On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
As housing prices and basic costs of living continue to skyrocket in the Washington region, one particular type of business is vanishing from many local neighborhoods: the dive bar. But while genuinely low-rent, no frills joints may be going extinct, there’s a slew of new businesses trying to present themselves as dives. Kojo explores where dive bars fit into the fabric of our neighborhoods – and what they say about the economic forces swirling in the region.
- Jerad Walker Reporter, Metro Connection (WAMU 88.5); Production Coordinator, WAMU's Bluegrass Country
- Jenny Rogers Assistant Managing Editor, Washington City Paper
- Jackie Greenbaum Owner, The Quarry House (Silver Spring, Md.)
- Daniel Maceda Owner, The Pinch (Washington, D.C.)
The Region’s Best Dive Bars
Listeners named the region’s best dive bars in the form above. We map them below.
Jerad Walker has also visited many of the area’s beloved dive bars.
You can find his haunts in the map below.
View Metro Connection: D.C. Dives in a larger map
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world, it's "Food Wednesday", well, "Dive Bar Wednesday," in a way, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou can't call a lot of neighborhoods in the D.C. region, low rent, anymore. And in many of these places it's become easier to find a carafe cocktail put together with artisan ice than it is to find an inexpensive beer, a bag of potato chips and a decent conversation. The neighborhood dive bar is one of the many institutions on the verge of extinction here, another victim of the soaring costs of owning a business in modern Washington.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut in many ways, the need for the dive -- for the unpretentious gathering place where everyone can feel comfortable, seems to be as urgent as ever, which may be why there's a new wave of new businesses that give off dive-ish kind of vibes, even though it takes a long time for any dive bar to work itself into the heart of the neighborhood it serves.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore where dive bars fit into the fabric of our neighborhoods and the economics shaping the places where we live in Jenny Rogers, assistant managing editor at Washington City Paper. Jenny, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. JENNY ROGERSThanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Daniel Maceda, he is co-owner of The Pinch, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Daniel Maceda, good to meet you.
MR. DANIEL MACEDAGood afternoon, thanks for having us.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Jackie Greenbaum, the editor of several establish -- the owner of several establishments in the Washington region, including The Quarry House in Silver Spring and my personal favorite. Jackie's restaurant also in Silver Spring. Jackie, good to see you again.
MS. JACKIE GREENBAUMHi, Kojo. It's nice to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Jerad Walker is with us, he is the reporter behind the D.C. Dive series on the WAMU 88.5 program "Metro Connection." Jerad is also the production coordinator for WAMU's "Bluegrass Country," not to mention, number one, D.C. United fan. Good to see you, Jerad.
MR. JERAD WALKERVamos United, thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850, you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The key question, how would you define what makes a dive bar? Do you see a distinction between a dive bar and a neighborhood bar? If so, what is that distinction? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. You can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you will find there, a list of the dive bars that Jerad Walker has visited, that's at our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIJerad, you've spent much of the past two years trekking to places all across the D.C. region, as Jenny seems to have also, from a biker bar in Springfield to a place that prides itself as being the oldest lesbian drinking establishment in the District, all in order to document so-called dive bars, in our area. So, perhaps, it's best to start with the question, how would you define a dive bar?
WALKERWell, when I started the series, I had an idea that you'd know it when you see it. And, I think, a lot of people agree with that which tends to cause a lot of confusion and arguments among fans of the sub-genre that is the dive bar.
WALKERBut as I started to visit these places, no matter where they were located, no matter who the cliental was, I settled upon the fact that they have an unquantifiable weirdness.
NNAMDIAn unquantifiable weirdness, okay.
WALKERAnd that can either take form in a physical manifestation or it could be the cliental or the people that run the place. And time and time again, I found weird little quirks that, you know, back that up, time and time again.
NNAMDIThe dive bars defined by an idiosyncrasy, right?
NNAMDIJenny, you wrote, last week, that in the D.C. world -- or that in D.C., a world of contradictions exists in the dive bar schema. What does this mean?
ROGERSWell, I think, it means that, for a lot of people, a dive bar is a place where you get cheap drinks and yet a lot of bars that we, kind of, idolize as being dives are not particularly cheap. It's, maybe, kind of, a cheap atmosphere but you could still run up a pretty hefty tab there. So it seems like a lot of these, you know, dive bars are actually just places...
NNAMDIFaux dive bars.
ROGERSYeah. Basically anything that isn't a really pricey cocktail joint, it seems like someone out there will call it a dive.
NNAMDIHow do you define it, Daniel?
MACEDAWell, honestly, I think, the dive bars from 20 years ago to today are viewed very differently. I think, a dive bar isn't something you created, it kind of develops and becomes a dive bar on its own, it develops its own personality in its own sense.
MACEDAYeah, a patina, if you will. Places like, Mr. Henry's on Capitol Hill that's been there forever. And when you walk in, you go, yeah, this place is a dive bar, I love this, look at this, it's been here forever, it's gonna be here forever, amazing. I think, neighborhood bars are often confused with dive bars. You know, and what happens, is people walk into a neighborhood bar where it's not trendy, it's not dressed up, it's very casual and relaxed and they go, oh yeah, this is a dive bar. And that's not necessarily the case.
NNAMDINot necessarily the same thing. What do you say, Jackie Greenbaum?
GREENBAUMI don't know, for me, it's, at least, in part a lack of irony that dive bars are not self-consciously so. You know, they're certainly no frills, usually no food, though that in and of itself does not, you know, make a dive bar. But they're not trying to be one. And that brings a little bit to point the question of, can you create a dive bar?
NNAMDI800-433-8850, what do you define as a dive bar? What do you feel dive bars contribute to the fabric of the neighborhoods where they operate? Jenny, you started your piece last week with an antidote about going to Remington's, a gay country-western place on Capitol Hill that closed recently, a place where you and your friends had a fantastic time and what you described as "Uncool of a scene as you -- as could have been found in D.C." What was it about the experience of a place like Remington's that made you lament its demise enough that you're writing about it now?
ROGERSI think, Remington's was really special, well, for a lot of reasons, being a gay country-western bar is pretty awesome in of itself but it's a place where there's no scene, I mean, it is a no-makeup bar, I don't remember what I wore, it was not cute, it just...
NNAMDIThis is one of the reasons you and your friends chose to go there in the first place.
ROGERSIt is, in fact, Kojo. And just...
NNAMDIWe're looking bad, where can we go?
ROGERSYou know, I mean, there was karaoke upstairs and people were not doing anything ironic. It was a lot of really earnest guys singing, like, "Man of La Mancha" show tunes and weird stuff. It was definitely a weird and not a very impressive cliental but I loved it.
NNAMDIHow would you describe, what are the economic forces that led so many of the places you wrote about, to shut down? It seems the central theme running underneath your piece was, what's happening to all of the places that I like to go to?
ROGERSMm-hmm. Well, it's hard on the Hill. I mean, I think, some of these bars that have closed, there's quite a few, Lil Pub," being one of them, Remington's, another, Top of the Hill and Poorhouse, 18th Amendment, I'm not sure that it really was that they were struggling. I think, they just had an offer that was too good to turn down or, you know, rent's going up and it's like, why am I gonna do this anymore? So, I think, some people probably got pushed out and some people it just wasn't a good enough money maker.
NNAMDIOnto the telephone's, here is Joshua in Washington D.C., Joshua, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOSHUAWell, thanks, Kojo. You know, at risk of giving away a pretty well kept secret, I just wanted to pay a bit of homage to Stan's, the only place within a couple blocks...
NNAMDIVermont Avenue, Northwest. Yes.
JOSHUAThat's right. The only place within a couple blocks of the White House that's still serving mambo sauce and chicken wings, not ironic at all, and some of the strongest strength in the area...
NNAMDII've always thought that Stan's should also provide limo service, but they couldn't over there.
JOSHUAThat's right. You know, the other great thing about Stan's is that on many occasion, you can, you know, have a pretty highfalutin meeting on policy issues during the day and then an hour and a half later run into the same participants from that meeting...
JOSHUA...over a plate of fried chicken at that fine establishment. So anyhow one of the last great...
NNAMDIAnd Stan's has been -- Stan's has been around, as they say, forever, since Stan himself owned it. Jackie, you own a number of places in D.C. and Montgomery county, the restaurant that bears your name, Jackie's, in Silver Spring is, by almost any standard, a pretty nice place. But not long ago, you and others bought The Quarry House in Silver Spring, one of the oldest drinking establishments in the entire region, what was it about that place that appealed to you? Why did you want to buy it?
GREENBAUMWell, first of all, not long ago, it was a relative term, we bought it in 2005, so it's been -- we're going on nine years or so. But, for a place that's been around since, they think, the '20s, illegally as a speakeasy, it got its liquor license in 1934, when they were first establishing them. So -- or giving them out after prohibition. So it's been around a long time and I'm a relative newcomer to it.
GREENBAUMFor us, we didn't want to see The Quarry House close, it was about to close. And we were approached by the long-time bartender there, Sarah, who had worked there for, I think, 12 years, day and night, mostly during the day. And she came into Jackie's one night and tried to interest in it -- interest us in it, we knew it was on the market, you know, it had, sort of, it was on its last legs. It was, kind of, an old man bar, with all respect, and the smoking ban had really hurt that place, in particular.
GREENBAUMAnd so they were struggling at the end of their time, really, and they were days away from closing, so we went -- and at her urging, to take a look at it again and remembered how much we loved it. I'd been going there since about 1980, everybody I know got served under -- their first underage drink there, not when I owned it, I should say, but I hear that story all the time.
GREENBAUMAnd so we didn't want to see it close. And we were willing to be patient, we knew it was a diamond in the rough, so to speak, and it's still rough. But we were willing to be patient until the business came back and to -- just to preserve it, really. We did not want to see it close.
NNAMDIWhat kind of pressure did you feel when you took it over? This is a place that a lot of people feel very strongly about.
GREENBAUMOh my God. I received not death threats but I got letters, I got emails, people -- you know, there was this idea that we were a gentrifying force. Jackie's was upscale and people were afraid we were going to put mini-burgers in there, specifically. And so people freaked out. There was a lot of animosity and mistrust and everybody had something to say about it. But, you know, that sort of settled down when they realized we didn't change it.
GREENBAUMIn fact, a funny story about The Quarry House is, people may not know that it does not have heat. That, when we bought it, it did have heat, it had a huge boiler taking up precious storage area.
GREENBAUMAnd since we never needed to turn it on, we removed it but we left the main heat pipe because it was the -- a pipe that people been hitting their head on since about 1924, it doesn't go anywhere anymore. It's just there because we didn't want to change things. And because my partner was smart enough to tell me to make sure not to take it down, so.
NNAMDIBut not having any heat will make it really cool in more than one respect around the wintertime.
GREENBAUMWell, this past winter, I have to say, it was the first time we had to worry about it. So, yeah.
NNAMDIYeah, that's true, this was a rough winter. Jerad, when you put together your piece about The Quarry House, you quickly noted a few things, first, that it's dark, second, the ceiling is really low, but then...
WALKERThe ceiling is low.
NNAMDI...you point out that the live music, feature there, revolves around a very old school rockabilly vibe. How important do you think it is for a dive bar to offer people a sense that they're kind of stepping back in time, that they're part of something that existed long before they got there?
WALKERI think, it's incredibly important. Just to trite back a little bit, The Quarry House is one of the best examples of a bar that looks the part. They're in the basement of an Indian restaurant, there's no physical sign anymore, the ceiling, like we said, is very low, there's one window, I think, and it's painted over. It's the epitome of what you'd think the place would look like.
WALKERBut what really puts it over the hump is the music, JP McDermott has been doing the music there for many years. He recently left but they've continued the tradition of booking rockabilly bands. And that old-school rockabilly vibe and live music vibe gives it a roadhouse feel that you don't really see at a lot of place in town and kind of sets it apart from other dive bars. There are very few places that still do live music. So it is a bit of a throwback and you get people in there that love Elvis Presley and love, you know, Dexter Romweber, like hardcore rockabilly from the '80s and punks and people who just love live music in general. So it does have a bit of a nostalgic vibe but it also helps to unite people that are hanging out at the bar.
NNAMDIHow important is it that it's dark?
WALKEROh, I think it's incredibly important. If you have a well-lit bar, you're not going for it.
NNAMDIYeah, you're asking for trouble (unintelligible).
WALKERWell, there's one exception. You can have poor lighting, really bad fluorescent lighting can also make you a dive bar.
NNAMDIHere's Arnold in Deale, Md. Arnold, your turn.
ARNOLDHello, Kojo and Jackie. I've been going to dive bars for four years. Now I actually design restaurants, bars and hotels. So I consider myself somewhat of an authority. And hearing the conversation so far, I think I've been to every one of the bars that's been mentioned. But the question I have is where is the last authentic dive bar in Washington. And how I would define a real dive bar is not good food or no food, real dirt on the floors and walls and a questionable bathroom. My favorite dive bars were the Hawk and Dove, the Childe Herold, Mr. Eagan's, My Brother's Place and they're all gone. They've all been upgraded to yuppie bars.
NNAMDILet me have Jerad tell you about the Raven.
WALKERYeah, if you're using it as criteria the Raven Grill is definitely your spot. The Raven Grill's in Mount Pleasant -- the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of northwest D.C. And it's one of the oldest bars in the city. That place has all of the above. And after the smoking ban they did a renovation but they didn't clean the walls. It still has the nicotine sheen on the wall...
GREENBAUMAmongst other things.
NNAMDII would try...
WALKER...and chips, yes, chips.
NNAMDIArnold, have you been to the Raven?
ARNOLDNo, but I'm going to head there for happy hour. If I can make you one other quick thing, now I travel up and down the east coast. And I happen to be in Happy Harbor, which is in Deale, Md. and I can assure you it's an authentic dive bar.
GREENBAUMI've been there. I used to go there all the time. My parents had a place down there. My dad used to call it the Happy Hooker by the way.
ARNOLDYeah, it's called a lot of things but it's still in the Deale area. This is kind of hilarious. There's a place called The Swamp and it's on Swamp Circle. And I like going there. They have darts. They have a very eclectic crowd. And I was dancing with about an 80-year-old woman whose husband had certainly been at that Swamp many, many times. And he said, you know what I like about this bar? I said, what? He said, well, this is the last real bar. I said, well, what do you mean real bar? He says, the only food they serve here is pickled eggs and potato chips.
NNAMDIThat's certainly a characteristic of the dive bar. Thank you for your call. Daniel, you opened your place, The Pinch in Columbia Heights in 2012. It's not an old place. Where did authenticity fit into what you were trying to achieve when you started this business?
MACEDAWell, for starters we set out to open a neighborhood place. And we argued whether or not it was going to have a divey vibe and become a dive bar or not amongst ourselves. And we decided we were going to kind of let the chips fall where they may. One of the things we love is the idea of forming a sense of community. And the people from all over the neighborhood can come in. You know, single women can come in on their own and relax and enjoy themselves. Guys can come in and watch the games. You know, groups can come in and celebrate birthdays. Anything and everything goes.
MACEDAWe also really firmly believe in the place didn't have to look glitzy and glammy. A neighborhood place should be comfortable and inviting and relaxed. And with that in mind, we repurposed a lot of stuff. We inherited a lot of furniture that had been at the previous establishment at that location. We went out and sought other equipment and furniture from places that unfortunately were going out of business. Places like the 18th Amendment, in fact, were kind enough to help us out.
MACEDAAnd it came together nicely and the place does feel very casual, very relaxed. And I hear from people all the time that they love that they can come in with their parents when they're visiting from out of town. They can, you know, come in with their team and have a pitcher. They can, you know, just come in and watch a game on their own if they want to. Or come in and make new friends.
NNAMDII love words like repurposed, inherited. As Jenny noted in her piece, you literally took a lot of old stuff from the places that she used to like to go to, like the 18th Amendment.
MACEDAWe were fortunate to have some connections with the group that owned that establishment and then a couple others over on The Hill. I had worked on The Hill for many years before we opened The Pinch, as did both of my partners. So we reached out through our friends in the bar community and we were very fortunate to have some positive assistance from them.
NNAMDIAnd so the place has that look. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. If you'd like to call, the number's 800-433-8850. What are your favorite dives or neighborhood bars in the Washington region? Why do you like spending time there, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking dive bars with Jerad Walker, reporter behind the D.C. dive series on the WAMU 88.5 program Metro Connection. Jerad is also the production coordinator for WAMU's bluegrass country. He joins us in studio with Jenny Rogers, assistant managing editor at Washington City Paper. Jackie Greenbaum is the owner of several establishments in the Washington region including the Quarry House and Jackie's Restaurant in Silver Spring. Daniel Maceda is co-owner of The Pinch in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Andrew who says, "You can smoke in a dive bar, therefore there are no dive bars in Washington, D.C."
WALKERThere's at least one.
NNAMDIIs there at least one?
WALKERMoe's Peyton Place in Springfield, Va. You can still smoke in the bar area.
NNAMDIIt's not in the city but, Andrew, if you want to go out there, you can have a smoke. We got an email from Richard who says, "I live near what used to be a great dive bar, good drinks, great pub grub and on Sundays something called a white trash eggs Benedict. It's been replaced by a snobby joint that has 100 kinds of handcrafted bourbons. Who needs that? Bring back the dive." Jenny, one of the business owners that you spoke with, the man who owned Showtime in Bloomingdale, one of those Nuevo dives, told you what he's going for in essence is a really simple model. How would you describe that model?
ROGERSWell, I think the model is do things as simply as possible. Put almost no effort into anything. Don't take credit cards. You don't have to keep the records. Don't serve foods. You don't have to have a kitchen. Basically offer nothing except beer and whiskey shots. And you won't have much to worry about.
NNAMDINo credit cards, huh?
ROGERSNo credit cards.
NNAMDIThe Showtime owner Paul Vivari took particular issue with what the Hilton Brothers are doing. They own Marvin, the Brixton, the Gibson. What's his beef?
ROGERSWell, it's interesting. Paul did DJ for a number of Hilton establishments. And I don't think there's any personal animosity there. He was fired from several of them, he said. But his beef is that these are places -- and if you've been in one you've kind of been in them all. They're all over 14th Street, all over U Street and they're shiny, they're new. They are themed and the clientele is -- it's younger, it's wealthy. It's not a place where you're going to find characters per say.
NNAMDIThe Brixton was actually the inspiration for a song that came out this summer slamming gentrification. Let's listen to "Burn Down the Brixton" by Jack on Fire.
NNAMDIWhere's this resentment coming from, Jenny? One person describes it as gentrification becoming the new Ronald Reagan for D.C. punk.
ROGERSWell, I'm not sure this band's particular issue with the Brixton -- I know when I go to the Brixton, I feel like I'm in some kind of weird Epcot Center bar. Like, it just doesn't feel like a real place where real people are.
NNAMDIOn therefore to Tommy in Washington, D.C. Tommy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Tommy, are you there?
TOMMYOh, yes. Hi.
NNAMDIOh, hi back at you, Tommy. Speak Tommy.
TOMMYYeah, hi -- general manager (unintelligible) famous bar and grill.
TOMMYYes. We have in the -- we are the oldest continuously running bar on the U Street corridor. We've been in business as Stetson's since 1980. But recently a very good friend of mine, Kat (sp?) Brady, he's an excellent mural artist. He did a couple of murals that pertain to our history in our back patio, which you can smoke in by the way. And he did some investigation. Our bar goes all the way back to 1904 when it was the John Morris saloon. John Morris historically used to distill his own sort of what you call the bathtub batches of bourbon and whiskey.
TOMMYAnd it was an interesting story. There was a couple who were on vacation in the Mohave Desert, found a bottle sticking up out of the sand, picked it up and they recognized the address as 1610 U Street NW. And they're like, our son goes here. So they mailed him the bottle and that was the template for the murals out back.
NNAMDIOh, glad you could share that story with us, Tommy. 16th and...
TOMMYYeah, and we -- basically, you know, we're very comfortable. Our vibe is neighborhood bars that (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIOh, here comes the commercial.
TOMMYOh, I'm sorry, okay.
NNAMDIBut thank you very...
TOMMYJust wanted to let you know that, yeah, we're a good, you know, little bit divey. It's an old building. We fixed it up some but please, everyone's welcome. Come on down and...
NNAMDIOh, commercial continues. Thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Joanna who says, "My husband and I celebrated our wedding with 20 of our family members in the back room of the Quarry House in 2006 when the place was not too popular to give up the back room on a Saturday night. It was a memorable evening. Now that we have kids, the Quarry House is our family place. The kids love the food. The staff is really nice, welcoming to us. My little one used to dance in the band area before they had to add tables. And it's one of the few places where my oldest son with autism is comfortable, We think it's the lighting.
NNAMDII don't know, this may not be in accord with the dive bar. We still love it." Is the lighting, the dim lighting.
NNAMDIThe dim lighting. Whereas, Jerad, a lot of the places you ventured to for your series are not in the District of Columbia Proper. What did you learn about the current state of neighborhoods in Arlington or Vienna when you went to places like Jay's Saloon or the Vienna Inn? Jay's Saloon predates the Cinco de Mayo bar crawl bonanza days of Clarendon, doesn't it?
WALKERYeah, Jay's Saloon is one of the last kind of unpretentious bars in the Clarendon neighborhood in Arlington. James and Kathy Moore own it. And it's a perfect example of a bar that's being pushed out of the neighborhood through rezoning and through the fact that they don't own their building. They are renters. So for years now they've been saying that it could come at any moment. And it seems like this is the year that they're going to end operations.
WALKERIt's a great, great weird little room. They've got a book exchange in the back. And the night that I went it was really heavy on romance novels. And the regular who showed it to me, they said they don't know who's stocking it.
WALKERSo it's a perfect example of a great dive. And it's being pushed out of the neighborhood. And you're seeing that across northern Virginia as the sprawl is continuing to push further out. There's another great dive that's in Falls Church called JV Restaurant. It was built in the oldest strip mall in Washington, D.C. It was started in 1947 and it's the last of the D.C. roadhouses, which is a subgenre of dive bars. It's typically a music hall.
WALKERAnd JV's is another great example of a bar that's being surrounded by suburban sprawl and new buildings and trying to hang on. There's surprisingly a lot of them left but they're just hanging on by the skin of their teeth. The night I went to JV's they were introducing a new concept, which was gospel performances.
WALKERSunday afternoon they did a second music performance. They do music once a day and on Sunday they introduced their very first gospel performance.
WALKERAnd the crowd that changed over was mindboggling. There were folks watching the Washington and New York on the television. And then at 3:00 pm the place filled up with gray-haired old ladies from a church congregation.
WALKERSo some of them are being very inventive in an effort to keep the business flowing . And they're a good example of that.
NNAMDIWhat's happening in the suburbs? Jackie, people don't always chat about the changes the suburbs are experiencing but what's happening in Silver Spring is related to what's happening in the core city. How do you see it?
GREENBAUMWell, just as an aside I'd like to give a shout out to my landlords at the Quarry House because we just renegotiated our lease and got a long-term lease from them. And they are very -- they love the Quarry House and are in no hurry to redevelop the building which they may do at some point. So...
NNAMDIIn other words, you're not going anyplace.
GREENBAUMHopefully not, fingers crossed.
NNAMDIChanges in Silver Spring and how they're related to what's going on in the city.
GREENBAUMWell, I mean, I don't know that it's any different. There is an enormous amount of development going on. Young kids...
NNAMDIAll inspired by the presence of Jackie's.
GREENBAUMOf course. Oh, clearly. But, you know, everybody wants to live in the city or near the city these days. And there's a huge number of people, you know, 25 to 35-year-old young people, sometimes young people with families that want to live either in Silver Spring right near a Metro center or downtown, in my experience. And, you know, it's driving prices up. It is also creating the impetus for more bars and restaurants open in a variety of neighborhoods that there were never before. Most of them are upscale, not all of them obviously.
GREENBAUMBut, you know, it's driving prices up. Spaces are harder to find. You know, the competition to do something unique, I think, is part of what has people not do dive bars or not do neighborhood joints, even though I think there's room at least for one if not more in every neighborhood.
GREENBAUMAnd of course a lot of us in the restaurant bar industry, I mean, I'm guilty of having fancy places too, you know. I have craft cocktail bars but I love the Quarry House. And that's the kind of place I like to drink honestly. But, you know, there is a pressure to do something very unique if not themed because there's so much competition and there's so many bars opening up everywhere. Now that results in some really stupid ideas, I have to say, but, you know...
ROGERSYou wouldn't be referring to a Charlie Chaplin themed bar, would you?
NNAMDIYes, she is.
GREENBAUMYou said it.
NNAMDIYes, she is. But speaking of craft, you took Mr. Craft drinks to the Raven Grill Derek Brown. How'd he like it?
WALKERYeah, I know. So I actually took a little bit of flack for that too. I had at least one dive bar owner come up to me and go, Derek Brown, really? Really?
NNAMDIAnd Derek rated the Kojo cocktail. He's not all that bad.
WALKERDerek is a big proponent of the nice drinking establishment. It's a well thought out craft cocktail driven kind of a business format. But even he is a fan of the dive bar.
GREENBAUMYeah, for sure.
WALKERAnd, you know, of his favorites it he Raven...
GREENBAUMYeah, that's mine.
WALKER...so we met there. And he said something very, very -- I thought was mind -- it was a really good way to sum it up. He said, I like foie gras, but I also like Reese's peanut butter cups. And I don't think that these two things are mutually exclusive. I don't think you can -- everyone likes to go and dress up and have a good time and be treated well. But there are some nights where you also want to just go out in the T-shirt that you're wearing, drink a couple of cheap beers and enjoy your time with friends.
NNAMDIThere used to be a dive bar up on Rhode Island Avenue years ago in northeast called Moore's (sp?) Love and Peace. And one night I had to go to a formal function and I went there wearing a tuxedo. And the guy sitting next to me at the bar who was dozing off when I sat next to him, woke up, looked at me and said, hey, you can't come in here dressed like that.
MACEDAThe reverse dress code.
NNAMDIDaniel, you told Jenny that when you were getting ready to open The Pinch, you talked to a lot of people in Columbia Heights about what they would want out of a new place. What did you learn?
MACEDAWell, I found that the neighborhood was changing over considerably. There were a lot of folks who had been there for 20 and 30 years but just as many who had been there for six months or less that had, you know, bought new places or moved into new rentals. And one of the things I was hearing was they loved the idea of a place that they can walk to and relax, but they wanted to have some good food. They wanted to be able to eat something. They don't want to necessarily have high-end food. They wanted just good flavorful food.
MACEDASo that was something we focused on. We worked really hard to design our menu in such a way that it was casual, inexpensive but you were going to get a good meal. And you were going to feel good about, hey, I want to go back there because the wings were terrific. We do barbecued duck. I mean, not everybody does that. And you get something different but flavorful and enjoyable.
NNAMDIWhere are your customers coming from?
MACEDAPrimarily the neighborhood. I'd say 70 to 80 percent of our clientele lives, you know, within eight, ten blocks of us. I'm constantly -- we're on 14th Street. I'm constantly hearing people say, oh ,I live three blocks away. I live on 16th Street. I live on 13th. I'm two block down at 14th and Spring. You know, it's a lot of folks right nearby.
NNAMDIDo you think the concept of what constitutes what qualifies as a dive bar might be changing?
MACEDAOh, absolutely. I mentioned this earlier. I think the concept of a dive bar has morphed and changed considerably. What I think of as a dive bar, as I mentioned, a place that's got that patina, it's got that sheen, it's been around forever. There's the cranky old guy sitting at the bar that can tell you stories from 50 years ago at that bar. You know, a lot of people, when they talk about dive bars now, they're talking more of an image or a look to a place rather than the history of the place.
WALKERAge isn't a prerequisite as much anymore.
MACEDAYeah, and certainly, you know, when I first was becoming a drinker and first going out, to me a dive bar was a place that had that history. And I wanted to learn that history when I went into a dive bar. Now people are looking for a look and a feel and inexpensive beers. And, you know, it conflicts a lot with the culture of drinking here in D.C. because there's such a strong push for craft beers and such a strong push for cocktails.
MACEDAAnd you get people that some nights they want to go out and do the fancy cocktails and other nights they just want to have that relaxed beer and wings. So that's kind of why I think dive bars have morphed into what I consider a neighborhood bar, you know, a local casual place.
NNAMDIAnd Jenny, the guy he describes sitting at the bar can tell you about what was going on there 30, 40, 50 years ago, is that the person you refer to in your piece as a professional drinker?
ROGERSNot necessarily. I know a lot of really young professional drinkers. Some of them are ladies.
NNAMDIWell, what is a professional drinker?
ROGERSWell, obviously not necessarily an alcoholic. That has a scientific and medical meaning.
NNAMDII feel better already.
ROGERSBut we all know these sorts of people. It's every time you go in your neighborhood bar, every time I go into the Tune Inn, there's like seven or eight dudes, they're always there. They are always drinking beer. It may be what they do for a living, I'm not sure.
NNAMDIOn to Lisa in Purcellville, Va. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAYeah, speaking of the people who are always there, that was me at Whitey's in the '80s and the '90s. Our pictures are on the wall -- or were on the wall there. And that was the place you went for Miller, Miller Lite, roasted chicken and the music, which is what I think one of the things about the atmosphere, not just the sheen on the walls, and the lighting and the bad bathroom. But they used to be able to really create a mood with a DJ that knew the mood of the crowd.
LISAAnd you would go there on a Wednesday night and you would know that Peewee's playing, therefore you're going to get a certain type of music. And it really made it a cultural or a community thing. And you understood what you were walking into. And that crated regulars, number one. And it really was more of an experience but not -- but a comfortable experience. So you wore comfortable clothes and you knew the bartender.
LISAAnd I find that that is just not the case anymore. And a lot of it has to do with sound. You just don't get that feeling when you walk into even what are supposed to be comfortable neighborhoody (sic) kind of bars. And we live in Loudoun County now, don't live in the Clarendon Arlington area anymore. And I've never been able to find anything even remotely close to what Whitey's was like. And we loved it. We were there twice a week every week like clockwork.
NNAMDIWell, dive bars, it's clear, are evolving. You're going to just have to find you another spot. But thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIWe're looking for your favorite dive bars and what you look for at a no-frills watering hole. You can tell us in our survey at our website kojoshow.org. We'll be making a map of your favorite dive bar from your responses, so you can go there now and tell us, kojoshow.org. We'll be taking a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing our conversation on dive bars. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing dive bars with a group of experts. Jackie Greenbaum is the owner of several establishments in the Washington region including the Quarry House in Silver Spring. She's also the owner of Jackie's Restaurant in Silver Spring. Daniel Maceda is the co-owner of The Pinch in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington . Jenny Rogers is the assistant managing editor at Washington Paper. She did a piece on dive bars. And Jerad Walker is the reporter behind the D.C. dive series on the WAMU 88.5 program Metro Connection. He's also the production coordinator for WAMU's bluegrass country.
NNAMDIYou can call us at 800-433-8850. What are your favorite dives or neighborhood bars in the Washington region? Jerad, you got a John Riggins story out of your trip to Vienna. What was that?
WALKERYeah, so in Vienna they have the Vienna Inn which is -- people might say it's a neighborhood bar. But for me it seemed tick all the boxes as well. The Vienna Inn's a family-friendly bar. It's got chili dogs as the centerpiece. And every one in Vienna goes there. It doesn't just serve a neighborhood. It serves the whole community. And because of the children, they have a bit of a rule that you can't curse.
WALKERSo John Riggins went in there, according to several regulars and...
NNAMDII know where this story's going to.
WALKER...and John Riggins dropped the F bomb. And the longtime bar manager dressed him down in front of the crowd and made him apologize. So I think that if you go into a bar and they don't care that you've won a Super Bowl ...
NNAMDIThen you're in a dive bar.
WALKER...then you're in a dive bar.
NNAMDIWithout a shadow of a doubt. Jenny, where does music fit into how you would define a dive bar? It seems that one element that comes up over and over again in Jerad's series is music. A lot of people feel really strongly about a place having a great jukebox.
ROGERSYeah, the jukebox seems to be a really key thing for a lot of people. It's never been one for me, I think because my dive bar, the Tune Inn, the jukebox people will play terrible music on it. And so -- but for me, like a place like Banana Café is great because of the music on Friday nights. And actually, the previous caller who was looking for a spot, if she's willing to travel from Loudoun to The Hill, she would have a great time on Friday night at Banana when there's an elderly blind gentleman who does '70's covers. It's awesome.
NNAMDILarry, how do you feel about Jenny's comments about the music at the Tune Inn? Larry, are you there?
LARRYYes. At the Tune Inn there was an experience I had several times there, and I think it was very important. The Tune Inn was like the native bar. It wasn't Mr. Henry's with Roberta Flack. It wasn't the Hawk and Dove with the Preppies. And Big John was the bartender there. But if you went there on a Saturday afternoon, in the back at a big round table was a seminar presented by Pat Moynihan who lived around the corner.
LARRYAnd all you had to do was bring a pitcher of beer from the bar over to the table and you were welcome to this thing, to this group which was like an Algonquin table in the middle of D.C. It was one of the greatest -- some of the greatest experiences of my life over there because you were talking about real political issues rather than political polarization and things like that. And that's -- the Tune Inn is still there, I understand from Jenny's article. And that was one of the great -- I didn't try the food. I didn't dare but the beer was good.
LARRYAnd poor Pat Moynihan was just a great -- that was just a great series of experiences I had there. That's all I wanted to say.
NNAMDIFor those who don't know who you're talking about, he' talking about the former Senator from New York Daniel Pat Moynihan. Thank you very much for your call. Getting back to the issue of music, both you Daniel and you Jackie, how in your view should the ideal jukebox be curated?
MACEDAYou know, when I think of the classic dive bar, I think of like the old school Wurlitzer jukebox where you've got the records that are actually being moved onto the player. And, you know, these days that’s few and far between. Nowadays you have these internet accessible jukeboxes, so you get a much broader access to music, which I think sometimes is not always a good thing. Because if you get the wrong person in that's got a very interesting musical preference...
NNAMDIOh, yeah. Oh, yeah, almost every day, yeah.
MACEDA...you can be stuck with some very interesting music. You know, another thing that I think of as a way to help define a dive bar, a bar I used to work at over on The Hill, Trustees, has one of these internet jukeboxes. And there's one or two bartenders that -- there's reject buttons for those jukeboxes. And there are certain songs that they just are going to reject on principle. You know, if you're lucky and they're in a good mood they might refund you the dollar you spent for that song. It depends on how nice you are about it when they reject your song.
NNAMDIWell, that's the other thing a dive bar has to have, doesn't it, a bartender with attitude?
MACEDAOh, that's quintessential.
NNAMDIThat's absolutely -- jukebox, Jackie.
GREENBAUMWell, you know, I'm fairly opinionated on the matter. I like CD jukeboxes, you know. So no internet jukeboxes for us. I hate those things. But we used to have a -- you didn't want me to be the one to curate it to the Quarry House. I have very particular tastes. And so we would make a list up. Gordon Banks is now my partner but was the manager of the Quarry House for many years. We would make a proposed list and it would have to go by me. I had final veto power.
GREENBAUMOf course I always had to have Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Nick (unintelligible) for me. As long as those three were on there, I didn't care except there were certain other bands that I didn't really want to see. So we would have our staff would make suggestions and we'd let everybody, you know, compile a list and it would go by me. And one of the things I would say is that, oh no, you have the Smiths on there. I hate the Smiths. I don't want the Smiths on there because, you know, if you put the Smiths on somebody's going to play it, you know. And Gordon said, no. Any good jukebox has to have the Smiths on it.
GREENBAUMSo I relented and every time I go into the Quarry House somebody's playing the Smiths. But, yes, we sort of had a staff approval and, you know, made sure that we hit all the right notes and left a lot of the original blues artists and jazz artists that were on the Quarry House when we bought the place are still on there.
NNAMDIJerad, you can't really talk about gentrification in D.C. in any way without getting into race. One of the dives you explored in your series is in a part of the city east of the Anacostia where much of what's happening elsewhere in the city has not shown up yet. Why did you think it was important to tell the story of Player's Lounge?
WALKERWell, Player's Lounge, unlike a lot of these bars, literally is the go-to place for everything in Ward 8. It's so important to the community there that City Paper actually called it Ward 8's living room one time.
NNAMDII'll tell you something about City Paper and Player's Lounge. The first loose lips they ever had, Ken Cummings, had his farewell party at Player's Lounge.
WALKERAnd that doesn't surprise me. Everyone goes there to eat. For a long time it was the only sit-down restaurant in the entire ward. And everyone goes there to drink. And it's fascinating to me how the bar survived. It was originally a strip club and it survived the crack epidemic in the '80s because they turned it into this safe haven for families. The same owners flipped it. The Thompson family runs the place and have for many years. There are about a dozen family members that are involved with the day-to-day operation of the place. And the night I went there they were having a soul and R & B dance night.
NNAMDIYeah, well, you're right, there's a lot of family members. Can you explain who the Fat Boys are?
WALKERThe Fat Boys are -- they're a service fraternity associated with the bar. So a couple of long-time members banded together and they do food drives and they do fundraisers associated with events in the bar. So, like I said, it's really engrained in the community there. And that oftentimes is just as important as having a cool dark place to hang out in.
NNAMDIJackie, the Quarry House does not have a sign. Someone could walk right by it without even noticing it's there. It would seem that this would work against the idea of pulling in as many people as you can into a bar. To what degree are you consciously trying to keep it low profile so that you maintain control of the kind of clientele, not to mention the music, who wants to hang out there?
GREENBAUMWell, we don't really. I mean, you know, along the way when we were growing the business, you know, when we bought the Quarry House, it was -- there were very few people that went there, even though everybody loved it and it was mostly a memory of loving it. Nobody was really going there anymore. So as we were building the business back up, we used to talk quite a bit about how do we go about it and, you know, be careful what you wish for. You know, do we -- how much do we want to spread the word?
GREENBAUMAnd we elected eventually to sort of build it slowly and let it take hold. We knew that it has a self-selecting clientele. People would walk down the stairs and, you know, some women wouldn't even go down the stairs even when we had a sign. A lot of people would start to come down and just leave. Or people would come in and you knew you had them. You know, these people would walk in and open the door and say, this is my new favorite bar. And then they told their friends and they told their friends. And it ended up building quite naturally.
GREENBAUMSo we were somewhat concerned about, you know, the sort of, you know -- can I say douche?
NNAMDIYes, you can say douche, yes.
GREENBAUM...sort of the douche factor, you know, with overtaking the bar as it became really popular. We never wanted that to happen. And it hasn't. But -- so yeah, but the sign not being there is really somewhat of an accident, organic accident. It blew off one day and it's still in there. And we plan to replace it. We just never got around to it. So...
NNAMDIShe mentioned douche on the air. There's was a word -- what was deer what?
WALKEROh my god, I didn't think I was going to get to do this. So the Tune Inn burned down or at least had a fire about four years ago that did a lot of damage. And the Tune Inn, one of its big quirks is they have an obsession with taxidermy, and in some cases really bad taxidermy. The bar is lined with deer asses, little fluffy white-tail deer butts.
NNAMDIYou said them both.
GREENBAUMDeer ass, nice one.
WALKERAnd they had a Smithsonian...
NNAMDI...replace one with the other.
WALKER...they had a Smithsonian taxidermist restore them.
NNAMDIWell, we'll let Shane in Eastern Shore, Md. have the last word. Shane, clean up this conversation for us, please.
SHANEHey, I just want to mention, I know you guys were talking about a bar that you can smoke in and you can only find one. There's actually one right off of King Street Metro in Alexandria. You take the Yellow or the Blue Line to get there and you walk about three, four or five blocks up and it's right on the right side. There's a place that says New York Deli on it. The sign -- you can't really figure out how to get in the bar originally. You go in there. The back room has a little staging area where people play local bands.
SHANEUpstairs there's a room just with pool tables. They don't really work too well. They have coin-operated. Half the time the balls don't all fall down so you have to get some extra balls from the bartender.
NNAMDIAnd you can smoke back there. Thank you for helping us lose half our listeners. But thank you very much for your call. Jared Walker is the reporter behind the D.C. dive series on the WAMU 88.5 program Metro Connection. Jenny Rogers is assistant managing editor at Washington City Paper. Jackie Greenbaum owns the Quarry House and Jackie's Restaurant. Daniel Maceda owns The Pinch. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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