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On a recent Saturday night at Georgetown’s Rhino Bar & Pumphouse, the crowd is drunk, loud, and overwhelmingly young. From my position at the far left corner of the upstairs dance floor, the scene resembles an abstract painting. Pastel polos and oxfords are the uniform of choice for the men of Rhino, and they swirl against the bright, skintight dresses of their grinding partners.
The revelry is tinged with a bit of melancholy for the mostly college crowd. It was one of their last nights at Rhino, which closed Feb. 28. Its space has housed watering holes since 1952: first Shamrock, then Winston’s Bar, and, since 1998, Rhino. According to manager George Kennedy, the bar isn’t renewing its lease at the end of February due to rising rent.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do when it finally closes,” says Jeff, a Georgetown sophomore swigging Coors Light, who didn’t want to share his last name because he was drinking underage. Jeff admits that he got into the bar using a fake ID—and that most of his companions did, too. “There’s no other bar in the neighborhood that’s as easy with IDs,” he says. “Rhino’s awesome, because you can leave a party, come here, and know that almost all your friends can get in.”
It’s not the only undergrad bar disappearing from the District’s college neighborhoods. McFadden’s, a favorite of George Washington University students, closed for good in December after five patrons were stabbed inside the overcrowded establishment. Meanwhile, Chadwicks and Third Edition—student standbys in Georgetown that had been open for decades—both shuttered in the last two years. Those college campuses are now left without their signature purveyors of cheap beer, top 40 hits, and darkened hookup spaces.
Georgetown has long been a tony neighborhood with high-end retailers like J. Crew and Brooks Brothers, but the new crop of restaurants and bars opening there—Chez Billy Sud, El Centro D.F.—are more likely to serve $12 cocktails than $2 Natty Lights. While neighbors may see the loss of destinations for debaucherous nightlife as cause for celebration, students are asking: Where will we go now?
One establishment is looking to take the place of Rhino Bar and its ilk in an unlikely place: on campus. Bulldog Tavern, run by the Bon Appétit food service company (which operates dining halls at American University and other colleges around the country), opened inside Georgetown’s new student center last November as part of a broader effort by the university’s administration to get students drinking on campus instead of off. Georgetown, where I’m currently a junior, is the only university within the District’s boundaries to have a bar on-campus.
“I’m not going to be the one to say that there’s a major conspiracy with the members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commision to close local bars and thereby force student life on campus… but yeah, there’s pressure,” says Trevor Tezel, the president of the Georgetown University Student Association. “The individuals who run the Georgetown Business Improvement District, who are seeking to increase the economic output of the Georgetown district, are some of the same ones who would be happy if there were fewer bars and opportunities for students to be traipsing through west Georgetown.”
Bulldog Tavern’s opening coincides with a general loosening of Georgetown’s restrictions on student drinking. In April 2013, a one-keg limit for parties on campus was lifted. That fall, a pilot policy was introduced that permitted students to drink openly in certain areas of campus without the risk of public safety officers checking their IDs. Now that policy has taken effect across many of the university’s most heavily trafficked areas. Citations for drinking issued by Georgetown’s Department of Public Safety decreased dramatically, dropping from 444 in 2010 to 221 in 2013, the last year on record.
Jeanne Lord, Georgetown’s dean of students, says the changes to the way the university approached drinking were related to its 2020 Campus Plan, which includes a commitment to house 90 percent of students on campus by 2020. “These recent policy changes are all part of the University’s efforts to enhance social life on campus as we move toward a more residential community,” Lord says.
But Bulldog Tavern is no Rhino Bar, despite the fact that it’s open until 3 a.m. on weekend nights.
“We’re not a dance party or, like, get crazy and throw up on your buddy’s shoes vibe going on here,” says Derek Nottingham, the tavern’s general manager. “We’re trying to get live music, trivia nights, give specials to student groups to get the late night thing going, though.” Pulling the chairs away to make a dance floor, though, is decidedly out of the question: Bulldog Tavern is gunning for the relaxed crowd that would usually show up to The Tombs, Georgetown’s iconic just-off-campus bar, which is a favorite study spot for seniors.
Students aren’t exactly enamored with the university’s attempt to push their nightlife on campus.
“There’s not too much drinking, and most of the time I go people are just eating,” says Georgetown senior Claire Zeng, who doesn’t see Bulldog Tavern pulling in the same crowd as Rhino did. “There’s no raucous drunk dancing or DFMOs [dance-floor makeouts], which, of course, are at any bar that anyone wants to go to.”
While Georgetown loosens campus drinking policies, GW has recently toughened up its own. Every year since 2009, the number of citations issued has increased, and the jump between 2012 and 2013, the last year on record, was 48 percent, the biggest yet recorded in the university’s crime stats.
Students there don’t have a campus bar trying to lure them in now that McFadden’s is gone. But getting in there was never so easy for underage drinkers, anyway (though one of the patrons stabbed in December was 20). “If you had, say, an amazing, really legit fake, then maybe you would try it there, but otherwise I wouldn’t have risked it,” says GW junior Kayleigh Young. “I didn’t even try until I had a real ID, so went there for my 21st birthday.”
Dupont’s Sign of the Whale has ascended as a new bar of choice for the fratty, hard-partying GW set, Young says. The bar offers similar deals to the ones McFadden’s did (win a happy hour in a contest, and all your friends drink free).
“McFadden’s was great, really, for one reason—it was huge, and you would just run into all sorts of people you knew,” says GW senior Marissa Steinberg. “I’ve been going to Sign of the Whale and some bars in Dupont more now, but nothing has taken the place of McFadden’s. GW kids are a little scattered.”
Staff at Sign of the Whale and Foggy Bottom’s 51st StateTavern, another place where students are now heading, say they’ve noticed a bit more business since McFadden’s closed. But both bars are small, and neither are quite the same as Rhino or McFadden’s, which drew crowds with their expansive, club-like dance floors. They were places to get wasted and make out with people you’d seen once or twice in Sociology lectures. The noisy, crowded atmosphere was the point—it cut down on conversation.
Lewis Leone, a member of Georgetown’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, is seeing more juniors and seniors go to Adams Morgan and U Street NW now, with Madam’s Organ, Brixton, and El Rey proving particularly popular. Georgetown options are too limited. After all, only six establishments have “tavern” liquor licenses in the neighborhood, and almost none of them are of the same breed as Rhino, with its sticky floors, $10 pitchers, and 25-cent wings on Monday nights.
“It’s basically what you would imagine if you think of a fratty bar, and I’ve definitely seen a lot of kids act like assholes,” Leone says. “What Rhino offered, though, was stability. I know I can catch some people I know there. Now that it’s going away, I don’t think anything in Georgetown is going to take its place.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery