There was much snickering on social media this week over the former Pharmacy Bar in Adams Morgan reopening as “High Dive,” which apparently has divey-ish aspirations, but serves cocktails and has Top 40 hits on the jukebox. Pharmacy, which closed last year, was one of the city’s best-loved dive bars, and its demise seemed to be a particularly apt symbol of the ongoing sanitization of even the District’s grimiest corners. So what’s a scumbag to do if they want to get a cheap, watery beer and sit on some filthy, duct-taped lawn furniture? Luckily, I happen to be one of DC’s scummiest scumbags, so read on.
This is one of the city’s oldest dives, and probably the filthiest. (Genuine filth is an important aspect of any authentic dive.) I mean, if I dropped something in the bathroom, I would just leave it on the floor. Could be a hundred dollar bill, could be my firstborn child, whatever. It hits that slimy concrete floor, I’m cutting all ties. The bar itself is long and extremely narrow, forcing you to shuffle sideways from one end to the other, and is low-ceilinged enough so that if there are more than, say, fifteen people in there, you’re basically standing in a sweltering greenhouse of strangers’ hot trapped bodily gases. There’s an old vacuum-tube TV behind the bar on which they often play VHS tapes, and Natty Boh is dirt cheap – three dollars, last I checked, though they may tack on an extra dollar or two if you look like you can afford it. The only downside is the location; it used to be one of the only places on a desolate stretch of U Street, but it’s now right in the very middle of everything. All the filth in the world doesn’t matter if you’re choking down your Natty Boh between a guy in a yellow polo shirt and a bachelorette party from Arlington.
Derby isn’t that old, but what it lacks in tenure, it makes up for in quality. You know, a lot of new-ish dive-type bars make the mistake of trying too hard to be a “dive” – skull stencils and Olde English fonts and other things my 62 year old suburban father associates with dive bars. It’s much better to take a more subtle approach, and Red Derby definitely gets that. Is it filthy? Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t eat a piece of buttered toast I dropped on the floor. But I doubt there’s any MRSA lurking behind the toilet. Is it dark and is the furniture crap? Yeah, but you won’t run into a support pillar and you don’t have to worry about your chair collapsing underneath you. Is the beer cheap and bad? Yes, but you can also buy some quality beer if the mood strikes you and you think you’re better than me. There’s even a roof deck, which isn’t dive-y at all, but let’s be honest, even scumbags can use some sunlight once in a while, if only to irradiate the lice eggs in their unwashed hair. It’s a nice understated crappy bar that’s organically growing into its diveiness. Plus, it’s far enough north that you don’t really get walk-in/barhopper traffic – everyone there deliberately came there. That makes a huge difference.
Okay, the Pug is more like a bar with dive-ish aesthetics, but then H Street is more like a commercial development experiment with neighborhood aesthetics. It just sort of came out of nowhere, like when you wake up after a rainstorm and there’s a huge clump of toadstools in your yard. (Actually, that metaphor doesn’t really work unless the toadstools were funded by millions of dollars of business grants from the city.) Anyway, H Street nightlife is kind of like the contestants on the Bachelor; the facades vary (sort of), but really they’re all exactly alike. It’s really like one big open air bar with differently-themed rooms. But still, if I have to go out on H Street, I stick with the Pug. It has that sort of cramped, “grandma’s attic” aesthetic of every good dive bar, cheap beer, crap board games missing half their pieces, and mismatched furniture. The downside is that you can walk into literally every bar on H Street and you’ll see the same fifteen people; it’s like they’re playing some elaborate trick on you where, as soon as you leave one place, they all sprint through a hidden underground tunnel to the next place and then strike casual poses just before you walk in. I have no idea why they’d theoretically be doing this; maybe to see if they could drive you insane? Someone should write this as a “Twilight Zone” episode.
The king of DC dive bars. It opens at 2pm, which means it caters to hardcore alcoholics, which means that they will have absolutely no tolerance for you and your “don’t you serve any good beers/don’t make me leave you a negative review on Yelp” nonsense. I think they actually want you to leave a negative review on Yelp. I bet they receive a large cash payout every time someone leaves a negative Yelp review. I mean, they’re definitely not rude, they just don’t really give a fudge, as my Asian mother says. The booths are slit-open and repaired with duct-tape, it’s always dark (even at 2pm when they open; there are no windows), the jukebox is hands-down the best in town now that Pharmacy is closed, and for a long time you could actually track the growth of a huge patch of black mold that was spreading across the semi-caved-in ceiling. If that’s not the mark of authenticity, I don’t know what is. Also, the two single-person bathrooms have the best bathroom graffiti in the city; you should definitely make a point of using both, and comparing what men and women write on the wall with Sharpies. It will be more enlightening than four years of a Gender Studies degree.