One a.m., Dewey Beach. The bar crowd surges onto the streets, hundreds of them, a parade of lacrosse jerseys and jean skirts, all in varying shades of drunk. Taxis and pedi-cabs cruise the highway that divides the town, drivers calling out to gaggles of girls teetering on epic wedges. “Ride home, ladies? No? OK.”
Cops line the median strips and man the corners, waiting for something to happen. Nothing does.
Not tonight, anyway. Dewey packs 20-plus restaurant-bars into its one-mile stretch of Ocean Highway. During the winter, the town’s population hovers around 340 full-time locals; in the summer, it can surge beyond 20,000. Mix in alcohol and sunburn, and you have a volatile cocktail of anything-can-happen.
I have more than one Dewey summer tucked under my belt. I’ve seen the place at High Bacchanalia, when booze and sunstroke bring out the id in otherwise-temperate federal employees, communications majors, and defense contractors. I’ve seen a woman crack a bottle of Bud Light over her husband’s head (both lawyers, both District residents). I’ve smelled enough cheap cologne, and heard enough bad pick-up lines, to make The Situation blush. And soon, I’ll watch thousands of people run after a costumed bull. I’ll run with them. That’s Dewey.
Or half of Dewey, anyway. The other half is toddlers in bucket hats on the beach. It’s a crowd of families 700 strong watching Frozen on the sand. It’s the sudden whiff of credibility around the often repeated but seldom-believed mantra: “Dewey Beach is a family town.”
Dewey isn’t quite the same as it was. A brand-new Hyatt Place, part of a larger redevelopment effort, is attracting a more sophisticated clientele—people who, years ago, might have brought kegs to the beach, but now bring their kids. The same development and financial pressures that are changing the real estate market and demographics in the District, it turns out, are also changing the town where the D.C. area’s 20-somethings flock each summer to cut loose. (There was even a dispute over building heights.)
Dewey might just be ready to ditch its misfit reputation. But what happens when a party town grows up?
Dewey sits on an isthmus on Delaware’s southern coast, with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Rehoboth Bay to the west. Stumble too far in either direction, and you’re getting wet.
For D.C. vacationers without wheels of their own, BestBus is the most convenient way to get to the beach. Eighty dollars buys you a round-trip ticket on a clean bus with friendly service. Richard Green, BestBus’ owner, says Dewey-bound passengers constitute about 40 percent of his business. This year, his coaches have hauled around 750 people to Dewey, up 15 percent from 2013. More people are learning about Dewey, he says, even if they’re just using the town as a jumping-off stop for points south.
The town is sandwiched by respectability and restraint. Immediately to the north, Rehoboth Beach keeps families (gay and straight) and young professionals (gay and straight) entertained with good-enough restaurants, knick-knack shops, and many tons of saltwater taffy. Further north, well-groomed Lewes ensures that the nouveaux Kennedys have some sand for their Labradoodles to play on.
To the south, Bethany Beach eschews the chaos of Rehoboth’s boardwalk for something quieter—this is where your grandmother has her beach house. Fenwick Island, south of Bethany, is sedate to the point of somnambulism. (And then there’s Ocean City, Md., which during the summer is the state’s second-biggest city after Baltimore.)
This, perhaps, is why Dewey exists: Sometimes, you just need to tie one on. Before the town’s incorporation in 1981, it had a sort of Wild West reputation. Biker gangs would party beyond the dunes, forcing the Delaware State Police to disperse the crowds. In the decades since, it has worn its shaggy-dog reputation as a badge of honor. If you want to eat caramel popcorn and tuck in by 10:30 p.m., Rehoboth’s your town; if you want to drink Bud Light for a buck and hear an acoustic cover of Lady GaGa’s “Bad Romance,” well…
“Let me tell you about Dewey Beach,” says Alex Pires, a man who would know—he’s been in Dewey for decades, running the tent posts of the town’s nightlife: the Rusty Rudder, its biggest and most famous bar; the Bottle and Cork, arguably the best rock venue in the state; and Northbeach, an open-air bar with a rowdy reputation. Pires wears his nimbus of gray curls under a Red Sox hat. He drives a black Porsche with “P” on the license plate. You’ll know him when you see him.
“It’s an extremely wealthy town,” Pires says. “You have a billion dollars’ worth of property here, and no taxes. None at all. A whole mess of very wealthy people, and they pay no taxes. It’s a dream place to live.”
When property owners talk about “preserving Dewey’s spirit,” at town council meetings, this is a significant part of what they mean. The town pays for its police and lifeguard force with fines, fees, a minor beach replenishment tax, and for rental property owners, a small accommodation tax. But there’s no property tax. Not for the McMansions fronting the Atlantic, nor for the beach bungalows on the town’s north end.
The question of who pays what, and how much should they pay, has percolated across several boards of commissioners. Town council has made several attempts to impose a gross receipts tax on liquor sales, arguing that businesses should pay to maintain the police presence their bar crowds necessitate.
The businesses would prefer to pay on their own terms. Several, most notably The Starboard, have raised funds for the Dewey Beach Police force, helping the department fund everything from flashing lights for patrol cars to a K-9 unit. These donations have always made commissioners squirm—bars donating to the public body designated to enforce ordinances and laws governing alcohol consumption, and all—but they’ve only recently stopped accepting them. Instead of donating to the police fund directly, the town told bars, businesses should direct their generosity to the town’s general operating fund.
That hasn’t been met entirely with the laid-back attitude you might expect from people who own and operate bars in a beach town.
“I’m done,” says Steve “Monty” Montgomery, owner of The Starboard and chief fundraiser for Dewey’s police. “I’m sick of messing with this stuff.”
On a Friday night, nearing closing time, Montgomery stands near the bar’s entrance, shooting the shit with bouncers and shaking hands with passers-by. The Starboard compels revelers to swear allegiance in a way that other Dewey bars don’t, and a big part of that is Montgomery, a gravel-voiced, plain-spoken businessman from Adams Morgan.
“We love doing business in Dewey Beach,” he says. It’s not hard to see why: The Starboard is packed with people rocking out to ’80s hits, in the hands of cover band LauraLea & Tripp Fabulous. The Starboard’s several bars are doing business at Mach 5, jerking the draught handles and pouring cocktails with two bottles per fist.
Does Dewey love doing business with the Starboard? It’s hard to say. Earlier this year, a partnership of 12 Dewey bars, including The Starboard and the Rusty Rudder, made an offer last February to pay the town $50,000 annually in exchange for a promise not to propose any new taxes.
Montgomery was rebuffed—ostensibly, because the town was in litigation with Pires, whose businesses were among the partnership. (Pires argues that the town’s business license fee is an unlawful tax; his suit was defeated in the Court of Chancery, but is now awaiting argument in Delaware’s Supreme Court.) Montgomery grows visibly irritated talking about it, but when asked about Dewey’s future, his demeanor turns sunnier.
“I’ve been in Dewey for about 35 years of my 45 years,” he says. “I think Dewey today is exactly what people wanted 20 years ago. We have more family events, more year-round restaurants.” He says his food sales have picked up significantly, and while alcohol still pays the bills, the ledger is a little closer to even—a good indicator that Dewey’s social scene is diversifying.
Still he says, it’s the nightlife that draws crowds.
“I love Dewey for what it is,” he says. “Let’s be more appreciative of what Dewey is.”
What is Dewey? Ask the 30-year resident at the town’s north end, and he’ll tell you it’s a family town with a drinking problem. Ask the Hill intern in a Nats ballcap—the town’s bread and butter—and she’ll tell you Dewey’s a drinking town with a family problem.
The reality falls somewhere in between. On weekends, the revelers rule, no question. But during the week, businesses and locals say they’re seeing more and more relative grown-ups, tots in tow, looking for some quiet.
The redevelopment of Ruddertowne, Dewey’s spiritual center of gravity, surely deserves some credit. Across Dickinson Avenue from the Rusty Rudder stands a gleaming new Hyatt Place, exactly 45.67 feet tall. Taking in its clean lines and soft lighting, you get the sense that Dewey has suddenly upped its game.
Which is funny, given how long and hard the town resisted it. When Dewey Beach Enterprises, owner of the Ruddertowne property, submitted plans to redevelop the parcel in partnership with Harvey, Hanna & Associates, a Wilmington-based developer, the town balked. The 68-foot complex would destroy Dewey’s character, they said, turning it into a concrete canyon like Ocean City.
In 2008, a referendum to preserve the town’s 35-foot height limit passed with 86 percent of the vote. Shortly after, the town’s board of adjustment denied DBE a building permit for the residential/commercial complex. DBE filed suit, kicking off years of litigation in multiple courts.
Weary of fighting and sapped by legal fees, the town and DBE reached a compromise in early 2011. The new Ruddertowne would give the town several amenities, including a bayside beach with boardwalk—and it would rise not one inch over 45.67 feet.
The Hyatt Place, which opened last fall, concludes the project’s first phase. So far, everyone seems happy with it—even those who fought it in court.
“The Hyatt is not the monster people thought it would be,” says Town Manager Marc Appelbaum, who sat as commissioner during the battle for Ruddertowne (to be clear, he tells me, he believes the terms of the compromise should have been put to referendum).
“Since the lawsuit’s abandoned, they’ve become more of a cooperative business,” says Mayor Diane Hanson, who was personally named in several of the lawsuits. “More so than some that have been around a long time.”
Regan Derrickson, owner of Hawaiian restaurant Nalu, says business is up 50 percent thanks to the Hyatt.
“It’s going to give Dewey a longer season,” he says.
Ryan Kennedy, director of marketing for Harvey, Hanna, gushes over the hotel. “Everything’s clicking,” he says, and the property’s 103 rooms are booked clear through August—impressive, when the room rate hovers north of $500 during the summer.
Behind the Hyatt, you get the ghost of Ruddertowne past: three restaurants and bars, all due for substantial revision during phase two. Inside the Lighthouse, you get a sense of what’s about to be erased: A U-shaped bar, some TVs, and a bayside deck.
It’s busy, but nothing like the wall-to-wall crush I’ll find in other bars. The mood is more subdued, as if the place knows it’s not long for this earth; this brand of charming shabbiness doesn’t gel with the Hyatt aesthetic.
It’s too bad. The Lighthouse is a real local’s place, one that was once open year-round for football fans and off-shift bartenders. It feels humble and broken-in, and staffed by bartenders who were too authentic to add that pandering extra inch to their smile.
When I drop in, barstools are anyone’s for the taking. Outside, the bayside deck is empty. Kennedy later tells me I must be here on an off night. “They’re packed every single weekend,” he says. “It’s actually going very well.”
Maybe it is an off night. But as I drink my Dogfish, I couldn’t help but feel myself coming down from the Hyatt buzz. I’ve done some time at this bar, and I like it the way it is.
But damn the watering holes for locals, full steam ahead. Dewey’s moving on.
Wander the main strip in Dewey and you can find a bar for every mood—so long as that mood is “party.” Party at the Rudder, where cover bands rock the outdoor deck and orange crushes fly off the bar as if the world were running out of Triple Sec.
Party at the Starboard, where everyone’s a local for the duration of their tab, and everyone is a personal friend of Monty’s.
Party at Ivy, an honest-to-God nightclub where Philly DJs drop the bass. Party at Woody’s if you’re not feeling the crowd. Party at Que Pasa for the sunset on the bay.
And then there’s Northbeach. Party here if it’s Tuesday night, because that means you can get wasted for less than $10.
A bayside bar roughly halfway between the Rudder and the Starboard, Northbeach was always kind of a dive, but charmingly so. The outside deck is covered with sand, and on Tuesdays, Bud Lights, rum-and-cokes, and Dewey Devils (slushes of booze and sugar so intense, they nearly send me into v-fib) go for a buck.
At a town council meeting in June, police Chief Sam Mackert said dollar night at Northbeach had become harder to manage than weekends, typically Dewey’s busiest time. He asked commissioners to empower the cops to regulate and manage promotions that are deemed to be a threat to public safety.
Pires, who owns Northbeach, later blows this off. “We have not had a problem at Northbeach in probably seven or eight years,” he says. “I can’t remember the last time. The incidents they talk about, they don’t occur at Northbeach. That doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
Hanson, the mayor, says the situation has stabilized, but only thanks to overwhelming police involvement. “How can we maintain that police presence?” she asks. “When you have people drinking dollar drinks all night, and 1,000 come out at the same time, it gets very difficult to control the crowd.”
One Dewey commissioner, Gary Mauler, suggested a solution at the council meeting: Use nonlethal sonic weapons—the kind cargo ships and cruise lines employ to ward off pirates—as a means of crowd control.
Mauler calls it brainstorming: “You throw out any idea that’s on your mind,” he says. “You don’t hold back. Eighty-five, 95 percent of these things you say are ridiculous, but maybe one of them might make sense.”
I ask Sgt. Cliff Dempsey, public information officer for the Dewey Beach Police, how seriously he’s taking the Northbeach kerfuffle. He demurs.
“Let me put it this way,” he says. “We are in constant coordination with the Delaware State Police, Delaware Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, state fire marshal’s office, and the Northbeach staff. And we are doing our best to control the situation.”
One Saturday night in July, two columns of patrons line up for entry. There is not a metal detector, as I’ve heard rumored, but the parking lot behind me is empty, giving bouncers a better field of vision for spotting fights once the bar shuts.
A girl serves hot dogs before a sign that reads “All I Do Is Wieners.” She offers me one. I pass. It’s been a few years since my last beer at Northbeach, and all of this is new to me: the crude hot dog stand; the hokey boardwalk-themed bar stretching along one side of the deck; the crowd, which I don’t remember being this big on Saturday nights.
Tonight, every drink is full-priced—no dollar deals here (unless you’re wearing a bikini, according to the marquee). If this is a threat to public safety, then so is every other bar in Dewey—every restaurant that clears away the dinner tables, packs the place to capacity, and draws a wobbly line between “enjoying him/herself” and “over-served.”
Maybe nothing happens. Maybe something does: There’s an undeniable dark side to Dewey. Though Dempsey says it’s been an “average” summer in terms of crime, two men attacked a woman near Collins Avenue on the early morning of Sunday, July 20. According to the Cape Gazette, they threw her to the ground, and while one ripped off her dress, the other filmed the scene with his cell phone.
In 2009, after a day of devastating heat, a fistfight at the Rusty Rudder spilled into the parking lot and escalated into a 30-strong brawl. Dewey Beach police had to call in State Police backup.
It doesn’t happen often. It hasn’t happened since. But there’s always the chance that the booze will do the talking, and someone’s fists will talk back.
“Everyone in this town is in business,” says Pires. “If they tell you they’re not, they’re lying.”
Booze isn’t the only business in Dewey. The town has a booming rental market: Of the 1,316 homes identified in Dewey Beach by the U.S. Census Bureau, only 123 are owner-occupied. The rest are vacant, for sale, or open for business. For the previous fiscal year, Dewey’s 565 licensed renters (one license can cover several properties) made, on average, $22,586 each.
A week in one of Dewey’s rental properties will run you at least a grand; nicer specimens, like a three-bedroom beachfront house, go for as much as $3,000. It’s ultimately a less expensive and more attractive option than Dewey’s homely non-Hyatt hotels, which run between $250 and $300 per night.
Harvey, Hanna is definitely in Dewey to do business. When the Ruddertowne redevelopment was first proposed, the housing bubble was just about to burst; scoring one of Dewey’s biggest parcels, with a bay-to-ocean view, was a fortune waiting to happen.
The recession didn’t dim their ambitions at all. When phase two of the redevelopment is complete around 2016—at a price tag of $41 million for construction alone—Harvey, Hanna will have one of the most potentially profitable operations on the Delaware shore. In addition to the Hyatt, the complex will feature high-end dining, retail, and an event space. Luxury condos are already for sale, the choicest of which costs as much as Dewey’s police force does annually: $1.2 million.
When the town passed an accommodations tax in 2008, collecting 3 percent of rental revenue, it was the first time the cost of governance passed through to property owners. And for a town with only 341 full-time residents, Dewey isn’t cheap. It cost $2.47 million to run the town last fiscal year, with the police (including the annual surge of officers for the summer months) running up nearly half the tab.
Who pays? Not the property owners. Not the commercial businesses, who together paid $150,000 in business license fees (only 6 percent of the town’s income) last year. Basically, if you spend any time in Dewey, you do—in parking permits ($489,000 in revenue), in fines ($465,000 in revenue) and in quarters dumped into the parking meters ($150,000).
The accommodation tax adds some rigor to Dewey’s revenue, as does a transfer tax on property sales. But it all ties back to tourists: no tourists, no rental revenue; no rental revenue, no accommodations tax revenue.
The town has repeatedly tried to levy a gross receipts tax because it knows its economy is highly vulnerable to market shocks; in 2008, as the American economy swan-dove into recession, Dewey rang up a $700,000-plus deficit. It depends on summer crowds, but what happens if a stunted economy turns off the tourist spigot?
Business owners have started grumbling about a property tax—why shouldn’t Dewey property owners kitty up?
“Everyone should pitch in,” says Derrickson, owner of restaurant/bar Nalu. He dismisses the notion that bar owners should bear the cost of policing, because they drive the need: “It’s a police force,” he says. “It’s for everyone.
Pires has a different idea: Abolish the town government.
“We didn’t have government here for 100 years,” he says. “We don’t need government. There’s nothing for them to do.”
The town commissioners, he says, are a revolving cast of retirees who hold marathon meetings, run roughshod over Robert’s Rules of Order, and play to a limited crowd of friends, supporters, and people with nothing better to do on a Saturday morning than head to town hall.
He can say this, he says, because he’s of a similar age bracket. And because for eight years, he, too, was a town commissioner.
“They take their turns complaining in front of people,” he says, “then they leave, they go to Florida, and they die.”
Every year, for the past 18 years, the Starboard becomes Pamplona—or rather, Pamplona by way of Animal House.
This year, it’s mobbed with fake matadors and bull-runners, guys and girls in red bandanas and foam bull horns, pressed-shoulder to shoulder with mimosas, orange crushes and Bud Lights.
They gather before a stage in the parking lot, waiting for two sweaty men hunched under a brown polyester blanket. This is the bull, and the thousand-plus here will swarm around it as it trundles down the highway, along the beach and back to the Starboard.
So it goes at the Running of the Bull 2014, Dewey’s biggest and most delirious party. Starboard staff hand out bottles of cold water and PB&Js for free, keeping the crowd on its feet.
Most of them, anyway. As I drive into Dewey at noon, I see a guy wearing the D.C. flag as a cape lead his dead-drunk friend across the median strip, stumbling like a sleepwalker. Shortly after that, a girl faints on her feet and gets carted off in an ambulance.
Though it looks like chaos, the event is painstakingly managed. Delaware State Police, called in to assist, keep runners on the sidewalk. When the time comes, they’ll shut down Route 1 for five minutes, allowing the bull and its tipsy entourage to move across the highway and onto the beach.
Montgomery hurries around the event, his forehead glazed with sweat. On stage, the cover band leans into Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and the crowd raises their beers, totally feeling it. Across the highway at Gary’s Bar and Grill, Dave and Chris Voght watch it happen like a dolphin show at Seaworld.
“Over here, it’s a little more mellow,” Dave Vogt says, a bottle of Coors Light sweating in his hand. “Though it doesn’t bother me at all. That’s why we come here.”
The Vogts, like many in Dewey Beach, are transplants, originally hailing from Lincoln University, Pa. Dave’s an information technology analyst; Chris teaches at a Catholic school. They’ve visited the town for decades, and they embrace Dewey’s rowdy side, even if they like to watch it from a safe distance. As off-duty servers and bartenders walk by clad in runner’s red, they wave hello and greet them by name. They aren’t the kind to turn up at town council meetings and grouse about the nightlife.
“I don’t see it as an issue,” Chris Vogt says. “When we bought into this town, we knew what it was.”
Back at the Starboard, the bull is making its way through the crowd, followed by a chorus of “Olé, Olé, Olé.” An Elvis impersonator takes the stage and launches into the national anthem, and in the crowd, a sweaty man in a shark costume puts his hand to his heart, making me briefly wonder if someone spiked my beer.
At the anthem’s conclusion, champagne and beer shower the crowd, and the inevitable chant rises: “USA! USA! USA!”
I’m sure this happens in Pamplona, too.
The announcer asks the crowd to raise their right hands and repeat after him. “I will listen to all police and lifeguards,” he says.
“I will listen to all police and lifeguards.”
“I will not pee in public, because it will cost me $300.”
Then the countdown, and then they’re off—walking leisurely across a state highway, all under the watchful eye of Delaware’s finest. A few Washington Nationals mascots are in the crowd; I see Teddy Roosevelt totter by.
A few impassioned runners break from the crowd, springing down the highway and hooking onto Swedes Street, where a young girl in a bathing suit douses them with a garden hose.
On the sand, the state troopers are replaced by lifeguards, who stand at regular intervals along the shoreline. If the cops’ job is to keep runners from getting hit by cars, the lifeguards are there to keep them from drowning. I stand on a dune, watching them pass, a procession of white and red interrupted by the occasional matador or pajama-clad shark.
Sprinting past, one guy leans at me and loudly misquotes a fake, viral Web video catchphrase: “Fuck you in the pussy!”
Down at the tideline, a runner spreads his arms and runs into the surf bellowing “Water!” At least five guards empty their lungs into their whistles.
A guy in a red cut-off jogs past. “I thought I’d get more support from the crowd,” he says.
“Where are we even going?” asks a woman.
I stand next to dozens of families, waiting for the bull. Rumors of its demise murmur through the crowd. “Maybe it died of heatstroke,” a father of two says. When it appears, its two halves swerving and bobbing, there’s minor cheering. A young boy sprints to the bull and wedges himself between the two operators. They don’t seem to mind.
This is perhaps the perfect visual metaphor for Dewey: family and festivity tottering forward—unevenly, granted, but forward nonetheless. If the new Ruddertowne heralds a future of respectability and sensibility, the Running of the Bull keeps the town’s freak flag flying. It lets mom and dad leave the kids at the Hyatt, crack open a light beer, and sing “Olé, Olé, Olé” with a fake, sweaty Elvis.