My memories of Charlie’s 804, the watering hole attached to the now demolished Montagu Hotel in Houston, are buried under more cheap suds than I care to admit imbibing to the craft beer crowd here in the nation’s capital, where bar arguments are more likely to break out over the evolution of the IPA than the evolution of apes.
Charlie’s was not a place you took a date, unless you rented your dates by the hour (and your date needed a shot of Cutty Sark before retiring to the roach trap next door). Charlie’s was not a place to order craft beers or hand-crafted cocktails with slow-melting designer ice. Charlie’s was not a place to revel in childhood board games or toss back tater tots, as if you were back in the dorm getting loaded with your friends dressed in Hello Kitty nightshirts.
No, Charlie’s 804 was a place to get lost. Its regular denizens were those living on the margins of downtown Houston, before its fortunes turned for the better, people who were not quite homeless but not quite sober enough for white collar work. Occasional poseurs like me and my journalist buds would hang out at Charlie’s, acting as if somehow we belonged. But everyone knew we were outsiders, content to go back to our comfortable middle-class, high-thread-count sheets, while they went to God knows where for the night.
Charlie’s 804 was a dive bar. It was sort of scary, sort of fascinating and sort of sad. I have a weird, palpable nostalgia for it, perhaps because Charlie’s pre-wired, lowest-common-denominator vibe practically demanded a social interaction that couldn’t be interrupted by that 21st century data crackpipe known as the smartphone (or worse, the know-it-all foodie with something to prove). The joint was the real-life version of the Golden Horn, the watering hole at the center of Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 film “Barfly.”
I don’t mean to pick on Eater DC. The District, with its relative wealth, education and high property values, just has a way of gobbling up and sanitizing even the few places that were formerly dives, like the Quarry House Tavern (once a true subterranean smoke pit) and the Tune Inn. Personally, I love the Tune Inn, but since its renovation after the kitchen fire last year, the Capitol Hill watering hole has a clubby, well-scrubbed ambiance. No one feels nervous walking into the Tune Inn.
The problem, I think, is the term “dive bar.” It does not have an agreed-upon definition, which only invites loose and highly suspect interpretations. Eater Houston offered a decent definition when it recently published its list of iconic Bayou City dives (which are endorsed, I should note, by my friend John Nova Lomax, author of “Houston’s Best Dive Bars.”). Eater Houston wrote:
First, it should be an important part of the neighborhood in which it is located. Second, it should have minimal decor. The beer should be cheap, and the jukebox should feel out of time. If the regulars feel a little hostile to outsiders, so much the better.
I would like to add a few more conditions to this definition, however, only some of which are tongue in cheek:
1. The cops should be called to the place at least once a year to break up a fight.
2. The bartender should actively make a face when you ask for a peaty, single-malt Scotch.
3. There should be no TV tuned into ESPN or CNN. There should be no TV, period. A dive bar can’t afford cable.
4. If there’s a board game available, it’s a musty old chess set with plastic figures. The game will be monopolized by regulars who will sneer at your request to “take on the winner.”
5. The pool table should have at least two tears in its felt covering, and, no, the bartender will not have change for the coin slots. He’ll instead point you in the general direction of the nearest laundromat.
6. There still should be a cigarette machine in the corner.
7. You should have at least some trepidation about entering the restroom.
8. And, most important of all: The jukebox may have Tom Waits on it, but no one plays one of Wait’s raspy, downtrodden tales to try to prove that, underneath their H&M exterior, there lies a true boho.