Recently, I lamented the passing of John’s Place, a dive bar in Fairfax City which closed Jan. 1. It seemed perhaps symbolic of the evolution of shiny new Northern Virginia, leaving grubby old Northern Virginia behind.
But readers jumped in with many suggestions of dive bars still thriving in NoVa. I will soon undertake a research mission to explore the places you’ve pointed out. But I needed a template, a philosophical guide: What, in Northern Virginia in 2013, is a dive bar?
I turned to Fritz Hahn, tavern expert for The Post’s Going Out Guide and a man well-acquainted with the dives of NoVa, D.C. and elsewhere. I asked what rules should be used to define a dive bar. I started out with some suggestions: 1) No kids. 2) Decent jukebox. 3) Inedible food.
His response, below, is hilarious. Insightful, clearly spoken from experience, and a total roadmap. Read on, and then add your own defining characteristics of a dive bar in the comments:
Fritz: Good start. I don’t think the food has to be inedible. I’ll admit to liking the burger at Quarry House (Silver Spring) and the chili dog at Vienna Inn. But the menu should be full of things you’d get at a fire station or a church picnic. Chili, Italian subs, fried mac and cheese, wings or tacos would be fine. Even fish and chips. Strip steak, anything topped with boursin cheese, any “wrap,” fancy fish — all out. At least half of the menu items should have come in contact with a deep fryer.
The exception I’ll make is for places that have found ethnic neighborhoods spring up around them. I’ve been to some bars in Silver Spring and Annandale where the cooks were Latin American and talked the owners into putting quesadillas or empanadas on the menu, and they’re better than the American dive food.
Anyway, more suggestions:
No microbrews that you don’t see advertised on TV, i.e. Sam Adams, though I’m flexible with this: I know of some dives where the owner or a bartender prefers good beer, so they stock it, or the regulars asked for DC Brau or another local brew.
No drink over $10. Better yet, no beer-and-a-shot combo over $10.
A dusty bottle of Galliano, Frangelico or Benedictine that probably hasn’t been used since the ’80s.
House wine poured from large jugs behind the bar.
No framed reviews on the wall unless they’re 10 years old, from an actual newspaper.
I used to say no internet jukebox, and while I’m easing off that, I still prefer a CD Jukebox. Or, as Galaxy Hut did when they caved, a jukebox that the owner can ban artists from. While the Hut has an internet juke, you can’t punch up Britney or One Direction or something.
Should be dark or dimly lit. Bonus points for a light that’s out or flickering.
Something about the place should be local without being hokey — maybe a high school team’s hat or jersey on the wall, an old photo of the building, a sign advertising an event at the local VFW.
At least one patron should look like they got there before 10 a.m. Corollary: If the bar doesn’t open before 5, it’s not a dive.
Bonus points for a family photo of the owner, more for a family photo showing the bartender, even more for photos of regulars.
Pool table is a plus, especially if the felt is faded and you see obvious wear in front of the head spot. (And, like Hank Dietle’s in Rockville, there’s a sign telling you not to use the pool balls in a fight.)
(Fritz’s top Virginia dives: Jay’s in Clarendon, JV’s in Falls Church, McKeever’s in McLean, Mark’s Pub in Falls Church and the Forest Inn in Arlington. )
(Here’s a list of Fritz’s top Virginia bars, of all varieties.)