to immigrants (like the large Latino and Ethiopian communities in the District) or to African Americans (if Ward 8’s Player’s Lounge were in a more rapidly gentrifying area and attracted more white patrons, it would surely be as beloved among the dive-bar crowd as the Raven is).
And therein lies part of the peculiarity of D.C.’s bar scene. According to Census figures from 2013, the District gained 83,000 residents in the preceding decade. That’s 83,000 potential dive patrons looking for that bar that will mimic the one their grandpa drank at in Philly or Cincinnati or Memphis. (Even bar owners wax nostalgic on this topic. Vivari recalls the bar his great-grandfather owned in Southwest D.C. decades ago: “My grandma was born above it!”)
With “authenticity” thrown around as a buzzword these days in everything from tech start-ups to political campaigns to dating sites, it’s not surprising that bar owners might be looking to create a drinking atmosphere that brings it along, too. Luckily for them, the city’s ever-generating new, young residents can’t help but mistake a bar like the Pinch for a decades-old Columbia Heights treasure instead of a spot that opened in 2012. (Yelp also helpfully steers anyone googling “dive bars” to the Pinch.)
So despite the seemingly intangible nature of a dive, in D.C., you can actually just set out to build one.
For Paul Vivari, the decision to open the newest old-looking bar in town was as much about business as it was about making a place where he himself would like to drink. A Rockville native, Vivari fell into working at bars after obtaining English and philosophy degrees. He bounced around for 10 years, starting at the Black Cat and moving on to Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar, tending bar and DJing. Then the barbershop below his apartment, called Showtime, gave up the space. Vivari signed a lease not knowing what he would do with it and settled on a bar, one that would be as simple as possible.
“I think people in D.C. are just sick of the same fucking place every week,” Vivari says. “All those places on 14th Street. Six Italian places and three tapas places? You just opened up a business on a street where there are six other businesses exactly like yours.”
As it happens, designing decor for a future dive bar rather than a themed cocktail joint is pretty easy on your budget. “We knew we wanted wallpaper,” Vivari says, because “we didn’t have stuff to put on the walls.”
“I don’t even know how we ended up where a lot of stuff is to be honest,” he continues. “It was just sort of like, ‘This might work, let’s go ahead and do it, if it doesn’t work we can just knock it down and move it around.’ The way things ended up, I’m real happy about.” Vivari says he built out the place for less than $150,000.
A lack of gimmicks or “theme” was a common goal for owners of new bars with an old-bar aesthetic. Curt Large, who opened Jackpot on New Year’s Eve, says, “We wanted a place that really felt like a neighborhood bar—not heavily themed.”
For Large, that meant keeping decorating to a rather basic standard and using most of his $600,000 build-out budget on more practical repairs. “It was a gross old basement,” he says of the space, “so just cleaning it up and putting in the AC system was work…The space by itself was great for a bar. The floor is the floor that was there, this great old concrete floor.”
“We wanted it to feel like it had been there forever,” he adds.
Across from the Convention Center at Lost and Found, whose opening date is still to be determined, Brian Leonard and his fellow co-owners also lucked into a space that naturally had the sort of laid-back charm dives have in spades and restaurateurs pay big bucks to create: exposed bricks, visible ducts, wood floors, and little industrial touches. “We have an old building here,” Leonard says of the space, which sat vacant for years after serving as a plumbing supply business. “It’s definitely a look that a lot of people pay a lot of money to make their space look like…It’s just something we had.”
Lost and Found’s rustic look is completed by a vintage wooden bar back, bought at auction in Baltimore and described as “awesome” by Leonard. A pair of delightfully tacky stickers remain stuck to the mirror, including a small nosegay of roses that asks patrons “Wouldn’t you rather drink Four Roses?”
Lyman’s Tavern in Columbia Heights, which opened in May, repurposed materials from…itself. “We built the bar out of the wood from the ceiling,” says Kevin Perone, the co-owner, who agreed to be interviewed in the bar’s kitchen while he browned pork shoulder for pulled pork sandwiches. “We didn’t realize we were going to have all that wood, and then we pulled that subceiling down, and we realized that we could put a facade on the bar.” As for the bar’s kitschy, eclectic objects—quasi-antiques, old cameras, and quirky signs sit hither and thither—Perone didn’t have to spend a dime on those. “All the decorations out there, that’s all stuff I had in my storage unit in Montana,” he says, collected years ago while living in Bozeman.
And at the Pinch, co-owner Daniel Maceda captured a little bit of the magic of former dives by literally taking their old stuff.
“All the tables in here are either tables we inherited from the space that was here before, or in some cases we got used from places that closed on the Hill,” Maceda says. He gestures to the Pinch’s no-frills furniture. “These booths are from the 18th Amendment, to be honest with you…as are these chairs, in fact.”
He adds, “We didn’t want it to feel ostentatious.”
Contrast these places with Le Diplomate, the 14th Street French brasserie that debuted in April 2013 with floors designed to creak like a particular Parisian bistro that the restaurant’s designers had visited. A vintage look and feel of that sort cost $6.5 million.
Perhaps the most basic principle of a dive or neighborhood bar is economics: The drinks gotta be cheap. Eliminating the kitchen has helped keep prices a little lower at a few of these spots—Jackpot serves free popcorn, and All Souls offers a few no-cook nibbles like a dish of olives or little cheddar cookies, though neither bar serves drinks at rock-bottom prices. Lost and Found plans to serve snacks made off-site. Vivari eliminated credit cards from his plans for Showtime along with a kitchen to streamline the business. (Most of these bars have to serve some kind of food, however rudimentary, in order to comply with the terms of their liquor licenses.)
“A bar like this is such a simple, basic business model,” Vivari says. “It honestly doesn’t make sense why there isn’t one in every neighborhood. Everything that is opening is essentially the same place. It’s the same model: ‘We’re going to have a kitchen, we’re going to specialize in this, but we also do all this other shit. Like, we’re going to do American, but we’re also going to do tacos, too. And have, like, soufflés…’ They’re all trying to build on that Thievery model.”
That’s as in D.C. electronic group Thievery Corporation, and its member Eric Hilton, who with his brother Ian is behind Marvin, the Brixton, Den of Thieves, American Ice Company, Satellite Room, the Gibson, and others. Vivari takes particular issue with Marvin.
“I still can’t believe they opened a bar in Marvin Gaye’s hometown where he lived his entire life, he’s a hero here, and they open a restaurant and dedicate it to the year he lived in Belgium. So they could sell $9 Belgian beer, and, like, steak frites,” he says. “That’s insulting to everyone. They keep having to explain it. ‘Oh, did you know he lived in Belgium for a year? That’s why we’re selling Duvel for $12.’” (Vivari adds that he has DJed for three Hilton brothers establishments, including Marvin, and he was fired from all three. A call to Ian Hilton seeking confirmation of this was not returned.)
Others characterize the difference between their establishments and the Hiltons’ a bit more diplomatically. “I love American Ice Company,” Leonard says of the Hiltons’ most dive-chic bar (lots of wood, exposed brick, Mason jars, chalkboards—basically a rustic wedding Pinterest board). “Love the look. It’s a little more of a scene than I perceive us being.”
All of the bar owners interviewed revel in a certain lack of formality. “We wanted to open a bar,” says David Batista, owner of All Souls, a well-designed but basic space at 7th and T streets NW that sits next to an old shoe-repair shop. “No gimmicks. It was just going to be a bar…comfortable, relaxed, clean, friendly, that sort of thing.”
“A place where everybody can come and feel comfortable,” is how Perone envisioned Lyman’s. “Old people, young people. We’ve got 60-year-olds playing pinball, and the 21-year-olds are having a great time… I wanted it to be the kind of bar that I wanted to sneak into as a kid.”
Like their fellow Washingtonians, these bar owners don’t remotely agree on what’s a dive or if their establishments qualify, now or in the future.
“I would not consider us a dive bar,” Perone says of Lyman’s. “There’s a very loose interpretation of that term. You have to earn that status.”
His definition? “I consider dives to be dark even during the day. When you walk in, you can feel, you can smell it…You feel the years of earned status.”
Large doesn’t mind if Jackpot gets called a dive. “To me, it’s not an insult,” he says. “When I think of a dive bar, I think of a cool old spot. I’m never insulted.” He adds, “We try to make sure our bathrooms are clean.”
Maceda feels the Pinch doesn’t qualify. “We’re a neighborhood bar,” he says. “Dive bars are, like, the Lil Pub. Which I loved to death.” But he acknowledges that the dive is in a state of flux. When conceptualizing the bar, he surveyed neighbors and found high demand for craft beer, even among folks who wanted a super-casual environment. (There was also demand for food a step above bar snacks, which is why the Pinch serves pretzel-crusted fried pickles.) And even though the majority of Maceda’s customers live within a few blocks, he estimates that 20 percent are from outside Columbia Heights and say they found the place by reading a food blog. “Never would have occurred to me that you would have to look up things on a blog or look up things on Yelp to find a place you can call your neighborhood bar,” Maceda, 39, says. “Difference in generations, I guess.”
The fact that Washingtonians are googling “dive bar” to find somewhere low-key to get a drink and are willing to travel across town for an “authentic” atmosphere seems to say something about The Way We Drink Now. Are we that tired of trying to sip that one glass of Hondarribi Beltza at Barcelona as slowly as possible to avoid plunking down another $12? Probably, but I think this little renaissance of simpler bars in D.C. speaks to something more than economics. Existentially, I can’t stomach dining more than once a month, if ever, at a place that lavished attention on making its floors squeak in a particular manner. A “dive” in 2014 is probably as meaningless as “authentic,” so do you deserve scorn for seeking one out through a search engine? Yeah, but probably less so than the fellow murmuring, “This guy was on Top Chef,” to his date at Bernaise.
Vivari is pleased, but baffled, at all the attention he’s gotten for opening a bar with casual aspirations. “A lot of places like Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, a bar like this isn’t a big deal,” he says. “The fact that it is a big deal in D.C. is kind of ridiculous. It shouldn’t be.”
As for whether he believes Showtime is a dive, Vivari says, “That’s how we’re listed on Yelp, actually.”