It was a throwback to a humbler time. A beer-soaked refuge from the frenetic world beyond its familiar wooden porch. A beloved, if bedraggled, dive bar preserved in the amber of a century of spilled drinks.
But early Wednesday morning, a fire obliterated Hank Dietle’s Tavern, a historic Rockville, Md., watering hole that had long been a touchstone for its customers.
The blaze began about 3 a.m. and appeared to be started by discarded smoking materials, according to the Montgomery County Fire Department. No one was injured, but the building was badly damaged.
“There’s nothing left,” said owner Tony Huniak, looking stunned as he stood outside the ruined tavern in the midday chill.
Huniak said he was on his way to the bar in the morning when he heard about the fire on the radio. He arrived to find that the flames had spared little. The iconic white porch — where authorities believe the fire began — was burned to a crisp. The windows were shattered. An orange traffic cone had melted as if made of ice cream. So, too, had the last two words on the bar’s sign: “Hank Dietle’s Cold Beer.”
Inside, the booths once shared by a hodgepodge of patrons — from professionals to the homeless — were scorched. The pool table, on which countless sharks had placed their quarters and earned their rent, appeared as though it could collapse at any moment. Atop it all lay a fine layer of soot, like freshly fallen snow.
On the ravaged bar stood a solitary bottle of beer.
The small, one-story bungalow once served as a general store with two gas pumps when Edward Offutt opened it in 1916. He lived in the house next door.
It later became a tavern, and a new owner, Hank Dietle, took it over. The tavern is considered one of the oldest bars in Montgomery County. Its beer and wine license is numbered 001, according to its website, a reference to its securing the first post-Prohibition license from the county.
Its early days are the stuff of late-night lore. One story goes that a preacher held Sunday services in the tavern.
“There used to be a captain’s bell in the alcove here,” manager John Hovde told The Washington Post in 1984. “At the end of the service, the preacher would ring the bell, all the ladies would leave, and the men would resume drinking. Rumor has it that the preacher used to buy the first round out of the collection plate, but I don’t know about that.”
By the 1970s, Dietle’s had become a rough-and-tumble biker bar. In 1972, a man was murdered outside the tavern after an argument over a pool game.
“It was a scary place back in the ’70s,” recalled Bert Oser, 55, who grew up in Potomac, a few miles away. By the time he found the courage to go to Dietle’s in the late 1980s, the bar had mellowed — but only some.
Huniak bought the bar on New Year’s Eve 1996, he said.
“They were gonna close the doors,” he said.
He has had his own difficulties with Dietle’s, however. Montgomery County has sued him and the tavern several times over contract disputes, winning multiple liens and judgments against him, court records show. And the Maryland Department of Taxation’s website lists Dietle’s Tavern as “not in good standing.”
Earlier this month, the bar — famed for being open 365 days a year — was briefly shuttered for operating without a license.
Then came the fire.
A man working late nearby was driving home about 2:30 a.m. when he saw what he thought was a “small bonfire” on the porch. The man, who declined to give his name, said he pulled over and called 911. Firefighters arrived 10 minutes later.
But by then, the fire had engulfed the porch and spread to the rest of the building.
It didn’t take long for regulars to hear what happened. By noon, a dozen had come to pay their respects to Huniak.
Tim McCann said helicopters flying overhead in the early morning woke him up. A few hours later, he received an email from a friend saying Dietle’s was gone.
McCann, 65, said he had grown up across the street and had come here with his father long before he could legally drink. He had walked home drunk more times than he could remember.
“This was a working-class place where working-class people could feel comfortable,” he said. “It wasn’t fake.”
For McCann and other regulars, the fire seemed to signal the end of an era.
“When I was a kid, there was livestock on Rockville Pike. Now you hear [Jeffrey P.] Bezos might put his second Amazon headquarters across the street,” he said, referring to the Amazon chief executive, who also owns The Washington Post. “Things change, of course. But Dietle’s didn’t. Dietle’s was solid.”
McCann stood next to his car in sweatpants, holding a coffee mug, as if lounging in his living room. He was soon joined by Robert Buckler, 74, who said he played pool and drank Miller Lites three days a week with friends at Dietle’s.
“It was more like a home than a restaurant,” he said. “It was full of personalities.”
One of those personalities was a homeless bartender who slept outside under a copse of pine trees.
“Nobody complained until someone gave him a tent,” Buckler said with a laugh. Buckler and McCann were sharing stories when another car pulled up.
“Is that Lisa?” McCann said. “I’m telling you, this is like a funeral. See, she’s going straight for the casket to have a viewing.”
Lisa McAuliffe peered inside the tavern where she had tended bar for the past 18 months.
“I was supposed to work tonight,” she said, surveying the estimated $500,000 in damage. She had started at Dietle’s when she was between jobs. But even after finding other employment, she tended bar two nights a week because she liked the people there.
Now McAuliffe said she feared the bar wouldn’t reopen. Huniak said he hoped to rebuild but wasn’t sure if he could.
McAuliffe ducked under yellow tape reading “fire line do not cross” to survey the damage. Someone mentioned a historic plaque on the porch, but McAuliffe couldn’t find it.
“It’s history,” she said, climbing among the ruins. “It’s history. It’s history.”
Jennifer Jenkins and Kelyn Soong contributed to this report.