It's always difficult to describe what exactly defines a dive bar's appeal. Cheap drinks, off-kilter decor, lack of pretension—these things are common hallmarks, but do little to distinguish a welcoming dive from a bar you wouldn't want to find yourself in after dark. It's telling then that a common mantra among bartenders at Washington DC's most popular dives is that they all just want everyone to feel comfortable. From raucous sports bars to super-mellow temples of classic rock and film, DC denizens have flocked to the same watering holes for years because these spots are just that: comfortable.
Washington DC has its share of trendy cocktail bars and hipster hideouts, but the district's dive bars have clung to life, thriving on decades of drinking history and fierce local loyalty. Here are 8 of our favorite dive bars in the DC area.
The Big Hunt
The Big Hunt lies steps away from Dupont Circle, but has stubbornly clung to its inherent divey-ness in one of the most trafficked and sought-after neighborhoods in the city. A steady stream of patrons seems drawn to the garish island-themed signs above the bar's front door. Straight ahead past the bar is a large mural adorned with severed heads of past Presidents like mounted trophies. Gigantic plaster shark teeth line the wall in the back room. The chandeliers above the bar are covered in fur and resemble nightmarish tarantulas. Yet The Big Hunt draws everyone from lawyers to students from the Corcoran school. There are the requisite $2.50 PBRs and Buds, but The Big Hunt also has an extensive tap list, including suds from local breweries in the district, Virginia, and Maryland as well as other craft favorites like Bell's Octoberfest and Founders Pale Ale.
The Big Hunt: 1345 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036
The Red Derby in Columbia Heights is the kind of bar that would likely draw a drastically different crowd if it were located on a more mainstream drag, say, a mile south. It has all of the necessary provisions for a debaucherous evening out: a dimly lit, red-tinted bar, spacious roof deck, and a back room for games complete with a chalk wall with obscenities gleefully scrawled in unsteady handwriting. But The Red Derby is happily removed from the usual route of weekend ragers. There's a beer list starting with, yes, $2 Natty Boh, Bud, and Strohs, and a full selection of beer-shot combinations, like the Andre 5000 (Dales & Overholt). Classic 80s films are projected next to the bar, watched over by a small headless mannequin dressed in a Japanese kimono, suit vest, floral tie, striped bra, and a Nationals hat.
Red Derby: 3718 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20010
Open since 1935, Mount Pleasant's The Raven is one of the oldest continuously operating liquor licenses in Washington, DC, and the decor is appropriately nostalgic. The wall opposite the bar is lined with portraits of deceased musicians and actors (John Lennon, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Sinatra's mugshot) and a TV plays black and white films. A jukebox in the back pumps out the hits of the 60s and 70s. Dim, low hung red, green, and blue lamps light the booths while the bar opposite is outfitted with mismatched stools and folding deck chairs. The Raven is not particularly crowded, even on a weekend, and that's probably for the best. Have a $2 Natty Boh ($3 after 8 p.m.) and a bag of Utz chips (there's no other food to speak of, despite the name), and enjoy the company of one of the mellowest crowds in DC. As one regular told me: "have a few drinks here with your mates and it feels like you're just living the music."
Raven Grill: 3125 Mt. Pleasant NW, Washington, DC 20010
Solly's U Street Tavern
Solly's is the consummate neighborhood sports bar. Loyal to Ohio State and the Miami Dolphins, game nights are a cacophony of shouted commentary, cheers, and jeers. The small space is lined with local sports memorabilia, a Big Buck Hunter machine in the corner, and a large embroidered Elvis rug above the front door. Beer and whiskey is cheap and the more spacious upstairs is home to open mics and trivia nights. The real marvel of Solly's is how stubbornly its held on to its dive roots on a street that's relentlessly heralded as one of the trendiest in the city.
Solly's U Street Tavern: 1942 11th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001
"Be cool, drink, behave," reads a placard behind the bar at The Pug, right next to another that states "no idiots, no sniveling, no shooters, no politics, no bombs." Bartenders at The Pug are proud of the camaraderie they enforce. The small, narrow, lit-by-Christmas lights space pulls double duty: waiting room for all manner of folk in line for a seat at the ever popular Toki Underground upstairs, and watering hole for an eclectic group of regulars from all over DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The Pug is plastered with images of boxing history (it is short for pugilist, after all) and local sports memorabilia. It is unofficially a DC United bar. There's a respectable list of canned beers, but Natty Boh flows freely under punk rock, Johnny Cash, and reggae. You might be able to find a broken Rock'em Sock'em Robots in the back, but let the brawl spill out into real life, and the friendly folks at The Pug might show you how it got its name.
The Pug: 1234 H Street NE, Washington, DC 20002
Jay's Saloon and Grille
Coming to Jay's feels like stepping into the home of James (the eponymous Jay) and Kathi Moore. Set in a small detached building in the furiously developing Virginia suburb of Clarendon, Jay's is cozy and filled with the community's accumulated curio of two decades. Kathi Moore claims it began with a theme, but hardly remembers what it was. She's collected license plates from nearly 50 states, including Hawaii and Alaska, and even one from Phnom Penh. Bobble heads of past Presidents adorn the cooler behind the bar, accompanied by a sea of random characters. $3.75 Miller Lights are accompanied by classic rock from 100.3 FM, except on Fridays when a sexagenarian DJ named Peewee has played oldies on cassettes since 1994. That's right, cassettes. If you're not on the rail yelling commentary at news coverage, there's a cart of novels in the back, and a smaller than regulation sized billiards table. Unfortunately, the bar's future is uncertain due to planned development on its lot. This oasis of drinking may be operating on borrowed time, so don't wait to check it out or you might be too late.
Jay's Saloon and Grille: 3114 10th St. North, Arlington, VA 22201
Quarry House Tavern
Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring might break one of the cardinal qualifiers for a dive bar: it has 120+ beers and 200+ whiskies (2 of which are 40 years old). Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Quarry House is one of the most popular dives around DC. Tucked below some nondescript stairs on the corner of Georgia Avenue and Bonifant Street, Quarry House is dark and dingy, all faded wood and faded paint, with a low ceiling that induces mild claustrophobia. It feels a bit like a storage room in a house from the 70s. You can drink a delicious array of fancy beer here, or just go with a $3.50 Budweiser (and a half-price burger if it's Monday.)
Quarry House Tavern: 8401 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20910
Located just steps away from Capitol Hill, Tune Inn has been a favorite of locals and Hill staffers alike since 1947. Announcing its presence with no small amount of neon out front, Tune Inn makes no attempt at subtlety. The walls are lined with mounted heads of all species—there's a bear holding a Budweiser, an owl with a bra hanging from it, a fox wearing a tie-accompanied by mounted rifles, sporting trophies, antler chandeliers, and an unopened box of Lord of the Rings character Pez dispensers. The regulars just as eclectic, from 40 year veterans to newly minted Hill interns to tourists seeking out the deep fried burger. Real regulars come to drink: usually a simple Bud and a shot of Jameson. Music ranges from country to jazz to metal, but it usually ends with everyone singing along. Service is always swift and with a smile. If the folks down the street at the Capitol could be anywhere near as friendly as the drinkers at Tune Inn, our country would probably be in much better shape.
Tune Inn: 331 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20003
About the author: Brian Oh is a Washington, DC based international development professional and a food, photography, and travel enthusiast. In his free time, you can usually find him stuffing his face in our nation's capital. Follow him on Twitter @brianoh11