Kojo Nnamdi at the Hitching Post
Kojo Nnamdi at the Hitching Post Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Even on the nights he’s not drinking, Kojo Nnamdi still likes to visit the Hitching Post

“I’ll drink lemonade or some other nonalcoholic beverage,” says the longtime host of WAMU’s The Politics Hour with Kojo Nnamdi. He’s been a regular at the hallowed Petworth hub for about 25 of the 54 years it’s been in business. He goes to relieve stress, sometimes several times a week. “It’s the comfort level,” he says. “It’s what it does for my brain.”

“I can relax immediately and have a pleasant, often joke-filled conversation among people I associate with on a regular basis,” Nnamdi adds. “I wouldn’t say everybody at the Hitching Post is somebody I would consider a friend, but they are certainly associates that I enjoy spending time with. It helps me come down from thinking about serious things. Even though serious things may come up at the Hitching Post, it’s in a completely different environment.”

According to research dating back to the 1970s, this is the psychological allure and benefit of being a regular at a neighborhood bar. The practice can help us manage emotions, make friends, maintain relationships, and expose us to new ideas and people.

“[Those relationships] put us in a good mood,” says Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England. “They help us feel connected to other people, which is this fundamental need we have as human beings.”

A 2016 study conducted in bars around Oxford, England, examined these relationships in-depth. Led by Oxford psychologist Robin Dunbar and commissioned by the U.K. consumer organization Campaign for Real Ale, “Friends on Tap: The Role of Pubs at the Heart of the Community” suggests that local bars are among the best venues to meet like-minded people, even comparing them to places of worship, and that moderate drinking can improve a person’s social skills, mental health, and overall well-being.

The report implores us to get off our phones and suggests that people who frequent a neighborhood bar have more friends from different cultures and social classes, are more involved with their communities, more trusting of others, and less lonely than those whose social circles are limited to work and home.

The report also finds that regulars tend to drink less per outing than people drinking on their own or at big downtown bars, citing a group-moderation effect. According to the study, “People are likely to drink less if those around them are behaving in a more measured way, and are, as a result, likely to be less tolerant of socially inappropriate or excessive behavior.”

For a big group out for a night, drinking can be an objective, but for regulars at their neighborhood spot, drinking often is secondary to the fellowship—as it is for Nnamdi at the Hitching Post.

Nnamdi says he first popped in because he found the plain-looking building on Upshur Street NW intriguing. He couldn’t tell if it was a residence or a business. The Hitching Post’s communal confines compelled him to stick around and return ad infinitum. 

“I probably ordered some fried chicken—their fried chicken was always very good—and started striking up conversations with the people at the bar,” he says, referring to his first visit. “I enjoyed it and went back again, and to my surprise, some of the same people who were there the first time I went there were there again.” Nnamdi made a habit of returning and knew he could count on engaging in a good conversation.

When the “Friends on Tap” researchers compared small community bars to their big downtown counterparts—those that tend to be less intimate and have more transient clientele—they found that people typically visit the downtown bars in bigger groups, often on their way to somewhere else, like a club. The interactions within those groups tended to be shorter and not so intimate—and with a lot more phone-checking.

The opposite happens at local bars.

“I always say, ‘Hey, this is cheaper than therapy,’” says Herman Lutz, an IT guy who’s been a regular at Georgetown’s Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place for six years. “You’re in a relaxed environment, and little by little you start saying things. You’re basically venting stuff, but you’re laughing. Laughter’s important. It’s just like you’re communicating more. … With this group of people, you can open up and let loose and walk away.”

In a seminal and oft-cited 1973 paper that helped create this field of study, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter examined the sorts of relationships and interactions Lutz and Nnamdi are describing.

Called “weak ties,” these seemingly frivolous or non-intensive relationships are low investment and potentially high reward. Take for example the barista you see every morning, making small talk with a work colleague on a serendipitously shared elevator ride, or idly confabulating with two strangers over beers in a pub.

Sandstrom studies this sort of rapport, also known as minimal social interactions. She became interested in the subject while getting her Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. A woman working at a hot dog stand on campus inspired her.

“Every time I walked past her, I’d smile and wave, and she’d smile and wave back,” Sandstrom says. “It took me a while, but I realized how good it made me feel, and then I started wondering: Maybe lots of people have people like this hot dog lady in our lives—people who make us feel good and make us feel grounded and part of the social fabric and who we don’t really pay attention to.”

Sandstrom doesn’t consider the hot dog vendor a stranger, even though they’ve never spoken or exchanged names. The delineation is mutual recognition, and from there, the relationship can escalate or ebb. Weak ties exist on a spectrum and are predicated on common ground. For Sandstrom and the hot dog vendor, the common ground was simple proximity. At the Hitching Post, it’s something more.

“Back in the day, this business was known as a spot for minorities to hang out,” says owner Barry Dindyal. He bought the business from founders Al and Adrienne Carter in 2012. “This is the one place that they could come and feel like home. We build on that and just keep it going, and we try to build and strive to have our new customers come in and feel the same way. This place should be a home away from home.”

At the more intimate end of the “tie” spectrum are strong ties, which are what we have, notably, with dear friends and family. Both can be naturally cultivated and easily nurtured in local bars, in part, because being a regular renders scheduling all but superfluous. If people are going to the bar anyway, there’s no need to make plans. This guarantees face-to-face contact, with minimal effort.

“Everyone is there for, maybe not the exact same reason, but everyone’s there with lowered inhibitions,” says Mark Menard, who owns Trusty’s, a dive bar in Southeast D.C. “They don’t really have great expectations if they’re hanging out in a dive bar or a neighborhood bar. … Some of them want to be engaged with you. There are those who don’t want to be engaged—just have a drink, no hassle. It totally allows for the level of engagement that you want.”

When Denizens Brewing Co. opened in Silver Spring in 2014, it created a so-called “regulars club” because founders Emily Bruno, Jeff Ramirez, and Julie Verratti wanted to both ensure their new business had repeat customers and create a social locus, just like the owner of the Hitching Post.

“I can’t think of a significant time in my life I don’t associate with some sort of neighborhood place,” says Verratti, who now works for the U.S. Small Business Administration. “I challenge anyone to think about getting together with family and friends over the years and not think about bars and restaurants.”

Like Nnamdi, Susannah Cernojevich pops into the Hitching Post to find conversation, even if she’s not drinking. She first went to the Hitching Post about 15 years ago, not long after moving to Petworth from Capitol Hill. She says an older married couple—veteran regulars—essentially sponsored her incorporation into the Hitching Post’s ecosystem.

“[The wife] would tell me when they were coming, and I would go and sit with them, and they would start introducing me to other people,” says Cernojevich, who has used the bar’s network to return a lost dog and find reasonably priced roofers. “You see families grow, people meet other people and get married. It’s just a nice place to go and touch base.”

Some of those people are now gone. The couple that smoothed Cernojevich’s assimilation died years ago. The husband, a civil rights attorney, is still remembered as the bar’s “resident sage” as well as for his frequent and inflamed debates with another late regular, a career federal employee. Nnamdi says the two often sparred over who knew more about the government, among other issues.

“They would get into fierce arguments using raised voices about the same things over and over again,” Nnamdi says, laughing. “We would look forward to these arguments. I, for one, knew what each one would say almost before they said it, and I knew that they would end up becoming very angry at one another, and then the next night I’d go there and they’d be sitting there again as good friends.”

They never settled the debate.

“That was the whole point,” Nnamdi says. “One of the things about relationships in a place that’s a neighborhood establishment, regardless of how upset people may be on one occasion or another, they are almost certainly going to return, especially if they live in the neighborhood. But also because a neighborhood is more than a building. A neighborhood is really a place where people find companionship.”