Hank Dietle's Tavern, a rough-and-tumble Rockville dive bar that holds the oldest liquor license in Montgomery County, was severely damaged by fire in the early hours of Wednesday morning, a blaze that Montgomery County Fire and Rescue spokesman Pete Piringer attributed to “discarded smoking materials” on the front porch.
The photos of the blackened building and scorched interior are hard to take for anyone who loves an authentic dive. Coming almost three years after the fire-related closure of Silver Spring's beloved Quarry House Tavern — a Prohibition-era dive that could reopen by the end of February — makes it even tougher for the Montgomery County bar scene.
Anyone can open a “dive bar” these days, even in the trendiest neighborhoods, with cheap canned beer, dark decor and a stocked jukebox. But Hank Dietle's had character earned over decades: the ex-military regulars who held court at the bar, the rockabilly bands providing the soundtrack, the way fresh faces were scrutinized before they ordered a $3 Bud draft. Amid the high-rises and developments springing up in “North Bethesda,” it felt like a place out of time.
The century-old building and its comfortable front porch hadn't changed much since 1916, when it housed a tavern and general store called Offutt's. (Old Timers told a Washington Post reporter in 1984 that a preacher held Sunday services in the bar in the early days.) In the 1950s, it was purchased by Hank Dietle, whose family owned another, older bar in Silver Spring called Dietle's Tavern. That's gone, too.
When The Post compiled a list of the area's best dive bars last summer, Dietle's was near the top. Tim Carman wrote: “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.”
Hank Dietle's tattered “cold beer” sign was a siren song to generations of drivers on Rockville Pike, beckoning them in for a six-pack to go. But it was also the most honest advertisement for a roadhouse that specialized in cold, cheap American beer. Regulars shuffled over beaten linoleum between the bar counter and the hard-backed wooden booths, or carried pitchers to the scuffed pool table.
There was no food served, other than bags of chips. The air conditioning was often inefficient in summer. Service could be, in a word, surly. But with classic rock and country playing on the jukebox, there was no place like it left in Montgomery County, which is why it kept fans coming back for decades and still managed to lure new ones.
As a memorable local commercial boasted back in the 1990s, “This ain't a place where everybody knows your name. People here can barely even remember their own.”
Correction: A previous version of this article mentioned whiskey at Hank Dietle's. The bar only served beer and wine. This version has been updated.