News & Politics

What We Lost When We Lost Hank Dietle’s

An elegy for the DC area's last great roadhouse

Photograph by Flickr user Gloria.

The last time I was at Hank Dietle’s Tavern was a few days before Christmas. We were out on the porch celebrating how we’d sprung Pete loose from the rehabilitation center for a few hours of holiday cheer. He had been recovering there after a life-threatening operation on a brain abscess, which had come on the heels of a fire that destroyed his apartment, caused by a cigarette he’d left lit after falling asleep. It was just the ticket for a visit to Dietle’s.

On the way, Pete asked if we could make a pit stop. When he came out of the 7-Eleven with a fresh pack of Pall Malls, I was thinking I should suggest to him that it was a good time to quit smoking. Then I watched him fire up the unfiltered tobacco in a cloud of smoke like it was a holy offering and I thought better of it. It was the last bad habit he couldn’t whip, his last visceral pleasure in a numbing regimen of prescription pills. Pushing 70, he was nearly as old as Dietle’s, and it was too late to try to change either.

For Pete, life has been a series of debacles and disasters that would have defeated many with a less determined and terminally cheerful disposition. For more than a century, Dietle’s also proved the ultimate survivor, outlasting world wars and the Depression and the rise of shopping malls and sports bars. Disparaged by developers as an eyesore, reviled by county planners as a stumbling block to progress, ignored by generations of motorists who believe in the finer things, Dietle’s got by on little except its loyal regulars and true grit.

When we got there, the place was nearly deserted, only a barmaid and a couple of glum customers. We got some cold ones and headed outside where it was even colder. For many regulars, the porch has been their destination spot, weather permitting. Here was hallowed ground where you could both toke and tope in peace and at will and skirt the no-smoking ban imposed by what many locals refer to as The People’s Republic of Montgomery County.  A temporarily free man transported from his death ward to a demilitarized smoking zone, Pete was in his element, and he expounded on one of his favorite topics, the beauty of thermodynamics.

After a while, he fell silent, and we sat in our overcoats shivering and partaking of the night and all of its mystery. One of the barflies came out, bummed a cigarette, and moved to the other side of the porch to smoke alone. Across Rockille Pike, the rubble of the razed White Flint Mall shone in the moonlight, the ruins of a once-mighty temple to suburban sprawl and obsolete bricks-and-mortar consumerism. Dietle’s stood in triumphant defiance, the oldest bar in a trend-happy county where the latest hotspot is the ersatz-urban retail ‘hood Pike & Rose a few miles up the road, where the exurb hipsters go to eat and to buy and to get entertained—and get hosed.

I noticed the slogan on Pete’s pack of Pall Malls that said “Wherever Particular People Congregate,” and it hit home. The clientle at Dietle’s has always been wildly diverse to the point of bizarre, a motley crew containing Whitmanesque multitudes of misfits who would probably meet up at no other place, a bracing rejoinder to those that say we live in a hopelessly fractured nation. Our companion, Jeff, another long-time regular, mentioned that he had recently seen one of his local heroes, the singer Wino from the Maryland metal band, The Obsessed, hanging out at the bar. Here long-haired, tattooed head-bangers and NIH scientists and bureaucratic bigwigs rubbed shoulders with carpenters and bug exterminators and lawyers and college kids and conspiracy-theory enthusiasts and whoever else within a certain range of centrifugal force that cab drivers dropped off at the front door.

There was something about Dietle’s that pulled you out of your humdrum workaday grind and into its vortex, like a former bartender who became homeless and lived in a tent out back for a while. “It’s The Twilight Zone,” longtime Dietle’s owner Tony simply called it with a shrug. For decades, Tony, a regular who fell so much in love with the tavern that he bought it, had put his heart and soul into Dietle’s. It was a rare night when he wasn’t around, helping to tend bar and talking to friends, and you’d often see him after closing lugging out the empties.

It was Jeff who called to tell me that Dietle’s had burned in a fire in the early morning hours of Ash Wednesday. The cause, according to authorities, was discarded smoking materials on the front porch. The news came as a complete surprise to us both. We figured that Dietle’s, like our friend Pete, would be around forever. The fact that its demise was triggered not by the land grab of some greedy developer, but likely from a smoldering cigarette from last call, came as double gut-punch.

Jeff also had some better news to share, that Pete was on the mend and had found his own place, an apartment in Silver Spring. Hell, if Pete could get through another bad scrape and now be enjoying the tenth or twelfth of his allotted Nine Lives, maybe Dietle’s too could rise from the ashes. We were probably due to take Pete out again when the weather broke. But then came a sinking feeling: Where we will go now that Dietle’s is gone?

Eddie Dean

Contributing editor Eddie Dean can be reached at [email protected].