Dive In

Three cheers to the watering holes that still serve macro-brewed beers and meatloaf sandwiches.

This town has no shortage of posh restaurants offering slow-brewed IPAs, artisanal cheese platters, craft cocktails and locally sourced charcuterie. But there’s something to be said for their antithesis—those folksy, neighborhood haunts that traffic in Budweiser and gravy fries.

In my experience, dive bars offer more than a respite from gourmet prices. They also facilitate casual chatter between strangers and provide common ground for people of different age groups and socioeconomic classes. As a connoisseur of the lowbrow, I relish their inclusivity.

At a dive, everyone might not know your name, but a sense of welcoming pervades. While their numbers have dwindled in recent years, there are still a handful of local dive bars where the mood is always hospitable and the chicken tenders are not organic. Try these on for size:

Cowboy Café

4792 Lee Highway, Arlington; 703-243-8010, www.thecowboycafe.com

“We had a customer who kept asking the bartending staff for a frozen margarita, and we finally had to remind him that we don’t make frozen margaritas. We don’t even have a blender,” says general manager Erika Mendez, who began frequenting Cowboy Café in 2000 (her fiancé used to tend bar) and started working here in 2010.  “But if you want beer and whiskey, we can help you out.”

We’re sitting at a table located five feet from a cigar-store Indian and a chalkboard sign that reads, “Our beer is colder than your ex.” The proprietors have clearly embraced the saloon motif, covering the walls in Western-themed paraphernalia.

Located on the same block as Arlington’s oldest tattoo parlor, this watering hole is a place where customers hang their hats—real or proverbial—and enjoy a beer and a house-smoked beef brisket sandwich.

The bar assumed its current moniker when former owner George Campbell bought what was then called the Clam House in 1991 and completely rebranded the old biker bar. (Campbell also opened a second Cowboy Café in the Penrose section of Columbia Pike in 1998, but that location closed seven years later to make room for new development.)

Today, Cowboy is owned and managed by You Have Reached, a company that also operates several franchises of the popular Lost Dog chain. (The owners—Mike and Jim Barnes, Wes Clough and Mike Danner—are bona fide Arlingtonians and graduated from nearby Yorktown High School.)  

Many regulars here also grew up in Arlington, and they’re happy to regale visitors with stories of past shenanigans. Take the day after Snowmageddon in 2010, when a girl—whom bar regulars say had not been seen before and has not been heard from since—came in dressed in a penguin suit, had a few cocktails, and proceeded to sled down the snowbanks in front of the bar until she slammed head first into a chunk of ice.

Cowboy Café has a distinct sense of its own history. A mural depicting all of the past owners—along with noteworthy regular Jerome Williams, aka “The Mayor”—covers one of the back walls. The Mayor has his own seat at the far end of the bar, labeled with a gold plaque, and the staff won’t hesitate to kindly ask any customer occupying that spot to vacate it when Williams arrives. Williams grew up in nearby Highview Park, which he still refers to as

“Hall’s Hill,” and works at Linda’s Café down the street.

On Mondays, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the bar screens random movies and provides free popcorn for lunchtime patrons. Every Tuesday night at 10 p.m., the Sons of Arlington Cowboy Originals (SACO) TV club gathers to watch the FX biker show Sons of Anarchy. These quirky touches make Cowboy Café one of Arlington’s most unique dives.

Just don’t take the name too literally, says Mendez. “We are definitely a Redskins bar.”

The Pub

6827 Redmond Drive, McLean; 703-442-9864

Enter The Pub and it will take a minute for your eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior. The smell of cigarettes serves as a reminder of what life was like when smoking in bars was commonplace. (The Pub operates in conjunction with the restaurant next door, but has its own entrance and ventilation system, which qualify it to permit smoking under Virginia law.) Budweiser and Miller Light are the only beers on tap. The bathroom walls are covered in graffiti.

It’s an old-school dive where congeniality and toughness meet.

Claudia Verna started coming to The Pub in the late ’70s, back when it was called the Goalpost. “It was a biker bar,” she says. Current owner David Lo took ownership in the early ’80s and oversaw its transition from rough-and-tumble joint into relaxed place that serves an equal mix of blue-collar and business-class workers. “On any given night you might find a CEO sitting next to a plumber,” Verna’s husband, Jack,  chimes in, noting that out-of-town visitors staying at the nearby Homewood Suites tend to pop in, adding a nice layer of diversity to the crowd.

Spend any time at The Pub, and you can’t help but be charmed by the unpretentious atmosphere. Many regulars know each other by first name and eagerly engage in conversations that range from lighthearted small talk to serious deliberations over politics and policy. During happy hour, Lo, who also owns the Peking Imperial Restaurant next door, sets out a platter of Chinese food to which customers can help themselves.

Over the years, Verna has become a steadfast presence. During our conversation, various passersby stop at our table and greet her with the phrase, “Hi Momma.”

“Every Christmas, David hangs up little stockings with the names of each of the regulars,” she tells me. “When someone gets their stocking for the first time, there’s always a look on their face, like, ‘I’m in.’ ”

JV’s Restaurant

6666 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-241-9504, www.jvsrestaurant.com

“Ageless charm without yuppie bastardization” is the slogan of JV’s Restaurant, though owner Lorraine Campbell insists the phrase is a rebuke of corporate chains that squeeze out independent establishments, rather than a rejection of a certain class of patrons.

“It’s tough for family-owned businesses to survive in this climate,” says Campbell, who hovers around the space like a mother hen, interacting with customers, tending bar and handling shipments of booze and food as they come in.

Campbell has spent a significant portion of her life at JV’s, which is named after the Jefferson Village shopping center in which it’s located. Her father, George Dross, and uncle, Louis Dross, opened the bar in 1947, she says, when Route 50 was a two-lane dirt road. It soon became a second home to many local musicians and developed a reputation as one of the area’s preeminent destinations for live music. Some shows were planned, while others sprang from organic jam sessions.

A few of the musicians took such a liking to the place that they ended up spending a bit too much time on-site. “One guitar player named Arlie Walton used to hang out here all the time, and one night his wife came in the bar, started throwing his clothes on the floor and yelled ‘If you like it in here so much, why don’t you live here?’ ” Campbell recalls with a smile.

She adds that iconic ’50s pop singer Eddie Fisher used to regularly take breakfast at JV’s when he was member of the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Myer.

Campbell began running JV’s in 1985 after her father passed away, and under her stewardship the bar continues to maintain a reputation as a live-music hub, especially for country and blues. Musical acts grace the small stage at the front of the bar seven nights a week, entertaining a mix of regulars—many of whom come from as far as Maryland and Prince William County—and others just looking to hear some tunes.

Some patrons come simply for the kitchen’s home-style cooking, opting for dishes such as the liver-and-onions dinner, JV’s Famous Meatloaf and catfish. Beers on tap include Lorraine’s Brew, a pale ale named after the owner and brewed by Old Dominion; and Commando Beer, an amber ale whose producers donate a portion of the proceeds to members of the armed services.


Art’s Tavern

2190 Pimmit Drive, Falls Church; 703-356-3822, www.artstavern.com

When I say “dive bar” to Sharon Sachs, she furrows her brow, forming an unmistakable look of protest. “Do we have to call this place a dive bar? How about ‘neighborhood pub’?” Sachs is the new owner of Art’s Tavern, and her reticence to lump the establishment in with classic dives stems from the somewhat derogatory perceptions that hounded the tavern during the last few years of its previous iteration.

Sachs bought the former Mark’s Tavern in April 2013, and though she held much affection for the bar and its standing within the community, she also realized change was long overdue. She conducted a full cosmetic makeover, revamped the food and drink offerings, and renamed the place Art’s Tavern in honor of her late father.

Today, the 1,400-square-foot bar offers the best of both worlds: Its low-key atmosphere and friendly servers suit the regulars who have called this place home for years, while the fresh food and well-rounded beer selection are attracting new patrons from surrounding neighborhoods in Falls Church and McLean.

“When Sharon took over, she made sure all the regulars felt comfortable, and we were taken care of,” says Bobby Alexander, a general contractor who lives in lower Alexandria but has been coming here for more than 10 years.

“It still has a welcoming atmosphere but now the food is better.”

One of the motivating factors behind Sachs’ purchase was the fear that a different owner would convert the space into something other than a bar. Her sister, Deborah Kelley, had worked at Mark’s for more than 20 years, and neither sibling wanted to see the place go. “There aren’t enough pubs anymore. There aren’t enough places not owned by corporations,” says Sachs, her voice striking a tone that’s part wistful, part contrary.

Sachs can take solace in the fact that Art’s in no way smacks of a bland corporate chain. Though the dirt and grime from the days of Mark’s Tavern are gone, the congenial atmosphere remains, and visitors can now enjoy a bowl of her renowned chili or a plate of tasty fish tacos.

But it’s the camaraderie that still defines Art’s. Alexander says Sachs and other members of the staff ensure patrons get home safely, even going so far as to give rides to loyal customers. “We take care of each other,” he says.

L.A. Bar & Grill

2530 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-685-1560, www.facebook.com/pages/LA-Bar-and-Grill/150545507264

Situated across the street from the new Penrose Square development on Columbia Pike, L.A. Bar & Grill strikes a slight tone of defiance with the slogan, “Keeping yuppies out of South Arlington.”

When I mention the tagline to head bartender Kyle DuLaney, he chuckles and tells me a former general manager named Sean Deloatche wrote it as a way of poking fun at the area’s growing number of cosmopolitan bars.

“But to tell you the truth, the new developments have been great,” DuLaney says, “because a lot of people who have moved to the area are looking for a place like this.” During the construction of Penrose Square, he adds, many of the workers would come to L.A. (which stands for Lower Arlington) after work. The day the project wrapped up, several crew members got particularly rowdy and went shot-for-shot with a bar regular. “We had to cut all of them off, but it was all in good fun,” he says.

DuLaney has an infectious rapport with the customers who congregate along the long wooden bar, many of whom represent the 35-and-under crowd who live in Arlington Village and other nearby condo developments. On any given night at L.A., you might overhear two people comparing the political merits of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Some of the more convivial regulars have been known to buy free shots for all willing parties. And when repeat customers move out of the area, the L.A. staff sends them off in style. “We gave one couple a plaque with a tap handle and an inscription of gratitude,” DuLaney says.   

While L.A. Bar & Grill’s slogan has fun at the expense of its upscale competitors, some vestiges of yuppie bar culture—trivia night (Monday), karaoke (Saturdays), a good selection of microbrews—have found a home here.

“We’re just a neighborhood bar, and we’re not trying to be anything else,” says DuLaney.

The Forest Inn

5849 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-536-7660

Located in idyllic Westover Village, a neighborhood retail strip that would not look out of place in 1950s America, The Forest Inn serves a regular crowd of longtime Arlingtonians.

“A lot of the people who come here often are the children of people who moved to Arlington after World War II,” says Westover native Dave Batten.He remembers when the restaurant was named The Black Forest Inn and was located in what is now the Westover Post Office.

The interior at the current location (just down the block from its original spot) is arranged like an L-shaped Tetris piece and has the look and feel of a diner, although activity tends to concentrate at the bar. This is where I find bartender Sandy Will and Manager Ken Choudhary working, side-by-side, one early autumn afternoon.  

“Everyone here’s a regular,” says Will, who has worked at The Forest Inn since 1993 and has the type of homey smile that can warm a stale cup of coffee. Her easygoing demeanor complements the frenetic Choudhary, who skirts between the kitchen (where he’s cooking up meatloaf) and the bar area, all the while refilling drinks and keeping several conversations running.

Choudhary, whose business partner, Narinder Sharma, purchased The Black Forest Inn in 1982, says the inn’s defining feature is its resistance to change. The menu, which features standard bar fare such as pizza, wings and sandwiches, hasn’t evolved much over the past decade and neither have the prices. The beer list is not expansive—Budweiser is the only brew on draft—but it’s that sense of consistency that keeps loyal patrons coming back.

Still, Choudhary acknowledges that some changes are for the better. He recently extended the bar’s operating hours on Fridays and Saturdays to 2 a.m. to accommodate a growing number of younger customers. Today, it’s not uncommon to see several condo-dwelling Gen Yers drinking alongside older residents who can remember when dive bars like this were the norm, not the exception.

Kevin Craft is a writer in Arlington and enjoys getting cozy in a dimly lit dive bar.

Categories: Food & Drink