After the fire that destroyed Hank Dietle’s Tavern in February 2018, owner Tony Huniak said he hoped to reopen the well-loved Rockville roadhouse quickly, perhaps as early as that summer, as he told Bethesda Magazine. That didn’t happen, despite a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $19,000 to rebuild. Now comes word that Huniak is apparently out of the picture, and three new partners are moving the project toward completion.
In a recent Facebook post, Thomas Bowes, who wrote that he handled booking at Dietle’s for three years prior to the fire, announced that he has signed a 10-year lease on the space and is restarting the renovation effort. “It could take us several months to get the space back to normal, and we will try to make it better in many ways,” he wrote. Through a representative, Bowes and his partners declined to comment beyond what he wrote online. In late July, a new entity, Hank Dietle’s, LLC, was registered, with Bowes listed as the resident agent. Washingtonian was unable to reach Huniak for comment.
Music is likely to be a big focus. Longtime 9:30 Club booker Lisa White—who more recently has steered bookings at the Wharf’s Pearl Street Warehouse—will be involved. At the moment, all she is able to say, she wrote in an email, is that “something good is going to happen, as soon as we can make it happen.”
In the Facebook post, Bowes doesn’t give an exact timeline, but said he and his business partners–his wife, Sarah Bonner, and Alan Kresse, who photographed bands at Dietle’s–plan to emphasize its musical heritage: “Our focus will be to have a place where local and traveling roots band[s] can perform to really enthusiastic fans, and where younger audiences can get involved with all the great music of past generations.”
Meanwhile, the tavern remains boarded up, and the red and white sign that stood out front of the building, which was lost in the blaze, has been replaced by a temporary banner: “Save Hank Dietle’s Tavern.” The crowdfunding campaign has since been disabled.
Until the fire, Dietle’s was a local institution. The one-story house was built in 1916, originally serving as a general store and filling station. It later became a bar, and Hank Dietle took over in ’50s. Located on Rockville Pike, Dietle’s offered a simple mix of booze, music, and pool that made it a legendary hangout. According to its website, its liquor license was numbered 001, the first post-Prohibition license issued in Montgomery County.
By the time Huniak began frequenting the bar in the ’70s, it had earned a rough reputation, popular among bikers. According the Washington Post, in 1972, a man was killed outside the bar after a fight broke out about a pool game. Huniak bought on New Year’s Eve 1996 and had run it ever since.
In a 2016 Washingtonian tribute to Hank Dietle’s, Eddie Dean captured the place’s unusual charm:
“Sometimes I come here by myself, and it’s a simple but elusive joy to sit at a bar and drink a beer alone and not have to worry about not wanting to talk to anybody, including the bartender. Other times, it’s a place to meet friends I haven’t seen for a while. One complained that the bar wasn’t redneck enough. But that’s exactly the point. Dietle’s defies conventional wisdom by attracting a wildly varying clientèle—scientists from nearby NIH and bureaucrats and blue-collar holdouts and carloads of slumming college kids and oddball iron-ass regulars, such as the ex-Nuclear Regulatory Commission employee and hothead who was banned not once but twice from the Bethesda Tastee Diner for verbal belligerence but is still welcome here.
“It’s the Twilight Zone,” shrugs Tony Huniak, the mild-mannered, even-keeled proprietor of Dietle’s for nearly 20 years. “Some people call it a dive bar or a roadhouse, but it doesn’t really matter what you call it. It is what it is. It’s just a little hole-in-the-wall bar on the Pike that sticks out like a sore thumb.”