DC is stuffed with frill-less wonders. You know the type -- places where you can hide out and forget the world over cheap beer, the occasional Jell-O shot, and the drone of millennial karaoke. Dives are romantic in their own way because most take you back to your younger days when Natty Boh was all you could afford, and anything seemed possible. Like threesomes and peace in the Middle East. These 12 dive bars in particular are DC’s dirty little secrets. They’re where people go to be who they are, instead of who they pretend to be at the office. And for that, we salute them.
Dive bar must-have: Jell-O shots. Lots of them.
A visit to Millie & Al’s isn’t complete without the gourmand pairing of dirt-cheap pizza and $1 Jell-O shots. You’ll need the latter for karaoke confidence on Thursdays at this Adams Morgan landmark that’s been a prototypical dive since 1963. The whole vibe lets you cling on to college just a little longer -- reenact an undergrad evening of killing three pizzas and two pitchers while still managing to score. Metabolism was something you scoffed at. Embrace the Millie & Al’s stench that follows you home on your clothes -- it’s all part of the experience.
Dive bar must-have: Cash only
The Raven is the Netflix and chill of bars. There are no expectations (remember that), you can come as you are, and there’s barely any money involved. You’re drinking beers, shots, or mixed drinks. And remember, mixed drinks are different than cocktails, so don’t roll up asking for a Sazerac like the Logan Circle dweller that you are. The Raven remains one of the oldest watering holes in the city, with its regulars dating back to the 1940s for a reason. Come before 8pm for $2 Natty Bohs and pretzels to find out.
H Street NE
Dive bar must-have: A healthy obsession with canned beer
“Nice cans” is a perfectly acceptable greeting at The Pug. The bar stocks 15-20 canned beers at all times, and because nothing is sacred, they also serve canned cocktails and wine. Although owner Tony T. prides himself on being equally welcoming ('warmly gruff,' we’ll call it) to strangers and regulars, there are some rules: “We’re definitely serious about the no bombs,” he tells us. “On occasion, we’ll use more than one bottle to make a cocktail or a shooter, but it definitely requires a good mood.” If you come hungry, note that your food is coming from a vending machine (but a really cool one).
Dive bar must-have: Dungeon-like digs
You have to go below ground to enter The Bottom Line. The geography of the matter is symbolic, and so is the lack of cell phone service. People have been going to TBL to avoid being found since 1979. The drinks are strong, the lighting is dim, and there’s probably a bunch of loud people in matching T-shirts playing flip cup with the seriousness of brain surgery. The reuben ain’t bad, and sometimes it’s nice to take a medical holiday from the craft beer scene in favor of a list with old friends like Blue Moon and Bud. Just watch out for the Bengals fans -- you saw how they behaved on Wild Card weekend.
Dive bar must-have: Surly (but lovable!) staff
The lords of the drink at Ivy & Coney are a hoot. Not warm and fuzzy, but a hoot. Take the brand new bar door emblazoned with fake hipster restaurant names generated here, for example. Who does that? But, the door’s not the only new addition at the Chicago and Detroit-themed dive where Strohs flows and Harry Caray looks on. 2016 ushers in a retractable roof deck and a brand new food menu with treats like a deep-dish dog painted with Gino’s East-style marinara sauce and a wing dog made from deep-fried green chili chicken sausage. Plus, who doesn’t love a menu organized by “mediocre beer, OK beer, good beer, better beer, and booze”?
Dive bar must-have: A quirky house band
Yep, Granny & The Boys still play every Sunday from 7:30-10pm. The octogenarian-lead funk fusion band is the unequivocal best way to end a weekend. Good music fills Bloomingdale’s cash-only dive the other six nights of the week too, thanks to a free jukebox stuffed with rhythm & blues tracks. You’re drinking a beer and shot combo -- more specifically a Natty Boh with a shot of rail booze -- for $5. Staff says this accounts for 70% of orders.
Dive bar must-have: Wacky place to sit
Because the best parts of grade school happened on the bus, Trusty’s installed one upstairs. But the bus bar isn’t the only reason to pull up a stool at this decade-old Hill East dive, popular with DC United fans. Beer comes in mason jars, the half-smokes are hot, and being a “neighborhood bar” isn’t manufactured. For best results at Trusty’s, embrace the nostalgia and play Connect Four or another board game on the patio.
Dive bar must-have: Regulars so regular they’re fixtures
This taxidermied shrine to all things dive attracts the most steadfast of regulars -- even Janet Reno couldn’t resist being a repeat customer because of the burgers. It also reels in everyone from politicos to what may very well be hobos, and that’s why we love it. The family-run business has been welcoming customers since 1947, and even survived a fire. Translation: There’s a lot of character. And all-day breakfast. And beer at 8am.
Dive bar must-have: Arcade games
Twenty bucks goes a long way at Lyman’s Tavern -- a round of cold beers, a couple of meatballs on Wednesdays, and a whole lot of pinball. The Montana-themed bar that looks like a ranch exploded on its walls is still a relative newcomer, but it's not lacking in divey ambiance. From a Walking Dead obsession to an ambitious supper club, there’s a lot to latch onto. They also take a firm stance on politics, which they’re quick to share online: “As usual we will not show the debates. They are a mockery of the United States and we will not try to profit off of them.”
Dive bar must-have: Live music, sans cover
Solly’s offers live music on Fridays and the occasional Sunday. “Very seldom do we charge a cover,” says Solly (John Solomon) himself. Thursdays will fill your ears too, only with really enthusiastic “Kostume Karaoke.” The U Street bar slinging regional favorites like Baltimore-style pit beef, PBR beef chili, and BBQ pulled pork also rocks an insanely long happy hour on weekdays from 3-8pm. Another show of divey generosity? Charity trivia night Wednesdays at 8:30pm. Ten percent of proceeds during the game (which always includes a DC-specific trivia round) go to rotating charities.
Dive bar must-have: An oddball beer & shot combo
Order a “Gentleman’s Combo” blind at Looking Glass Lounge and see what shows up. Spoiler alert: It’s a bottle of Yuengling and a shot of Clontarf Irish Whiskey. Because THAT makes sense. (...) Even though LGL barely sneaks in as a dive because serving fancy-pants shishito peppers is definitely a flag on the play, we dig the bar’s crush on vinyl, play fighting with DC Reynold’s, and cheap specials on burger night (Wednesdays). Get the garlic fries; no one’s kissing you after you take them on a date to Looking Glass Lounge, anyway.
Dive bar must-have: Bathrooms that entertain
Who goes into a dive bar bathroom and says, “Gee, that’s boring”? No one! They have to have character, or at bare minimum, some scrawled messages that draw a laugh. “John loves Deb as long as she doesn’t vote for Hillary,” and the like. Red Derby fits the bill, but obviously, there’s more to it. It doesn’t have to be happy hour for RD to serve $2 beers (but it does have to be Natty Boh, Strohs, or Bud). Then there’s the fact that you can score $5 margaritas and Manhattans on Mondays. Finally, it’s worth touting that the cash-only spot also does a mean, divey brunch (get the morning burger with tots).
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Laura Hayes is a DC-based food, drink & travel writer who also contributes to Washington City Paper, Food Network, Arlington Magazine, and others. She will keep drinking at dive bars until someone names a beer and shot combo after her. Follow her on Twitter @BTMenu.
1. Millie & Al's2440 18th St NW, Washington
2. The Raven Grill3125 Mount Pleasant St NW, Washington
3. The Pug1234 H St NE, Washington
4. Bottom Line1716 I St NW, Washington
5. Ivy and Coney1523 7th St NW, Washington
6. Showtime113 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington
7. Trusty’s Full-Serve Bar1420 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington
8. The Tune Inn331 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington
9. Lyman's Tavern3720 14th St NW, Washington
10. Solly's U Street Tavern1942 11th St NW, Washington
11. Looking Glass Lounge3634 Georgia Ave NW, Washington
12. Red Derby3718 14th St NW, Washington
With $1 Jello shots and dirt-cheap pitchers and pizza, you'll forget all about the odd-smell and embrace Millie & Al's for reminding you what college was really like.
Look no further for your best Mount Pleasant dive -- The Raven Grill's got the cracked booth seats, bright neon glow, stocked jukebox, and $5 bourbons to get the job done right.
Much like the dog it’s named after, this H Street dive is small, friendly and ugly in a cute way. A regular cast of characters come in to check the list of draft beers on a chalkboard above the bar, and settle in to a seat surrounded by walls littered with vintage photos of boxers and posters from the 80s. Whatever you do, don’t ask for a craft cocktail, as you might be denied and then shamed: it’s not that kind of place. Though, while it may not look like a typical brunch spot (and the kitchen amounts to a few hot plates behind the bar), unlimited mimosas are dirt cheap and ‘The All American Special’ (a plate of eggs, sausage, hash and gravy on a biscuit) does satisfy.
The Bottom Line isn't your typical neighborhood bar. Where else can you find a "beat the clock" happy hour on Fridays? At this Downtown spot, Fridays mean the beer starts dirt-cheap and escalates hourly to... still dirt-cheap.
Come here for some beer and Chicago style hot dogs. They also give you peanuts (in shell) that you can just throw on the floor when done with.
This Bloomingdale spot is one of DC's most beloved dives, thanks to its funk & soul jukebox, weekly live music, and dirt-cheap beer. Painstakingly curated by owner & DJ Paul Vivari, the jukebox contains more than 2,000 tracks of soul, R&B, jazz, and ‘60s pop. As for the booze, the selection isn't quite as extensive: the converted barbershop offers just four draft lines and a compact liquor selection, and fuses them with its $5 shot-and-beer combos, which are ideal if you’re looking to loosen up before getting down to some funk music.
Upstairs at Trusty's has been converted into a bus-themed booze cave, with a sunbathed outdoor deck and a main room with lunchbox-based overhead and Thermos-chandelier lighting atop a bar made of an actual school bus.
Opened in 1947, The Tune Inn is covered in taxidermy (including a mounted butt of the owner's first buck) that gives the place some serious character. The biggest thing that’s stayed consistent for 60+ years is the attitude that everyone’s welcome — from the bigwig politico to the guy who saved up all day for a beer.
Sliders, dogs, and tacos are the main staples at this Columbia Heights dive bar. Here you will find pinball machines, PBR on draught, local beers like DC Brau, National Bohemian, and Atlas Brew Works, and a good number of domestic bottles. If it gives you any idea of what the atmosphere is like, the casual bar features stuffed jackalope heads, cross-stitched signage, and retro decorations. Now with the addition of an outdoor patio space, hot dogs aren't the only dogs welcome at Lyman's ... in other words, bring your pooch.
After adding on a new bar, the U Street tavern figured they'd supplement your all-PBR diet with "sammiches" like the breaded cutlet/ fresh mozz "Italian Stallion", and tilapia tacos with "awesome sauce".
The space might be designed with stained glass windows, but that's pretty much where the sophistication ends and the easygoing vibe begins. The beer and shot combos at this casual neighborhood pub draws in thirsty regulars for everything from bar trivia to patio drinking. There’s a full menu of creative and tasty bar food, too -- (heyyy, grilled shishito peppers) -- which you'll undoubtedly need, after a few of these.
DC’s Red Derby is a local staple that combines all the necessary ingredients for an optimal night out, including a rooftop, board games, bar snacks, and reasonable prices. The dinner menu consists of American comfort food, like the crowd-favorite sweet potato fries and chicken tenders, tacos, burgers, and a gooey grilled cheese. Be sure to head to the Derby rooftop for brunch, complete with sweet and savory options, like breakfast bowls and French toasts sticks.