In other countries, people worry about potable water, random air strikes and whether this year’s batch of nominally elected leaders will sweep through their neighborhood, looking for dissenters who might look better at the bottom of an open grave.
In Washington, we worry about dive bars.
Excuse the hyperbole. I just want you to know the $20 Diner understands there are tragedies greater than a dearth of dumpy watering holes where old-timers suck down cheap, corn-sweet lagers, oblivious to the fact their body odor could pop open beer bottles. But like some of my colleagues, I do mourn the loss of the District’s iconic dive bars. I even fret about the makeovers of once crusty (and encrusted) establishments, whether the Tune Inn or Hawk & Dove, which have lost a layer of charm along with their accumulated layers of grime.
Bars, like any business, must evolve with changing times and tastes to survive, and the urban dive, often crouched low in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, is the most vulnerable of all: a drunk Joe Namath unaware of his own insignificance. But every time we kill off one of these dive bars and dump them in their own open grave, we lose a bit of our humanity, the part of us that knows sharing a drink with neighbors should never be the exclusive right of those who can afford a $9 craft beer. Dive bars are classless in the best sense of the term.
I understand some overprivileged types enjoy liquefying themselves in dive bars because the very act conveys a hipper-than-thou status: You’re cool enough to knock back beer with people you wouldn’t associate with outside these walls. But these people are nothing more than trophy hunters, accumulating exotic experiences to relate to their fellow world travelers. True barflies seek out the company of dives because, deep down in their soul, they feel most comfortable there.
Which brings me to Bravo Bar, a Georgia Avenue operation that appears to border both the Pleasant Plains and Park View neighborhoods. The small, black-box-theater of a bar isn’t built for memorable drinking or dining. Its full bar comes stocked with bottles that would satisfy (Patron) and horrify (Pinnacle Cinnabon vodka) the standard-issue mixologist who can stomach only small-batch or conventionally validated spirits. Its beer list aims no higher than a Loose Cannon IPA while embracing such poundable, budget-minded brands as Miller Lite and Stroh’s. The menu, a multicultural mix of pupusas, falafel and burgers, sells everything for $8 or less. The buy-one-get-one-free happy hour runs till 8 p.m. to catch those battle-weary cube warriors arriving home late from work.
Bravo Bar feels as comfortable as that worn couch where you’ve spent hours watching the home team break your heart.
Conversely, I fell for Bravo on the night the Nationals clinched the National League East title. The Stones and CCR provided the backbeat as Drew Storen slammed the door on the Atlanta Braves and I polished off a loosely packed burger that was well-seasoned, sheathed in cheddar and about 10 times better than it needed to be at that moment. I would have been happy with a Poor Man’s Big Mac, but this thick patty — a come-hither shade of pink, slipped inside a soft Kaiser roll — was the icing on the burger. The mayo on the cake? The cheddar on the patty inside the three-layer cake? You get the idea.
Michael Ressom, one of three Ethiopian brothers who officially opened Bravo in January, can often be found behind the bar, making sure customers take advantage of their free drink during happy hour. He lives in the neighborhood, too, which may explain why he so easily slips into the gracious, avuncular role: He’s taking care of his own. He hangs their artwork on his black-and-red walls. He gives them a place to watch the game, or just play one, from cards to Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. He even works to feed them well, all for the price of a plate of pommes frites at Le Diplomate.
Almost everything on the tiny menu is made in-house, save of course for the split hot dog, part of Bravo’s $6 happy-hour combo: a shot of Jim Beam, a can of PBR and an all-American weiner, the working man’s tasting menu. Think of it as a tonic for your small-plates malaise.
I would gladly reorder more than half of Bravo’s menu, starting with the burger, without feeling as if I were taking on a charity case. The pepper-flecked cheesesteak with caramelized onions, the thick-shelled pupusa stuffed fat with black beans and cheese, the hot-and-meaty wings, the crunchy-and-creamy falafel wrap, the coated wedge fries. All of these plates are executed with the kind of care I didn’t expect from a corner pub. The kitchen’s attention to dishes that would bore the average culinary school graduate reminds me of a quote widely attributed to the ultimate barfly, Charles Bukowski:
“To do a dull thing with style, now that’s what I call art.”
Maybe Bravo Bar isn’t art; its comically thin and dry grilled cheese sandwich certainly isn’t. But the place is something just as needed: a modern dive. Bravo may not have the age, the thin veneer of grease or the cranky regulars to fit the classic definition, but it has the soul of a dive. Bravo understands that a dive has a fundamental respect for a city’s working stiffs, even the low-level bureaucratic flunkies so easily dismissed in Washington, and it gives them a place to feel good about life. At least for a little while.
2917 Georgia Ave. NW. 202-629-2583.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday-Saturday 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights or Georgia Avenue-Petworth, each with a 0.6-mile walk to the bar.
Food prices: $3-$8.