Hank Dietles Has Been Serving Beer in Bethesda for 99 Years
Tavern on Rockville Pike is one of Montgomery County's last true roadhouses
The view from the barstools includes the tavern’s carryout menu: $8 for a six-pack-to-go. Photo by April Witt.
THE ONLY WAY TO BE CERTAIN that time is passing inside Hank Dietle’s Tavern is to watch the afternoon sun move across the battered old bar, highlighting holes in the worn linoleum floor, sliding across the old men playing pool—painting them for a moment in shadow and light—then moving on to turn the scarred plywood booths a glowing gold. Otherwise, Hank Dietle’s seems suspended in time.
The black barstools, with stuffing spilling out at split seams, never change, although a few have disappeared over the years, perhaps to the basement of a sentimental drunk. The liquor license on the office wall is numbered 001, supposedly because it was the first license issued in the county after Prohibition.
John Watro, 85, of Chevy Chase, has been a Dietle’s fan since the 1960s. He stops in afternoons for two beers and a couple of games of pool that anyone can join. “You find the full spectrum of individuals here,” he says. Photo by April Witt.
On the front porch outside you can still see the remnant of a hitching post, back from when Rockville Pike was two lanes through farmland and customers might ride over on a horse.
Photo by April Witt.
Posted beer prices don’t seem to change much, either, in part because someone has tacked an old price list over a window to keep the sun’s glare off the pinball machines. Even the stories don’t vary much year to year, like the one about the patron who was sitting in a booth minding his beer when a stuffed fishing trophy fell off the wall and landed on his table. “I don’t remember ordering the tuna,” he quipped.
“This place is Groundhog Day,” says Amanda Plummer, 24, a former student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who tends bar at Dietle’s part time.
Bartender Liz Altman of Rockville reads voraciously—Truman Capote is a favorite—and writes short stories in between serving beer. Photo by April Witt.
Hank Dietle’s Tavern occupies a small cottage-style structure that was built in 1916 as a general store that sold groceries, animal feed, candy and beer. Outside its front door, Rockville Pike came to epitomize decades of suburban sprawl, with snarled traffic and no character.
Inside, the tavern is all character and characters: an egalitarian boys’ club whose regulars have nicknames such as “Bug Man” and “Meatball.” The graffiti etched into the battered booths can be politically incorrect: Fat-bottomed girls make the world go round. Scientists with federal jobs drink alongside workmen with gnarled hands and paint-spattered clothes. They share a fierce loyalty to their favorite bar that keeps them coming back.
“This is home base,” Eric Cantor, 42, a private Pentagon contractor who lives in nearby Garrett Park, says one recent Friday night. “I’ve been coming here since I was 21. My very first legal beer, I had here. I know almost every face I see here.”
Dietle’s draws an eclectic mix of people, young and old, who come to drink beer, talk and unwind. Photo by April Witt.
The tavern opens at 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. on Sundays. In the 1970s, the bar was crowded in the morning with retirees drinking beer. These days, morning drinkers are scarce enough that bartender and artist Liz Altman, 24, has time to sit on a barstool and sketch, write short stories, or read a novel. “This isn’t a normal bar,” says Altman, who favors black nail polish and biker boots. “There are weird characters, but that’s fine. I enjoy the company here.”
Early afternoons, regulars such as Peter Carlson, 55, who works a morning shift as an exterminator, begin to wander in. Carlson, known here as “Bug Man,” orders a pitcher of beer and plays arcade games while talking about his late mother and the liberal congregation at his church, which he’s attended even longer than he’s been coming to Dietle’s. Both are come-as-you are, and he appreciates that.
Left: Part-time bartender Amanda Plummer of Kensington says her job isn’t just to pour beer and clear tables. She listens to people tell their stories. “This is the only place I’ve heard someone make the case that President Obama is a Muslim—and they believed it!” she says. “I hear conspiracy theories inside of conspiracy theories.” Right: “You don’t have to come here long before everybody knows your name, ” exterminator Peter “Bug Man” Carlson says. Photos by April Witt.
By midafternoons, several older regulars have arrived and taken up their favorite place in a booth or at the pool table, like actors in a play returning to their mark on stage.
After work hours, younger people come in. Newcomers marvel that the tavern has just one television screen—30 fewer than the sports bars down the road—and customers aren’t talking on their cellphones or texting. They’re talking to each other.
Chris Jacques, 29, a photographer with Syke Associates in Bethesda, says he and his friends gravitate to Dietle’s because it isn’t anything like the area’s swanky cookie-cutter bars serving overpriced cocktails. “It’s the best dive bar I’ve ever been to,” he says. “It’s dingy. It’s easy. It’s home.”
Marie Casso, 32, of Bethesda knows what to expect. She’s been coming here for years, most recently with her fiance and a group of other University of Maryland graduates. “It’s one of a kind in the area,” says Casso, who does online training for Geico.
Marie Casso (center) of Bethesda explored bars in the District for a few years after graduating from the University of Maryland. Now she and her fiance, Michael Wierzbic (second from right), and friends are Dietle’s regulars. Photo by April Witt.
On a recent Friday night, Dietle’s rocked its classic mix of drywallers and documentary filmmakers. A group of employees from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gathered around a table. A panhandler sat at the bar. And nobody cared who did what, just as long as they didn’t make trouble.
Plummer, the former Wellesley student, sees Dietle’s as an oasis amid the posturing and image-management rampant elsewhere in the Washington area. “Most places, people put on a happy face and are not going to say anything too telling,” she says. “Oh my God, the things people say here. People tell me their life stories. I don’t feel judged here, and other people don’t feel judged the way you do in other parts of Montgomery County.”
Like an old-timer, she’s already collecting stories, such as the one about the man whose motorcycle caught fire in the parking lot. “A lot of customers tried to put it out with beer,” she says. After someone trotted out a fire extinguisher, covering the bike with foam, “this guy just drove off on his motorcycle. That is so Dietle’s.”
When the popular blues band, The Nighthawks, plays Dietle’s, the pool table is jammed against the wall to make space for a makeshift dance floor. Tom Blackburn (far right) laughs as he leads a woman in the West Coast Swing. Blackburn, 62, and his wife, Eileen, were first-timers at the tavern one recent Sunday. “It is definitely a throwback to the ’50s,” he says. Photo by April Witt.
Some fans worry that the nearby Pike & Rose development, which is transforming Rockville Pike and increasing land values, will spell doom for Dietle’s. But Tony Huniak, 55, who owns the tavern but not the land beneath it, jokes that he’ll be dead before his lease runs out.
For now, old-timers and newcomers alike bask in the faint glow of the tavern’s neon sign—Hank Dietle’s Cold Beer—a beacon to the unpretentious and parched.
April Witt (email@example.com) is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.