When you’re knocking back cold bottles of Miller High Life at a dive bar, the place should feel as if time stood still somewhere in the 20th century. It might be 1947 or it might be 1977. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the temporal disorientation of the space: You shouldn’t know what decade it is until you walk outside and spot the first late-model Japanese import.
Dive bars have some age on them, and they don’t always carry their years gracefully. The tabletop jukebox may be more booth ornament than functioning sound system. The pool table may have transitioned into a makeshift communal table. The bartender may be so old-school that if you ask for a mescal, he’ll hunt for a bottle with a worm in it.
As we did this year with our list of America’s most authentic dive bars, here, we sought out only the Washington-area spots that fit our working definition: Dives must have history. They must have regulars. They cannot be expensive. They cannot have craft cocktails.
Any place that opened after 2000, we decided, did not qualify for dive status. A minimum age requirement disqualified a few places from the start, including the Pug (opened in 2007), Red Derby (also 2007) and Bravo Bar (2014). But even a once bona fide dive, such as the Hawk & Dove on Capitol Hill, can lose its credentials when a new owner decides to drag a bar, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. A dive bar does not serve a chopped kale salad with shaved pecorino.
The bars that made our list are so divey that some didn’t even return our phone calls and emails for background information. A true dive doesn’t care about self-promotion.
3125 Mount Pleasant St. NW. 202-387-8411.
Years ago, Gretchen Georgiadis was putting in 80-hour workweeks as managing partner of a local Bertucci’s. She was burned out, or something close to it. Her refuge was the Raven Grill, a dimly lit watering hole with no food (other than bagged chips) but with plenty of spirits and bar-stool therapy. She was a regular for a dozen years — until one day when the owner approached her.
“It just happens that the current owner wanted me to come on” as general manager, says Georgiadis. She’s held the title now for nearly eight years. She can also be found mixing drinks behind the bar.
Over the course of its 80-plus-year history, the Raven Grill has had something of a split personality. It once served a simple menu — pickled eggs, 15-cent cheeseburgers, basic pub grub — but the kitchen was 86’d at least a half-century ago, Georgiadis says. Some days, newcomers still wander in, looking for a bite to eat.
The bar has a martini glass designed into its neon sign out front, even though the Raven doesn’t serve the Rat Pack staple. Even the clientele has something of a split personality: During the week, the old-timers and Mount Pleasant regulars will drop by for a cold one. On Friday and Saturday nights, the millennials and the curiosity seekers will stop by, some looking to check off a box on their dive-bar list.
Mount Pleasant has changed a lot since Georgiadis started frequenting the Raven. Home prices and rents have soared so high that she moved to Glover Park. “It’s cheaper to live north of Georgetown,” she says. And yet: The Raven has resisted all pressure to cater to the new wealth of the neighborhood. The bar still has no draft beer, no craft cocktails, not even a soda gun.
“A beer and a shot is probably what we do most of,” Georgiadis says.
Decor: Nonoperative tabletop jukeboxes. Framed portraits of Jimi, Elvis, Dylan and other entertainment icons. Nicotine-stained walls. Classic movies on the TV. A boomer-era curio shop.
Signature drink: A shot of Jameson with a can of Natty Boh.
2737 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. 202-574-1331.
Michael Gregory sits at the bar, still in his dress shirt and tie, taking the edge off his day with a glass of vodka and cranberry juice. Game 5 of the NBA Finals is about to begin, and he has a prime seat in front of a TV that sits on an empty cooler behind the bar. Before tip-off, a few more patrons wander in, ready to watch the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers square off one last time in the series.
Michael and his girlfriend, Janet Austin, are regulars, or at least regular enough to know employees by name, even the private nickname that some customers have for a bartender who’s slow with the drink refills. Michael likes good food. He likes a good stiff drink. He likes to debate with fellow customers over the merits of each player on the Cavs and Warriors. The snark and informality make Players Lounge feel more like a living room than a bar.
Players, near the neighborhood of Congress Heights in Southeast, has assumed numerous identities since it was founded in 1972 by Stephen and Georgene Thompson. The business launched as a strip club, says manager Angela Thompson, daughter of the owners. But Ward 8 politicos, including the late Marion Barry, convinced the Thompsons that adopting a wholesome persona would make the lounge more attractive for campaign fundraisers. “We found it more profitable without doing the stripping,” Angela Thompson says.
At various times in its history, Players has also served as a pool hall (upstairs only), a TV repair shop and a T-shirt store. More than a decade ago, the Thompsons launched a catering business, which still serves up soul-food classics until 8:30 p.m. daily at the bar. The owners have slowly been renovating the interior and exterior of their lounge, hoping to attract concertgoers and basketball fans alike who will soon flock to Ward 8 for the new sports and entertainment complex, set to open next year.
But for now, Michael, Janet and all the other regulars are glued to the TV, watching LeBron James and the Cavaliers lose the NBA title to the Warriors. Before the game is over, the couple call it a night. It’s nearing 10 p.m., and they have to work in the morning. On the sidewalk, they walk hand-in-hand outside a bar that they may not recognize in a couple of years.
Decor: Mirrors, booths with Michelob-branded Tiffany lamps hanging overhead, party and holiday decorations. A party room from the 1980s.
Signature drink: Patron margarita, Sex on the Beach.
2315 18th St. NW. 202-265-0299.
Dan’s used to be open seven days a week in the 1980s, back when Adams Morgan was a neighborhood known for its ethnic diversity, not for chef-driven restaurants and condo developments, recalls Tracy Dickens. He should know: Dickens is not only a native of the neighborhood, but his father, Clinnie Dickens, has owned Dan’s since 1965, when he bought the bar from its founder, a guy named (you guessed it) Dan.
Dan’s is now open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays only, a concession to the octogenarian owner, who can still be found at the end of the bar, eating chips and directing traffic. Tracy, 53, has worked, off and on, for his dad since the early 1980s. From his perch behind the bar, Tracy has watched Adams Morgan assume countless personas while Dan’s has held down the same drab storefront on 18th Street NW, a spot so anonymous that many still walk right by it. He’s witnessed the nightlife, the lowlifes, the developers, the drunks, the jumbo-slice wars.
The Dickens men, father and son, form the nucleus of Dan’s. Their experience and their struggles give the place its dive-bar gravitas, a leathery mettle that can withstand any assault on it, even the impeccably dressed professionals who walk in and sing along with Whitney Houston and other jukebox divas. “That’s Celine,” says Tracy, as calm as a Sunday morning. “I know her voice.”
The regulars know what to expect at Dan’s: cheap beer and drinks served in plastic squeeze bottles, an ingenious delivery system that triggers innocent memories of diner condiments and sippy cups. All squeeze-bottle drinks require a $5 deposit, so you’re not tempted to walk off with the container. But what can you order for your adult spill-proof bottle? “Anything you want,” Tracy says.
Founded: Circa the 1940s.
Decor: A broken-tile bar, mismatched chairs, a covered pool table, dusty hanging fake plants. A fern bar gone to seed.
Signature drink: Squeeze-bottle cocktails.
6421 Old Alexandria Ferry Rd., Clinton. 301-856-1158.
Few bar names are as apt as the Hideaway: Tucked away in a Prince George’s County industrial park amid auto body shops and taekwondo studios, across a dark slip of road from the anonymous fence surrounding Joint Base Andrews, the Hideaway is a place where you probably won’t be found if you don’t want to be.
On the other hand, if you’ve made your way to a seat at the bar, you’ve made an effort to be there. Hideaway has that “everybody knows everybody” vibe, from the way longtime regulars greet Mr. Ernie, an octogenarian who holds court at the end of the bar, to how they welcome the pool sharks with cue stick cases slung over their shoulders, who are waiting to play on one of the four tables.
Monday is league night, when 50 to 60 members of the American Poolplayers Association gather, grabbing drinks and eating popcorn shrimp or teriyaki wings at the bar between games, and alternately cheering for and razzing other players. “It’s a social event,” says William Poindexter of Brandywine, a real estate developer who helped found the league in 2012. “It’s competitive, but everyone’s here to have fun.” Rows of trophies, plaques and photos commemorating trips to national tournaments from Las Vegas to Charlotte show just how competitive it can be.
Many of the league’s players come back during the week to practice on the $1 coin-operated tables. Poindexter understands why: “The beer’s cheap, they’ve got a good chef and it’s a good location: Andrews is right outside.” He’s proud of the tables, too, which are topped with blue felt: “I redo them every six months. For a dive bar, they’re good as s---.”
Founded: “Best I can tell, it was 1981,” says manager Renee Ketter, whose father purchased the bar in 2009.
Decor: American Legion hall crossed with 1970s finished basement. The walls are covered with knotty pine panels, and “at some point, they covered part of the walls with carpet,” Ketter says. “I don’t know why.” The dance floor is parquet; most of the banquet-style chairs and tables sit on industrial carpet.
Signature Drink: Domestic beer poured into tall 22-ounce glasses.
11010 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 301-881-8711.
The temperature outside hovers in the mid-70s, but inside Hank Dietle’s, it feels like a sauna. It smells like a latrine, too. A couple of fans move the hot air around, providing not a single cool breeze in the process. The smart ones are drinking beer on the front porch, which hasn’t changed much since 1916, when Dietle’s was known as Offutt’s, a general store situated on the oldest road in Montgomery County.
James, a former Marine, sits at the end of the bar, apparently oblivious to the creature discomforts. James is leathery and muscular, still sporting a military-style buzz cut. He’s wearing a Justin Hayward Band concert T-shirt and working his way through a pack of L&M menthol cigarettes and a pitcher of beer. He likes it when Dietle’s is slow. The pool table is always available, and he can play whatever he wants on the jukebox.
Besides, when Dietle’s is dead, James takes it upon himself to serve as the bar’s guardian angel, watching over Marcia, a bartender who’s pulling yet another double shift. She looks to be the only employee in the place, although she seems unfazed by the situation. She’s sitting in a wicker captain’s stool, her feet propped up on the counter, reading her phone and looking as tough as Hillary Clinton on a military plane.
As the oldest bar in Montgomery County — its Class D beer-and-wine license was the first issued after Prohibition — Dietle’s has outlasted some tumultuous times. It survived the opening of White Flint Mall (now all but a memory). It survived the construction of the Metro Red Line (whose workers apparently drank at Dietle’s when their shift ended). It survived a coldblooded murder in the bar’s parking lot in 1972. And it’s surviving the craft cocktail movement.
These days, on Saturdays, Dietle’s showcases rockabilly bands, a throwback sound at a throwback roadhouse. One of the ensembles apparently purchased a microwave for the bar, which is strange, because Dietle’s doesn’t offer food (although the Corned Beef King truck is often parked outside). The microwave, James says, is not for customers, but for the staff. The musicians wanted to make sure the employees could feed themselves, so Dietle’s can continue feeding regulars a slice of Rockville history.
Decor: Tile floor, old wooden booths with rigid backs, wooden walls decorated with framed photo collages, arcade games and a jukebox. A roadhouse with a sense of history.
Signature drink: None.
5849 Washington Blvd., Arlington. 703-536-7660.
Arlingtonians know the pain of losing a neighborhood bar: Jay’s Saloon served its last frosty mug in 2015, joining Whitey’s and the Royal Lee in the pantheon of local hangouts that now exist only as memories.
The Forest Inn in Westover is one of the survivors. Narinder Sharma purchased the bar in 1982, when it was called the Black Forest Inn and located just up the block. Construction of the “new” post office displaced the Forest Inn in 1994, when it moved to a funky little L-shaped storefront with a long, empty hallway leading to the bar and seating area. It’s simple, with beige walls and the glow of year-round Christmas lights.
Sharma’s business partner, Ken Choudhary, who manages the bar, remembers when it catered to construction and landscaping crews. “We used to open at 7 in the morning to let people get their crew together and drink coffee,” he says. “Some of them were drinking beer, but they’d come back and have a beer at lunch, then they’d come back for happy hour. . . . Now you will see this neighborhood is much more federal-government people, or young people with good tech jobs.” A few years ago, the Forest Inn changed its hours to reflect the changing demographics, opening at 9 a.m. and staying open until 2 a.m., which brings “a younger crowd,” as does Friday night karaoke.
Despite the influx, the Forest Inn maintains strong local ties: “All of the staff — [bartender] Linda [Theodore] and the other ladies — grew up in this area,” Choudhary boasts. “All of the staff went to Washington-Lee, Yorktown or Wakefield” high schools. Sometimes, he says, newer residents don’t get to know “the old Arlington people.” But the bartenders are helping forge local connections.
Founded: In the 1970s. Moved to its current building in 1994.
Decor: Beige. Two of the 11 tables are occupied by whirring box fans. A fake Christmas tree stands year-round and is decorated for different holidays, such as a green plastic derby for St. Patrick’s Day and a sparkling Uncle Sam top hat on July 4.
Signature drink: A cold Budweiser, which was, for years, the only beer on tap. (There are now four.)
915 U St. NW. 202-462-3213.
If you’re walking down U Street, it’s hard to tell what’s going on at the Velvet Lounge. You’ll probably hear the thump of a DJ mix or the roar of a punk band. But good luck trying to peek through the enormous front windows, which are plastered with stickers: bands you’ve definitely never heard of (or even heard), graffiti art on shipping labels, promos for local websites and events.
Velvet, which turned 20 in May, started as the District’s upstart music venue, a place for indie and punk bands who weren’t big enough to get booked at the Black Cat or 9:30 Club. It became known for experimental noise acts and raw garage rock, as well as door policies that included selling tickets for cash on the day of the show only. The downstairs bar, dimly lit and lacking of furniture, was the rowdy dive part of the business.
Although live music is Velvet’s bread and butter — it continues to host 18-and-over shows, mostly Wednesday through Sunday — Velvet hosted two of the city’s most influential dance parties. Bob Mould and Richard Morel’s Blowoff, an unpretentious monthly night of indie rock and house, started in 2003 and eventually moved to the 9:30 Club. Dava Nada’s Moombahton Mondays introduced the District to that genre’s funky sound, which remixes house music down to the pace of reggaeton, at packed weekly events in the summer of 2010. Both drew very different crowds than, say, stoner rock bands upstairs, but that was the point, says Ashley May, who started hanging out at Velvet Lounge in 2002 and bartended there from 2007 until last year.
“What’s special about the crowd is that it has changed 10 times over through the years, but it’s always amazing to me what all those varying subcultures and demographics had in common,” she says. “They were all choosing to be in a bar so dimly lit you could barely see who was next to you, and so crowded that that person was likely spilling/breathing/moshing/grinding on you. People from all walks of DMV life love that about the place — they go there to get lost and cut loose.”
Decor: It’s like a blank canvas for graffiti artists and music lovers: Almost every surface in the first-floor bar — walls, tables, ceilings, doors — has been tagged, except the bar itself. (Maybe it has been, but if so, it’s too dark to see.) The patio out back — again, covered with stickers and graffiti — consists of a tall fence around a narrow strip of pavement and looks more like a holding pen than a beer garden.
Signature drink: While the bar’s iconic neon sign depicts a martini glass, the bar serves many more cans of PBR and shots of whiskey.
7 N. King St., Leesburg. 703-669-3090.
On a Thursday night, you can spot the Downtown Saloon from a block away: Look for a row of Harleys and other bikes lined up in the middle of historic Leesburg, facing the 19th-century courthouse. Inside, the pervasive scent of cigarette smoke hangs in the air — the Downtown Saloon meets requirements for a smoking-ban exemption — and Led Zeppelin, Queen and other classic rock plays over loudspeakers. Vintage Harley Davidson lampshades cast light down toward the nicked-up wooden bar. Through a set of doors is a game room with pool tables and leather benches along the walls.
Thursday is Bike Night, when groups of riders — some wearing vests emblazoned with motorcycle club patches, others with salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into ponytails — take over long tables to down $3 domestic drafts and plates of all-you-can-eat ribs, or order burgers topped with chili and cheese. Framed posters of Eric Clapton and Janis Joplin hang on the walls, along with images of Marlon Brando from “The Wild One,” a Donald Trump campaign sign, antique pistols and the Confederate battle flag of the 8th Virginia Infantry, which was mustered in Leesburg in 1861.
A large banner on the back wall announces that “Downtown Saloon Supports Our Troops!,” and the bar backs it up with fundraisers and motorcycle rides in support of veterans’ charities. “All veterans are welcome here,” says owner Scott Warner, who served in the Army. “Someone’s got to keep them in mind.”
Warner took over the bar in 2000, after its previous occupant, Payne’s Biker Bar, lost its liquor license, and reopened it in early 2001. (He wasn’t a regular, he says, but as a Harley rider, he did stop in.) Some people still refer to the Downtown Saloon as “Payne’s,” but Warner, 58, isn’t bothered by it: “It’s just a name. It’s was Payne’s since ’64, so you ain’t going to change that overnight.” Downtown Saloon’s T-shirts still reference the old slogan from Payne’s, referring to the courthouse: “Better off here than across the street.”
Karaoke takes over on Fridays, and blues and rock bands perform Saturdays. The biggest change over the years, Warner says, is the composition of the crowds who park their bikes outside: “Once upon a time, for Harley riders, it was more of a lifestyle. It was a workingman thing. You fixed your own ride. It was your transportation. Now, it’s more of a hobby.”
Founded: In the 1960s, as Payne’s Bike Bar. Reopened as Downtown Saloon in 2001.
Decor: Southern roadhouse, with plenty of neon beer signs and band photos.
Signature drink: American whiskey and domestic drafts. The bar pours craft beer, including locals Flying Dog and Lost Rhino, but it’s not as popular with the regulars.