Bar Bro: The two sides of dives

The Bar Bro brings you the best dives in the District. He isn’t classless – just low-class.

During a fresh-air – or really, smoke – break on a bar patio this weekend, my friends and I stood around a tall, metallic space heater chatting with a man who was clearly from out of town.

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“When did they start serving PBR at bars?” he said, flicking ash off his Kansas Jayhawks sweatshirt.

I tried to explain.

“People started drinking it ironically, and as dive bars around the city have become hipster bars – ”

“Don’t say that word to me, man,” he said, removing his baseball cap to brush his hair back underneath. “Why do they have to jack up the price of my beer?”

I didn’t have a good answer for that.

Jay’s Saloon & Grille

Where? 3114 N. 10th St., Arlington, Va.

Cover? No

Carded? Yes

Happy Hour? Weekdays, 4 to 7 p.m.

He told us he was from Colorado, and that back home, he was used to buying girls $1 beers and shooting 50-cent pool. I told him that if he wanted the coveted combination of cheap drinks and no hipsters, he’d have to head out to the ‘burbs.

What I neglected to tell him was that he wouldn’t find what he was looking for there either.

There are two types of bars in the District that people prominently designate as dives: small, grimy hipster meat markets and sleepy, local watering holes. I tried out one of each last weekend, and each had something to offer.

The patio we were on, surrounded by walls covered in illegible graffiti and spray-painted M.C. Escher rats, belonged to the Velvet Lounge, a dive-y staple of the U Street corridor. Enter late on a weekend night, after a band is done playing upstairs, and you’ll find throngs of young, hip urbanites grinding in the dark, searching for one last chance to get laid that night.

Velvet Lounge

Where? 915 U St., NW
Cover? Prices vary for concerts upstairs. Downstairs is no cover.
Carded? Yes
Happy Hour? No

The night I was there, the DJ played dancehall, reggaeton and all manners of heavy-beated music that made the hipster girls in white tank tops shake their hips while boys with mustaches held their coats. I had several mustachioed men of my own – on cans of Natty Boh – which only set me back $3 at the bar.

If you get there early, you can pay a small cover and catch a concert upstairs. Watching a show here was like watching your friend’s band play in an attic – loud, intimate and full of people you’re not sure you should talk to. Bars with hipster cred should be grimy – one Yelp reviewer wrote that these were the best bathrooms in the District to throw up in, although I’m afraid I didn’t test her theory. They should be a little rowdy, with people making out in practically every corner. This is fun.

But this one failed to live up to the Kansas fan’s expectations, or mine, frankly. No dive should offer a $6 can of Brooklyn Lager like the Velvet Lounge does.

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Could I find that same grimy charm without the sort of contrived hipster coolness that has seemingly spread to every cheap, downtown bar? I ventured out to the ‘burbs to find out.

I was a little worried getting off the Clarendon Metro that I hadn’t gone far enough. Walk from the station down the main drag, and the bars remind you of the trendier places on the H Street Corridor. Fancy signs hang over establishments with enormous glass facades and one-word names. This is where Arlington yuppies come to drink.

But walk a ways down and you’ll find Jay’s Saloon & Grille, a house-turned-watering hole that bills itself as “one of Arlington’s last true dive bars.”

The walls of this buzzing but not overcrowded bar are adorned with little homages to the Nats and, for whatever reason, the Kansas City Chiefs. The TVs above the bar must be from 1986, and a small ramp from the main dining area leads down to what must be the world’s smallest pool table.

Nothing about this place is pretentious; the same waitress who took our food order went down and unstuck the pool table for a group of trucker-hatted guys and their girlfriends every time they wanted to play another game. Domestic drafts, and by that I mean Bud, Miller or Coors, were $3. “Premium” brews, like Yuengling, are $3.50. The food is cheap and satisfying. Most sandwiches run in the $7 range, are big and hearty, and come with fries, chips, tater tots or perfectly sweet and salty onion rings. The “wine list” has two entries: red and white.

When it warms up, and Jay’s opens its AstroTurf front patio, I imagine I’ll probably spend a night there with my friends, ordering pitchers of beer and watching cars go by through a crisscrossed wooden fence. And I’ll be happy.

Well, almost. Because for all of its Southern charm, Jay’s is a little too sleepy for a 22-year old who came here to live in the city. And despite its familiarity, I don’t know how often I can frequent a neighborhood bar a Metro trip away.

Both bars are undeniably fun, and relatively cheap if you do it right. Still, when it comes to dive bars, no one in this city gets the recipe perfect. The best we can possibly hope to do is to try everything and see what we like.

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