Washington’s oldest Irish bar. On Capitol Hill. Congressional backyard, just behind the Library of Congress and around the corner from the Supreme Court. Two old brick rowhouses, joined together, painted black. Bay windows, like glass mushrooms capped with green-gold oxidated copper, pushing out onto the sidewalk, akimbo to the front door. Squeezed in among narrow buildings; a dry-cleaner, liquor store, bookshop and other bars. Raised cornflower-golden letters in a faux old English script proclaim Hawk‘n’Dove under the eaves.
It was 1998.
An August night. Mid-week. Just back in DC after several years in Central Asia, I strolled from my apartment near Eastern Market, ten blocks or so, to meet for a drink and return some borrowed books. The windows glowed and misted as I approached. Pulling open the door a gush of soupy body heat, pheromones, warm yeast from spilled beer, testosterone oozing from sweaty armpits of young men excited by the potential of the evening. Loud. Buzzing with conversation. Laughter. Shouting. Cigarettes aloft, glowing red tips in the dark space, ashes dropping on the worn wooden floor. The tang of nicotine, cutting through the hazy musk.
Stuffed with Congressional staffers, the occasional Senator or Supreme Court Justice, reporters, various intelligent employees and other sundry bureaucrats in tan chinos, light blue oxford button down shirts, rolled up to their elbows signaling the hard work they had accomplished that day, deserving of a drink and a bite at the Hawk’n’Dove. Tip O’Neill and his staff frequented the bar alongside construction workers, teachers, returned Peace Corps volunteers and graduate students. DC’s mayor, Marion Barry, was a regular. Black, white, old, young. Wealthy, working-class. Even Russian spies. Everyone could be found there.
Rock was playing, barely audible above the chatter. To be young in Washington DC in the 90s. At the core of the world’s superpower. When we still were one. The thrill of it. Swirling around the room. It was the kind of place that embraced you with a big moist sloppy kiss. Come in. Join the fun. You have arrived.
I glanced around. Patrick was not there. No empty tables so I headed for the bar. A long, high hunk of dark wood with a sheen of matted grease and dust, the feeling of an ancestor, a tree-trunk felled and resting in place. I boosted myself up onto a spindly sticky stool. Two or three small inverted yellow glass domes hang low over the bar, casting round pools of light. I breathed deep and sighed. Content to be back in DC, happily surveying the dim, pulsing room while waiting for the bartender.
Hunting ducks and geese decoys are scattered around. An elf holding a harp and a red devil with a trumpet. Several old rifles and two bayonets. On the walls, looming in the murk, an antelope head, a bear skin and his or her head, a boar’s head, a bobcat, deer, fox, gazelle head, pheasant, flying pheasant, raccoon, a goose, moose antlers and a sea turtle shell. Dusty, yellow, cracking political posters, buttons, pins.
There were no smart phones in 1998. A person had time and head space to observe their surroundings. To take it all in, be present in one’s physical location. Think. Take a beat. Absorb. How relaxing. What a simple pleasure.
“What’llyou’av?” a middle-age white man with a sandy blond beard, hairy forearms leaning on the bar, yelling in my direction.
“Guinness.” Or was it an IPA? Probably not, the microbrew culture was only just starting. Perhaps it was a Sam Adams. It was certainly beer. A pint of something from the tap. The publican pushed a foaming beer down the bar. My warm fingers circled the cold glass. My shoulders dropped. A deep inhale of the pungent brew and a long draught. A cold beer on a warm summer night. Bliss.
I must have finished about half the pint when I saw, from my perch at the bar, Patrick came in the door. I waved. He came over.
“You are sitting at the bar!”
“I am. No tables free. Are you ok with the bar?”
“Yes, yes. Of course.”
“Well really, standing at the bar since there are no bar stools empty either.”
“Yes, yes,” he said smiling down at me from his six-foot four height.
“What are you having?”
“Shandy it is,” I smiled and made eye contact with the publican who saw me and came over.
“Yes, please,” I yelled. “A shandy for my friend.”
“You got it.”
“I can’t believe you are sitting at the bar,” Patrick said.
“I know,” I said, “no tables.” I shrugged. What was he on about? “What’s wrong with the bar?”
“No, no,” He said, “It’s fine. It’s lovely. Most women wouldn’t have the confidence to sit alone at a bar. I’m impressed.”
“That’s a very low bar, if this impresses you,” I replied, lifting my glassed and draining my beer.
“Said the Bishop to the actress,” he replied.
“What?” I laughed. “What did you say?”
“You don’t know about the Bishop and the actress?”
“No. Do tell.”
Patrick laughed and we were off. Bantering. Discussing the books he had lent me. Politics. Summer in Washington. Back and forth. Non-stop. He launched into a hilarious story. Then another. I laughed and laughed and laughed. God love the Irish, I thought. Well, he was Anglo-Irish but that’s a sad, fraught history, which everyone in Ireland will recount at any opportunity so no need to do so here. And really, English, Irish, it was all the same to me.
It wasn’t a date. We were meeting to return books. But it became our first date. Years into our marriage he would recount how he saw me sitting at the bar with a beer and fell in love. He hadn’t met a woman down-to-earth and confident enough to do that, he claimed. It mattered to him. He savored this image of me sitting on the bar stool, chatting away with whomever was next to me, swinging my legs, above the dirty, wet floor.
Who knew sitting a bar was such a feat.
It never occurred to me this took poise or lack of pretension. There was a bar and there was cold beer on a hot summer night. There was me, happy to be back in my favorite city, perched on a barstool in a great little dive bar meeting an interesting man who loved books.
Yet, decades later In Drinking with Men (2013), Rosie Schaap, former New York Times Magazine Drinks columnist, confirms, “a solitary woman at a bar is a curiosity, a wonderment to be puzzled over.” Still. She describes how her female friends find it amazing she goes to bars solo. As a woman. Egads! I thought, “these women need to get out more.” Patrick’s similar reaction made me wonder, then, what kind of women he knew. I was not yet familiar with DC’s version of the Stepford wives; the women-who-lunch crowd.
Perhaps because I was a bartender in graduate school, it never occurred to me that a woman alone on a bar stool was remarkable. Moving to Central Asia alone at twenty-five. Ok. That took some fortitude. But drinking at a neighborhood bar in DC? This is like putting on clothes before you left the house. Or taking the metro to work. Drinking coffee in the morning. Going for a run across the city as the sun set. Brushing your teeth at night. Things that did not require any thought at all on my part. Like breathing.
It’s all gone now, though. The Hawk’n’Dove is no more. The name still exists over a bar claiming, falsely in my opinion, to be founded in 1967, but the new Hawk’n’Dove has no resemblance to the original.
Call it a dive bar. A neighborhood local. A murky political watering hole. The original Hawk’n’Dove was iconic DC. It never should have been destroyed the way it was in 2011 when the landlord (the founder’s former business partner) raised owner Stuart Long’s lease, after forty-four years in business, to $15,000 a month, forcing him to close. Long, a local lawyer, had left the Library of Congress in 1967, to open the Hawk’n’Dove. He died a few years later, in 2017, after he was ruthlessly forced out. Heartbreak, one can imagine, may have been a contributing factor to his untimely death.
New owners gutted the place. Renovating it to resemble an airport lounge with massive, gaudy chandeliers suggesting a slave owner’s dining room in the Antebellum South. There is nothing murky about the new Hawk’n’Dove. All the mystery stripped away. It’s now described as a “saloon with farm-fresh, upscale pub grub… turned out in spacious, industrial-chic surrounds.”
Exactly something Obama-era millennials go for.
These twenty-somethings had complained to the media about the old Hawk’n’Dove – it smelled like smoke and piss, dirty and out of date. Well, yes. A patina earned over decades. A signature fragrance. A distinct place. You knew you were partaking in DC culture at the old Hawk’n’Dove. West Wing even filmed an episode there. Magical DC. Where anything could happen. Where people could be human in all our grossness and glory.
The new décor aims at the millennials who rushed into DC with Obama’s victory like crows grasping at shiny objects. Polished. New. Cool. Impersonal. Generic. Basic. Smelling of air freshener. Where people hunch over phones, unable to make eye contact or conversation unless by text. Trust millennials to ruin a good bar. Who raised these kids? Dingy, stained, tattered, history, the human condition was out – not just in the old Hawk’n’Dove but all over DC.
Cringe, the new Gen Z would say to the millennials. Cringe.
That is exactly what the new Hawk’n’Dove makes me do. Cringe.
Cringe and mourn the past erased too soon. Which is sorrow, really, for my own mortality as the decades tick by and my favorite places and people disappear. The world changes and not even a cherished time-capsule like the Hawk’n’Dove can remain protected forever.
There used to be an enchantment to DC life. The Hawk’n’Dove was part of that allure. A place in the wonder years of my early adulthood when one summer night I walked to a pub to return some books and a delightful Irish man fell in love with me because I had a beer at the bar.
The sensation of a city filled with communities where generations of people owned their homes, knew one another, their children and grandparents – drank and talked and shouted and laughed together at their local dive bar. When cab drivers knew exactly what was going on at the White House because they had a relative who worked there. Where people like Stuart Long built business into people’s lives, like public living rooms, where nearly anyone could show up and feel at home.
I miss that city. The way DC used to be.
When we had neighborhood joints that never changed, were not renovated, didn’t get deep cleaned. That were familiar and friendly. Dependable.
Like the old Hawk’n’Dove and how it once was on a warm August night in 1998.