March-April 2022 | Food & Drink

Hank Dietle’s Tavern finds new identity after devastating fire

Thanks to the hard work of many loyal patrons, the historic dive bar has been rebuilt following a 2018 fire. But was its blue-collar soul lost in the blaze?

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Roger Edsall (pictured) and the rest of The Bad Influence Band perform last fall at Hank Dietle’s Tavern. Photo by Lisa Helfert

In a YouTube video posted on WTOP News on Valentine’s Day 2018, “Colonel” Josh Arnson strums a guitar while sitting in front of what’s left of Hank Dietle’s Tavern, a quintessential dive bar and Montgomery County’s oldest roadhouse, with roots dating to 1916. It holds the first liquor license the county issued after Prohibition—Class D beer and wine, number 001. In the early hours of that day, while closed and empty, smoldering smoking materials on the front porch ignited and gutted the place. On Ash Wednesday.

A motorist notified 911 of the fire at around 2:45 a.m. Seventy-five firefighters arrived at the Rockville Pike bar in North Bethesda soon thereafter and brought the blaze under control within 15 minutes. The Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service estimated the damage at $500,000.

Arnson wears a plaid flannel shirt, a navy blue quilted vest, sunglasses and a wistful look. Behind him, yellow tape with the words “FIRE LINE DO NOT CROSS” winds around one of the porch’s four charred wooden pillars and stretches around the burned-out beige brick bungalow, the windows blown out from the fire’s force.

Arnson’s connection to Dietle’s dates to the late 1970s, when he attended Kensington Junior High School (now razed) 3 miles away. “It was kind of like a biker bar and pool hall, and always seemed a little rough to [my friends and me] because we were kids,” he says. Arnson and his friends would try to get served there—unsuccessfully—at 15. At 18, when they were legal—the drinking age in Maryland for beer and wine was 18 from 1974 to 1982—they’d go there for Schlitz on tap.

Photo by Lisa Helfert

Arnson, 58, left the area in 1984 to attend the University of Pittsburgh, then lived in Texas, New York City and Los Angeles, playing in bands all along the way, before moving to Takoma Park in 2004. He took on the nickname “Colonel” in the 1990s after members of an Austin band razzed him for wearing clip-on bolo ties. You want some mashed potatoes with your chicken, Colonel? they’d joke, referring to Colonel Sanders of what was then called Kentucky Fried Chicken.

In 2014, Arnson rekindled his relationship with Dietle’s. Tony Huniak, who owned the bar from the mid-1990s to 2019, had bands come in every now and then, so Arnson pitched him to have the one he formed in 2013, Colonel Josh & the Honky Tonk Heroes, play there every third Saturday for tips and a few pitchers of beer. “Tony said great because he had nothing to lose,” says Arnson, whose band now goes by the name Paisley Tonk. (Attempts to contact Huniak for this article went unanswered.)

NBC4 reporter Mark Segraves arrived at the scene of the fire from his D.C. home around 5 a.m., but this wasn’t just any story for him. The 60-year-old is a local music supporter and enthusiastic Hank Dietle’s fan. He grew up in Bethesda and went to the bar in high school because, he says, it was a cool place for a teenager to go and buy beer underage. He hung out there when visiting friends nearby in his 20s, before marriage and children ended his barhopping days. “Maybe 10 years ago, I started going [to Dietle’s] again, for the music,” he says. That’s where he was introduced to roots rock bands such as the Rock-A-Sonics, Goin’ Goin’ Gone and the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours.

Photo by Lisa Helfert

Segraves spent the day interviewing customers, a Dietle’s employee and musicians, many of whom made it into a 3½-minute segment on the station’s 11 p.m. news. He also posted a Facebook Live video that day that eventually got 52,000 views and 278 comments. “Best cold PBR around. My dad grew up going there and took me for a beer when I was old enough. Such a great place!” one of them said. “Everything can be restored. It takes time and money. People will respond and Hank’s shall come back,” another posted. Several suggested the community come together to rebuild Dietle’s.

Drummer Tommy Bowes, a founding member of the Rock-A-Sonics who, along with country singer Kiti Gartner, booked bands at Dietle’s, was pessimistic. In the Facebook video, he and Segraves tour the bar’s interior as the reporter’s phone camera pans around. The bar’s drop ceiling and pine wainscoting are gone. Rafters and wall studs are exposed. The linoleum floor is melted and pockmarked. The mahogany bar, which, according to lore, dated to Civil War times and came from a Baltimore bar in the 1940s to replace one that had, ironically, burned in a fire, is blackened but still intact. So are some of the torn black vinyl bucket stools.

The aftermath of the fire that destroyed Hank Dietle’s on Feb. 14, 2018. Photo by Bob Levine

Segraves comments on the block of wooden booths, four abreast and separated by a ledge and ceiling posts, that took up a third of the space. “Generations of people had carved their names [in them]. I think if I move in closely, you can still see some of that through the charred wood here.” He points out that Bowes lost a lot of sound equipment. “Yeah, it doesn’t look like I can see any of it left,” Bowes says. “I didn’t picture that it would be this bad. …I don’t know how this place could even be rebuilt at this point.”

Bowes was one of several musicians Segraves summoned that day. Among those who came were Willie Barry, also of the Rock-A-Sonics, David Goodfriend (Goin’ Goin’ Gone) and Mark Wenner (the Nighthawks).

“He said, ‘Get over here. It’s a tragedy. Bring your guitar,’ ” Arnson recalls. “I started crying. Our venue, our clubhouse, this little piece of Montgomery County history was gone.” Driving to the bar about 3:30 that afternoon, Arnson turned those feelings into lyrics, formulating and singing “Hank Dietle’s Blues” in the style of 1920s country singer Jimmie Rodgers. Crooning to a WTOP camera in a mournful twang, he begins and ends the song drawing out the “o” in old in a lilting, falsetto-laced yodel.

I got them old Hank Dietle blues.
I went down to Hank Dietle’s to get some beer.
I got to Hank Dietle’s weren’t nobody there
But a big ol’ melted plastic sign,
People standing ’round moanin’ and cryin’.
Well, I went to Hank Dietle’s,
But they burned up all the beer.
I got them old Hank Dietle blues.

It’s a Saturday night in October, 3½ years after the fire. The acclaimed blues and roots rock band the Nighthawks, dubbed early on in their 50-year career by a WHFS disc jockey as “the bad boys of Bethesda,” is performing at Dietle’s, which reopened last July with new owners: Bowes and his wife, Sarah Bonner, a harmony singer in the Crayfish Sisters trio, and their friend, Alan Kresse, a professional photographer.

The bungalow and its four-posted white front porch look much the same today as they did before the fire. To the left of the building stands the tall, brightly lighted sign—instantly recognizable to frequent Rockville Pike travelers—proclaiming “HANK DIETLE’S COLD BEER” in top billing over a bright red Coca-Cola logo. It’s a replica of the post-fire “big ol’ melted plastic sign” of Arnson’s song and a metaphor for something that looks the same but isn’t.

Kiti Gartner performing at Hank Dietle’s in 2016, before the fire and reconstruction. Photo by Alan Kresse

The 1,200-square-foot, one-room tavern’s interior, conceived by Vienna, Virginia, designer Nia Tavlarides Stratos, is an open space with boldly patterned gray and white Spanish tile flooring and lightly stained knotty pine wainscoting throughout. Periwinkle gray walls above it are filled with framed photos Kresse took of local musicians over the years, random 45 records Bowes found, and posters from three fundraiser concerts for rebuilding Dietle’s. There’s a poster behind the bar of 1950s actress Jayne Mansfield because Bowes is a fan.

On one side of the door is a stage with blackout curtains obscuring the front window and doing double duty as soundproofing. A neon sign advertising “Live music” hangs in the other front window. On that side of the room is a pool table, a pinball machine (Elvis!) and a jukebox, a hi-tech NGX Curve. Chrome and Formica dinettes from the 1950s and brightly colored metal high tops and stools dot the room. The small bar was hand built by Thrillbillys drummer Jack O’Dell to replace the previous one, using materials that he and fellow bandmember Johnny Castle donated.

“It’s a better place for music now,” says Washington Grove resident Tom Clifford, 58, the lead singer of King Soul, which played on opening night last July and appeared regularly at the old Dietle’s. “They have a real stage and can move everything around to accommodate live music and dancing.” Built-in pine booths at the old Dietle’s took up a lot of floor space, so they’d have to push the pool table against the wall to create room for bands.

Arnson appreciates the improvements. “The place was a real s—hole. Tony didn’t do a lot of maintenance, and we joke that it’s nice you can go in the bathroom now and not gag. No offense to Tony, and God bless him for keeping the place going all those years, but you gotta replace the toilet, you know?”

Segraves says there were two separate worlds at Dietle’s before the fire: people who went for the music, and the roadhouse people who wanted to drink and play pool and not be bothered by noisy bands. The new Dietle’s is more of the former and less of the latter, but a question remains: When an iconic bar burns and returns, can its soul convey?

Stephanie Stewart (left) and Andrea Hancock settle in among the crowd at the rebuilt Dietle’s. Photo by Lisa Helfert

Sometime in the early days after the blaze, T.J. Monahan, who lives in Randolph Hills and is a retired Montgomery County firefighter and longtime Dietle’s customer, retrieved some items from a dumpster while volunteering to help clear out the bar. “I found the one [pool] cue stick that still had some structure and a piece of the knotty paneling that had been part of the walls, thinking I’d return it to its home if it was rebuilt,” he recalls.

Today, the stick hangs on the wall behind the bar of the new Dietle’s.

Monahan, 69, who is also a retired D.C. police officer, was still working as a firefighter on the morning of the Dietle’s blaze. Arriving for work at Rockville’s Station 3 on Hungerford Drive, he was bewildered when his colleagues asked if he was in mourning; he hadn’t heard about the fire that destroyed the hangout he’d been going to since the late ’60s. He went there after work, arriving about 5 p.m., and consoled Huniak, his friend. Station 23’s quick response kept Dietle’s from becoming bulldozer fodder, says Monahan, adding that multiple remodels had given the walls and ceiling additional layers, protecting the structure from being engulfed like a typical residential house would have been. The place could be rebuilt, and there was no question that he’d help do it.

“I’ve been going there for over 50 years, through births and deaths and marriage, highs and lows,” Monahan says. Growing up and living nearby, he’d wait on its front porch for his ride to St. John’s College High School in the District. He and other high schoolers drank there underage, he says, because the bartenders were fast and loose with checking IDs. In the early 1970s, during his college years, Monahan worked construction on Rockville Pike and would go to Dietle’s for lunch. “It was a workingman’s club, a blue-collar joint where there was always a pool game going on. They had hot dogs and hamburgers, pickled eggs in the jar, pigs’ feet, a smorgasbord of cholesterol. It was great!” he says.

Monahan talks of unsung heroes who put money, time and effort into the rebuilding, such as remodeler Dejan Senic, who helped install new windows and donated the materials for—and built—the soffits and fascia boards, and Jamie Carmen, whose Gaithersburg-based company, Atlantic Coastal Cooling and Heating Inc., donated and installed the HVAC duct system. “Dietle’s has been a local landmark for as long as I can remember, and being a Bethesda local, when I heard they needed help with the HVAC, I couldn’t say no,” Carmen says. At the time of the fire, Senic lived near Dietle’s (he has since moved to Frederick County) and considered it his second home. “I just wanted to help the place reopen as soon as possible because many people missed that lovely place,” he says.

Monahan credits Gartner for mobilizing the rebuilding effort. “Kiti was tremendous. She took the reins and ran with it on Tony’s behalf,” he says. Adds Segraves: “…[I]t became a grassroots effort driven by Kiti Gartner. Hank Dietle’s would not be here today were it not for her efforts.”

Gartner and her band, formerly called Kiti Gartner and the Deceits (it’s now Kiti Gartner and the Drifting Valentines), started playing at Dietle’s about the same time as Arnson. She sought out the venue because she was breaking in a new band member and wanted a place where no one knew her band. Once there, she says, Huniak pressed her to book other bands, which she did when he agreed to pay them a minimum of $300 plus tips. She was protective of the musicians and, she says, stayed on top of Huniak to make sure they got paid.

Gartner, along with Bowes, was also booking bands at Silver Spring’s Quarry House Tavern. After a 2015 fire in an adjacent restaurant temporarily closed Quarry House (it reopened in 2018), Gartner and Bowes moved their bookings, including their popular Rockabilly Saturday Night, to Dietle’s. Bowes brought his sound equipment and left it there for other bands to use. Dietle’s started gaining a reputation as much for its music as its dive bar bona fides. “It was a great gig,” Arnson says, “and then some a–hole flicks a cigarette [on the porch].”

The day after the Dietle’s fire, Gartner started a GoFundMe account that raised $17,598 in 11 weeks. She did it quickly because she was worried that others might create fraudulent sites. A meticulous spreadsheet (it can still be found on the defunct GoFundMe site) shows that most of the money went toward paying out-of-work employees and utilities. Bowes was reimbursed $2,755 for his sound equipment.

“When I heard the fire happened, it broke my heart,” Gartner says. “There aren’t a lot of places like that anymore. Tony with all his flaws, he made Dietle’s what it was, rundown but comfortable. You didn’t have to worry about scratching the floor. I thought, we have to fix this place. I thought everyone would feel the same way and fix the place as a community.”

Edward Offutt built the bungalow that houses Hank Dietle’s in 1916 and operated Offutt’s General Store, selling The Good Gulf Gasoline at four pumps out front. According to a 1984 Washington Post article by Eve Zibart, Offutt operated a tavern there, too. In the World War II years, Zibart wrote, it was run by a man named Freddy Salami. Hank Dietle bought the place in the 1950s, branching out on his own after leaving the family business, Dietle’s Tavern, which his father opened in 1934 on Seminary Road in Silver Spring. (The Silver Spring Dietle’s closed in 2003.) Hank Dietle died (of throat cancer, says Monahan, who knew him) around 1985.

Hank Dietle’s was a blue-collar mainstay throughout decades of construction and sprawl that saw the completion of the Beltway, White Flint mall and Metro’s Red Line as well as the transformation of Rockville Pike into what Zibart calls in a 1988 Post story “Rodeo Drive-on-the-Potomac.” In the ’70s and ’80s, Dietle’s acquired a reputation as a dicey biker bar. In May 1972, according to a police report at the time, a Bethesda fireman who worked there part time was shot seven times and killed with a .22-caliber, nine-shot revolver in the parking lot by a patron after the two of them argued over a pool game.

Cabin John resident Mike Reutemann, 61, a federal government retiree who grew up in Chevy Chase, recalls that the place was rough, full of “tough guys,” when he was in high school. “It was one of the few places you could buy beer at 10 at night. My friends and I would have to decide who was going in. It was, ‘Get the six-pack of Bud and get out!’ ”

According to a 2016 Washingtonian piece, Huniak started frequenting the bar in the ’70s after working his shift at a printing press. He became a regular and, upon hearing that the latest owners of Dietle’s were closing the bar, bought the place.

Huniak made some changes but mostly kept the bar as it was. Under his ownership, the only food Dietle’s sold was potato chips, but customers were allowed to bring or order food. A food truck sometimes set up shop in the parking lot. When the indoor smoking ban went into effect in Montgomery County in 2003, Huniak created a smoking area on the front porch, and in the early 2010s he began to have live music from time to time.

Tommy Bowes (left), Sarah Bonner and Alan Kresse became owners of Dietle’s in September 2019. Photo by Lisa Helfert

Gartner grew up surrounded by music. Her parents loved country music and rhythm and blues, with Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash being particular favorites. The family would sing and play instruments during her upbringing overseas—her father was an educator for the Department of Defense Dependents Schools. She settled in D.C. in 2003 because her sister lived there.

The singer describes herself as shy, a homebody, and chooses not to share her age. She never expected to wind up in a band, let alone lead one, but friends who would come to her house and play, Bowes among them, encouraged her. She attributes her first public gig, at the Quarry House Tavern in 2013, to a dare. “It was fun and we kept going,” she says.

Gartner acquired another trait from her parents: a love for saving old things and restoring them. Her parents were into clocks; Gartner has a soft spot for old cars and furniture. “Those are precious things,” she says. “You can’t make them again. When something like that is threatened, you want to save it.” That impulse motivated her to save Hank Dietle’s.

Gartner’s goal was to do the minimum necessary to restore Dietle’s—“80% community bar and 20% music, like it was,” she says. “I didn’t expect it to be my second job. It took over my life. You get advice coming out of the woodwork.” (Her day job is doing information technology for a law firm.)

The GoFundMe effort ran for a year and eventually brought in a total of $19,205. A benefit concert that she, Segraves and Bowes organized at Bethesda’s Rock Creek Mansion on March 31, 2018, drew about 300 people and yielded nearly $15,000, which paid for the new porch.

Gartner got many things donated, including windows and wood paneling from TW Perry in Silver Spring, and toilets and sinks from Kohler. She got the air conditioning at cost, but the money had run out and she wound up paying for the air handler (the part of the system that’s installed inside) herself. She was out of pocket at least $2,000, she says. “There is no money for material, not even paint, and very few volunteers,” she said in a 2018 interview with Bethesda Beat. “It’s not going to happen by magic.” By the beginning of 2019, she was done.

Gartner says Huniak didn’t help much. “He’s not a mean guy at all. He was there every day. He scuffled around with his head down. He has a very good heart. …He just thought people loved it as much as he did and would resurrect it. In the end, I kind of just had it with him,” she says. “I told [him], ‘Why should I be doing this if you aren’t doing anything?’ ”

Huniak was having money problems before the fire. He asked Reutemann, a friend and regular, to lend him $8,000, which he did. Huniak signed a promissory note in October 2015 agreeing to make two $4,250 payments (the payments included a $500 fee) in 2016, one in April and one in October. Huniak made no payments, despite repeated entreaties, and late fees and 10% interest started accruing. Reutemann sued Huniak in 2018, winning a judgment against him for $12,600, according to Maryland court records. (It hasn’t been paid, says Reutemann.)

In June 2019, Gartner found out that the landlord, Dr. Bahman Teimourian, and his property manager, Chris Doring, had severed relations with Huniak. She told Bowes, who had expressed interest after the fire in taking over Dietle’s, that now was the time to talk to them. (Doring and Teimourian did not respond to requests for interviews.)

A letter of intent was signed and a 10-year lease negotiated. By September 2019, Tommy Bowes, Sarah Bonner and Alan Kresse were the new owners of Hank Dietle’s Tavern.

What would possess Bowes, Bonner and Kresse to take on a risky, time consuming and expensive project at a time in life when most people their ages—67, 61 and 65, respectively—are thinking more about winding things down than taking on second full-time jobs? A love of music and the music community.

Bowes is one of 13 children who all played musical instruments. “Mom played piano and Dad was a bass fiddle player who reorganized the Frederick [Maryland] symphony and played with them until he died in 2015,” he says. Bonner started singing as a kid, performed in choirs in college, studied for years with bluegrass singer Dede Wyland and started the Crayfish Sisters trio 10 years ago. On Wednesdays, she sings Beatles songs at Dietle’s with musicians Mark and Paul Zimmerman. Kresse, who lives in the Kentlands area of Gaithersburg, has always been into music. He and Bowes are old friends who met in the ’80s while working in an audio store in Takoma Park.

The rebuilding, reopening and running of Hank Dietle’s was and is Bowes’ baby. “I questioned the capital investment,” Bonner says, “but Tom expressed to me how important it was for him to bring it to fruition. I chose to support him, and so did Alan.”

Bonner and Bowes, who live in Bethesda, met in 1991, when he was in a band called the Choir Boys. “I was kind of like a groupie, to be honest, and had a crush on Tom,” she says. They dated for 3½ years and married in 1995.

Bonner says Teimourian had a soft spot for Hank Dietle’s but made it clear that he wasn’t going to invest in the rebuild. “The messaging was, they were going to do something else, be it a Starbucks or McDonald’s, but [Teimourian’s] first choice was to work with someone they had confidence in to rebuild, and that turned out to be us,” she explains. (Teimourian also owns the land that Dietle’s neighbor Java Nation is on. He is their landlord, too.)

The new Hank Dietle’s offers live music seven nights a week, with open mic night on Mondays. “The dive bar model can’t survive financially these days,” says Kresse, who, in addition to his photography business previously co-owned a hair salon with his wife, Connie, and managed a farmers market stand.

“We are losing a little of the blue-collar crowd that came here. There are people hoping for the good old days and they want $2 pitchers or whatever, but the reality of owning a business in North Bethesda, or Rockville as I like to say, is that things are expensive.”

The first order of business for the partners was to delegate responsibilities. Bowes oversaw construction, hiring contractor John Petsche of Potomac-based HomeServe LLC to do most of the work and then completing some of it himself. He is now the sound technician. Bonner acts as administrator. Kresse keeps the books, coordinates the food service and handles social media and marketing.

Tom Helf, who lives in Glen Echo, handles legal issues. They hired Gina Cocco, who lives in Edgewater, Maryland, as general manager and D.C. resident Lisa White, who grew up in Kensington, to book and manage talent, which she did at D.C.’s 9:30 Club for 20 years. She books mostly local and regional bands, but is so well known in the music world that national acts seek her out to play at Dietle’s on their way to other gigs. Paul Cebar, Linda Gail Lewis (Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister), singer/songwriter Steve Forbert and blues guitarist Nick Schnebelen have played there since last summer’s reopening.

Dietle’s sells food now, offering a brief menu of sandwiches, sliders, dips, chips and snacks purchased from a caterer. “We have a basic food service license, the lowest number, meaning there can’t be any prep on-site and the food can’t change temperature. It must be served as it’s delivered,” Kresse explains. They have applied for a license that will allow Dietle’s to serve hot food.

The scope and extent of rebuilding Dietle’s was much more than anticipated. “We had to replace the whole plumbing system,” Bowes says. “The main waste line under the building had to be excavated 15 feet out of the building. We had to buy another compressor, dismantle the furnace original to the building and take out radiators. The bathroom and kitchen floors were no good. We put a 20-foot beam in the ceiling because the roof was sagging in the front. We reinsulated the building.” He declines to reveal their total investment, but the Dietle’s website at one point said that as of May 1, 2020, costs had exceeded $200,000 with another $100,000 of work to do. “Let’s just say it was sizable. Three to four times what we calculated originally,” Bowes says.

COVID-19 also presented obstacles. Original plans called for an opening by April 2020, but by the time permits and plans had been drawn up, the pandemic had started. Architectural drawings had to be redone digitally, and construction delays and supply chain issues ensued. (The landlord helped by putting off rent payment until April 2021 and extending the lease by a year, says Bowes.)

The partners don’t take an income and seek only to cover their loan, if possible. If they don’t get back their investment, Bonner says it’s just their contribution to the music community. Many Montgomery County music venues, including Villain & Saint and Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle in Bethesda, have closed, making it harder for musicians to make money, all the more so in the pandemic.

Bonner says things are going well, considering they’ve only been open since July and some people are still skittish about going out in public. One lesson they learned was that paying bands a guaranteed fee wasn’t sustainable, especially during a pandemic. “Now there’s a cover charge on most weekend nights, and some weeknights as well, ranging from $5 to $20,” White says. “The bands get the majority of the door proceeds. The happy hour and Sunday shows are generally no cover, with the bands playing for tips. So far, audiences have been generous.” Some events are ticketed. Steve Forbert’s show in November cost $30 and sold out in advance. Josh Arnson plays there about once a month. “Everybody wants to play there now,” he says.

Gartner says it felt a little weird when she played there in August. “Dietle’s was the way it was because of [Huniak], not fancy, tables wobbling. It was a roadhouse, a watering hole. That’s why people were comfortable. I’m so happy that it’s saved, but I kind of wish it was a little more about the community than the musicians.”

Despite Dietle’s new look and focus, Segraves says its soul remains. “When I walk in there, I feel the same way I did five years ago. The vibe is still there. The booths aren’t there, and the bathrooms are clean, but the sense of community is there. It’s more than a building and a number one [liquor] license.”

King Soul’s Tom Clifford says the excitement and energy were palpable when his band played on opening night. “Tom and Sarah and Alan care deeply about live music having a place in Montgomery County, and it really makes me happy,” he says. “I had an unexpected bypass before COVID, so I know what it’s like to have new blood in the veins. Dietle’s and I are both coming back stronger.”

David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.