Few in D.C. do dive-y like Red Derby. From its perch in upper Columbia Heights, the home of D.C.’s so-called “beer-can revolution” pulls in a friendly, flannel-wearing crowd for $2 PBRs, half-price burgers, and raised-voice conversation around formica tables.
It’s the kind of bar that plasters handwritten, photocopied fliers for charity events in its stairwell and bathrooms, and where, on your birthday, an unkempt bartender will turn down the Clash and yell at everyone on the roof to sing to you. In short, it’s exactly the kind of understated, unfussy place meant for weeknight binges—unless you prefer the wine bars and craft pours of 11th Street NW. In which case, I’ll have your beer.
Red Derby’s one-page menu—dog-eared, grease-stained, and apparently unchanging—promises every drunk-food favorite except jumbo pizza. Grilled cheese? Check. Deep-fried shrimp? Half-price on Sundays. The servings are greasy and generous, served in red baskets like an old-school diner, and obviously intended for consumption with one of Red Derby’s 50-plus canned beers. Said beers range from mass-market stand-bys (Blue Moon, Fat Tire) to micro favorites (Old Chub) to the downright cheap (Natty Boh, Amstel Light, other things kids dig in college). Though hardly known for its cocktails, Red Derby’s mixed drinks can also prove dangerous: Margaritas, a mere $4 on Mondays, come in clear plastic Solo cups and boast a tequila-to-lime ratio that has no business hanging out on the weeknight menu.
But the Derby’s real secret is, without a doubt, the Derby Burger, an 8-oz. slab of beef piled with avocado, red onion, cucumber, sprouts, pickles, lettuce and tomato, plus American, Swiss, cheddar, or Boursin for a couple extra dollars. The medium rare skews toward the very pinkest side of that spectrum, but it’s hard to complain about a Five Guys-size burger that comes on a hefty bed of fries and costs $6.50 on Mondays. “We’ve always tried to be the cheapest local in D.C.,” explains owner David Leventry, and that’s obvious enough. Regular burgers are only $5 on Mondays and $10 the rest of the week.
Be forewarned: Red Derby only takes cash, and the Monday special is so popular that the bar’s one-man kitchen sometimes sells out. But watch out for Derby’s other so-called specials–both the tacos (tortilla, spattering of shredded cheese, chicken finger) and the mac and cheese “wedges” (gratuitously overfried, unsatisfyingly under-cheesy) taste like something your high school cafeteria lady might whip up.
You can’t hold these minor misses against Red Derby, though. Unlike so many trendy, Type-A bars in D.C., it’s not aspiring to be anything but a great neighborhood hangout.
Red Derby, 3718 14th St. NW; (202) 291-5000; redderby.com