Best Dives in the District

17 10 2009

D.C. is not exactly the world’s dive bar capitol.  Most bars in this city characterize themselves as clubs or lounges, where you’ll find so much hair gel that you could light a single match and the whole place would explode.  But there are definitely a few diamonds in the rough, and today’s post is a tribute to those D.C. dive bars that continuously manage to keep it real.

Before I deliver the gravy, we need to define what constitutes a dive bar.  A dive bar is the antithesis of a nightclub.  It should feel like a basement, where are all of your unemployed friends have gathered to booze and ramble.  A worthy dive should have a great jukebox (no DJ’s), a single grumpy bartender whose name you know, cheap beer, and a dirty, graffiti-riddled bathroom.  Lastly, and most importantly, a dive bar should be a little bit weird.  Be it the patrons, the bartender, or the décor, something about this place should scare away the amateur, mainstream bar-goers.

Alright, now that we’ve laid out some ground rules, I present you with the Best Dives in the District:

Best Overall Dive:

The Raven Grill

3125 Mt Pleasant St NW

Washington, DC 20010-2752


The Raven is dark, dingy and sprinkled with the dirtiest of hippies.  It’s tucked away between two hole-in-the-wall El Salvadorian restaurants in quiet Mt. Pleasant, difficult to find if you don’t know where you’re going.  The bartender is sufficiently bearded and cranky, PBR’s are two bucks, and the cash register is so dusty and outdated that the place can’t take credit cards.  Don’t expect any barfood- The Raven sells little bags of cheetos, cheap beers, and that’s pretty much it.  Oh, and there’s a fantastic jukebox.  It’s a glorious dive if you need to get away from the hustle and bustle of huge, obnoxious dive-wannabes in Dupont like Lucky Bar and The Big Hunt (gag).

Best Dive for a Rainy Day:

Toledo Lounge

2435 18th St. NW

Washington, DC  20009


Sweet Toledo– my personal favorite neighborhood dive.  I couldn’t rank it first because that would betray my bias, and honestly, Toledo’s über-crowded Adams Morgan location detracts from its dive points.  But considered on its own merit, Toledo is a damn fine contender.  Amazing jukebox, red-tinted lighting, janked-up booths that look like they’ve been slashed with pickaxes, WEIRD waitresses, and best of all: $2 drafts on rainy days!!!  It’s doesn’t get any better than that.

Plus, Toledo’s food is absolute crap (except for the delicious nachos), so they let you bring pizza in from nearby Jumbo Slice to satisfy your late-night munchies.  This easy, laid-back attitude is what it’s all about.

Best Weird Dive:

Galaxy Hut

2711 Wilson Blvd

Arlington, VA 22201


Galaxy Hut puts the “we” in “weird.”  I’m not even sure what that means, but the last band I saw there was wearing electric blue spandex, blowing bubbles into the air and playing unlikely Jimi Hendrix vs. Michael Jackson mash-ups.  Normally I wouldn’t consider a music venue a dive bar, but Galaxy Hut still qualifies based on its pinball and Ms. Pac-Man machines, cozy atmosphere, quirky patrons and creepy murals.  Live music is only played on Sunday and Monday nights, and you’ll never have to wait for a table or a spot at the bar.  Best of all, this extra-special dive is located in Arlington, which makes it even more intriguing and unexpected.

Best Liquor Dive:

Dan’s Café

2315 18th St. NW

Washington, DC 20009


How does this sound: a full glass of pure Jack Daniels, a full glass of Coke, 2 glasses of ice and a smile?  It may just sound like a waste of glasses to you, but if you enjoy pouring your own drinks, then look no further– Dan’s is the place for you.  The bartenders can’t be bothered with making mixed drinks because they’re too busy being awesome.

Best Secret Dive:

Jimmy Valentine’s Lonely Hearts Club


I’m sorry, to give you an address or website for this bad-ass spot would be to betray its secrecy.  All I will say is that it’s in Northeast DC, that it’s extremely difficult to find, and that it’s ideal to go post-midnight.  Ask around, if you’re interested.

These are the 5 winners.  I have purposely excluded some seemingly obvious choices, such as The Wonderland Ballroom and Stetsons, the former because it’s gotten too crowded and the latter because it tries too hard to be a cowboy saloon (uncool).  Aside from these, have I missed any of your favorites?



5 responses

18 10 2009

You’re right. DC needs more dives.
There’s this awful dive bar on U street – can’t remember the name, but it’s bad news when the dive bar is straight up bad.

19 10 2009
Geof Boyle

Jay’s in Arlingon. Feels like your rednecky uncle turned the house he bought in 1979 into bar after his wife left him in 1982.

19 10 2009

I concur on the waitresses at Toledo Lounge.

19 10 2009

Red Derby is a favorite of mine. It’s a slog up 14th, but the cheeps cans and neighborhood vibe are worth it:

19 10 2009
Lord Enigma

You should add age diversity as a requirement. If it is not enjoyable to people in different phases of life then it is probably more of a trendy bar than a cool bar. Jay’s is good for that.

There is also what I call the “topless test”. If you get kicked out immediately after taking your shirt off because you are too hot then they bar is trying too hard. Galaxy Hut passed that test with me. Unfortunately, my last time in Jay’s I wasn’t so lucky. That doesn’t count though because I didn’t actually remember the next morning that I got kicked out.

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