Young and Hungry

Live and Let Dive: Does Renovating a Beloved Bar Mean Quashing Its Charm?

There’s no reason to gloss over the many flaws of the old Hawk ‘n’ Dove, the stalwart Capitol Hill bar that closed in 2011 and reopened under new ownership two weeks ago. The original place was dark and rotting, the smell of urine persistent and legendary, the food just a cut above a frozen tray you’d throw in your own microwave.

There’s also no question that many of the $2 million worth of changes implemented by Xavier Cervera—who’s behind several glossy Hill baubles, including The Chesapeake Room, Boxcar Tavern, and Senart’s Oyster & Chop House—could be objectively considered improvements. The decaying structure is gone, replaced by an open, well-lit place with clean bathrooms and no discernible odor.

The new Hawk doesn’t smell, but to some, that’s precisely why it stinks.

Cervera says he had no choice but to gut the bar after buying it two years ago. “Structurally, it was unsound,” he says. “We had to do a lot of structural work. There had been a couple of fires there throughout the years.” Rebuilding the bones of the Hawk ’n’ Dove pushed the price tag higher than all of Cervera’s other Capitol Hill projects—he says Boxcar Tavern cost him about $1.1 million and Senart’s about $1.3 million, compared to $2 million at the Hawk.

Cervera had no intention of recreating the atmosphere or look of the old place, which he calls “very, very dark,” “very broken up,” and “very run down.” He’s not wrong about that.

“It had lost obviously its cachet from what it was in the ’60s and ’70s,” he says. “I added a bunch of windows on the second floor [to] bring in more light, more air … It’s a very friendly environment in there now. People tend to float around from table to table and say hi to their neighbors.”

With a radically different look, feel, and menu, why not admit the jig is up and change the name?

It’s a question Cervera seems to have heard before. “No reason to do that,” he says. “That’s part of the Hill’s history, the Hawk ’n’ Dove.” He cites his own history with the bar—“I used to go there when I was a kid before [Pigskins] games. It has some meaning to me.”

Before the renovation, the Hawk 'n' Dove’s enduring popularity with Hill staffers guaranteed a regular presence of federal power and, occasionally, federal idiocy—think interns in inappropriate clubwear on weekend nights—making the bar a congressional institution. But with a cast of grizzled characters and grimey setting, the place also enjoyed status as one of D.C.’s few agreed-upon “dive bars.”

Now that it’s been spiffed up, the Hawk is the latest battleground of an ongoing epistemological debate in the District on what makes a dive bar, which places have maintained their dive  status, and whether a dive can even exist in D.C. The slightest of changes at a beloved “dive”—a new TV at Mount Pleasant’s The Raven Grill, for example—can enrage a loyal clientele obsessed with the “authentic” feel of their bar. In Dupont Circle, Fox & Hounds had to bring back its old jukebox after the installation of a flashy new one caused a minor customer revolt. Already the new Hawk is earning grumbles from some quarters that it’s been “ruined”—that despite its objective improvements, the intangibles of the place have been lost.

Why are Washingtonians so insistent on defining and preserving the dive, at least in neighborhoods frequented by the sort of people who spend time thinking about what the decor of the bars they drink at says about their identity? (Even Cervera complained that “there’s really not many left.”) Perhaps it’s financial, the natural backlash to the $12 cocktail that is de rigeur at so many D.C. watering holes. (Also the fact that the term “watering hole” could never be applied with a straight face to places as glossy as, say, ChurchKey.) Or, for the younger set, maybe it’s a self-conscious reaction to the scornful “gentrifier” label—a feeling that as long as they sit next to an authentic old guy wearing an American Legion hat, they can be authentic, too.

* * *

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I visit the new Hawk ‘n’ Dove accompanied by Ian Fowler, a regular of the Hill bar circuit who lives and works in the neighborhood. We sit down at the end of the bar, where a small crew of major league Hill barflies congregates in front of an American flag painting.

Fowler takes in the painting, the colonial blues and reds on the walls, the requisite flatscreen TVs, the slick bar. He considers the quasi-industrial design, paired with deliberately contrasting crystal chandeliers and a whimsical drawing of Teddy Roosevelt, neither of which would be out of place in an Anthropologie catalogue. “It’s very Lonesome Dove,” he pronounces. I ask him to explain. “It’s a cheesy saloon bar,” he says. “TGIFriday-esque.”

Indeed, the themeishness of the new Hawk ’n’ Dove is hard to escape. Bits of memorabilia are tucked into corners. The menu is sectioned into cutesy legislative metaphors: Appetizers are “Opening Statements,” sandwiches are under “Roll Call,” and pizzas get renamed “Filibuster Flatbreads.” Desserts are—surprise—“Closing Arguments.”

Trying to respect the straining patriotism of the new Hawk, I order a cocktail dubbed Americana. The $12 gin, Campari, and orange concoction goes straight back after two unbearable sips, and our (very accommodating) bartender swaps it for something tastier. Fowler sips a 3 Philosophers beer and says he once took his mom to the old Hawk ’n’ Dove while she was visiting D.C. The new place, he says, is more a place you’d take “a guy you met online.”

So how can restaurateurs handle critics who see the slightest renovation to even a decaying institution as a betrayal? Barry Dindyal faced the potential wrath of the neighborhood when he bought the Hitching Post, a 50-year-old fried chicken joint in Petworth, last July.

Less high-profile than the Hawk ’n’ Dove, but no less beloved by its regulars, the Hitching Post was a time warp, complete with patrons who had logged three or four decades in the restaurant’s red vinyl booths.

“It was, like, frozen in time for almost 50 years,” Dindyal says. The decor was untouched. A refrigerator greeted customers at the door. Like Cervera, Dindyal found this sort of “charm” more of a problem than an asset.

“It was filthy,” he says. “I had to gut the whole place out. The flooring, the furniture had to be replaced. The bar had to be redone.” In addition to structural issues, Dindyal says service was slow and “the seating capacity was nothing.”

Dindyal had no desire to reinvent the Hitching Post, though, or to reincarnate his other restaurant, Fusion on Georgia Avenue NW. “It’s a symbol of the neighborhood,” he says, where he’s lived for 10 years. “You’re not going to find a lot of places like this.” Dindyal spiced up the signature fried chicken but left most of the Southern soul-food menu intact. The majority of the small staff kept their jobs.

Despite a few red geometric chairs that read a bit Planet Hollywood, the Hitching Post maintains the modesty of a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood spot. An ominous-looking vent peeks out of a hole in the ladies room ceiling. A pastel lighthouse painting adorns a wall. Four of the red booths remain, alongside the jukebox. (“The jukebox has to stay,” Dindyal says.) The vibe might not scream “dive” anymore, but it’s far from a gussied-up chain.

In other words, the Hitching Post managed to clean up without losing that elusive “authenticity” so prized by the District’s dive arbiters. Dindyal says he’s gotten good feedback from neighbors.

“There’s a handful of people who  just like to see things the old-fashioned way,” he says. But “99 percent” of his feedback has been positive.

After far more radical surgery, feedback at the Hawk ’n’ Dove is thus far mixed. Cervera says business has been “incredible” and that he’s won over some old-timers who were upset about the renovations. As to accusations that the place has become a “theme bar,” Cervera responds: “I think everyone has their own opinion. If [people] feel it’s a theme bar, I think that’s fair. I don’t think it’s a theme bar.”

Longtime Hawk patrons I meet at the bar aren’t thrilled by the new look, but they’re willing to give the place the benefit of the doubt. “It’s OK,” Jim Lemieux summarizes. “It feels wrong, but ask me again in six months.”

Another, a gentleman who asks to be identified only as Don and appears to be the only person in the place drinking a Miller Lite out of the bottle, agrees he would give the new Hawk ’n’ Dove a chance. He can’t refrain from an unflattering analogy, though: “It feels much more like an airport or a cruise ship than a neighborhood bar.”

Don, a patron since the late 1980s, fears the new bar will lack the “level of customer recognition” of the old. “If the old place was like home, this is a hotel,” he says. “A nice hotel. But it’s not where I live.”

A few vestiges of the old Hawk remain. The old bar’s wooden mallards survive, along with a wall hanging or two. The most obvious souvenir: the bar’s original wooden sign, which was salvaged from the outside of the building and purchased by Cervera at auction for $7,500.

For anyone who might have forgotten that this bar is supposed to bear some relation to the famous dive it replaced, a brass plaque below it reads: “Original Exterior Sign.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

 

Comments

  1. #1

    If you renovate a bar, and you do it well, people just can hate it.... when you change the structure like, other music or other rules, then i would probably annoyed.

  2. #2

    Went to H&D Sunday night. Sadly, despite having a few elements of the old hawk, it has NO soul. It's the suburban mall-ification of the Hill! The place looks and feels like this guy's other restaurants in the neighborhood, only more corporate. I don't want to sound like the other cranks, but he missed the boat. Food was middling. Best thing was that they have a red wine by the glass that I love which you can't find anywhere. Probably wont go back.

  3. #3

    How exactly is this place different from Boxcar Tavern? Or Lola's? Or Molly Malone's? Or Senart's? Or Chesapeake Room?

    I get his thinking of "if it ain't broke..." and that model must make money for him, but for the good of the neighborhood, you wish he would think outside of the box just once.

    Of course, the upside for those who miss the old Hawk is that the quality of the food probably isn't going to change much.

  4. #4

    The focus on decor is, you know, one thing. In my old Foggy Bottom neighborhood, a gathering place was Bertucci's. The bar had no real charm, it was a blah-blah office building/shopping complex on Penn, and it chain through and through. But the regulars were great people. The conversations were super and I liked the pizza. And nobody, not ever, complained about the decor because, I guess, nobody ever thought about it but maybe things are different on Cap Hill.

  5. #5

    If you care so much about old, crappy bars, then you should form a preservation society to fund the purchase and preservation of said bars.

  6. #6

    The Hawk and Dove and other “dive” bars/restaurants on the Pennsylvania Ave strip used to be one of my go to places when showing out of town visitors the city. We’d tour the city and visit for lunch. The visitors (especially the foreign) appreciated seeing the diversity of Washington. The patrons would generally be more friendly and interested in talking with strangers. Helped dispel some of the commercialization and consumerism of Americans.

  7. #7

    Skip this place. Skip all of his places, unless you love mediocrity.

    Go to Belga, Montmartre or Acqua. Try Cava or Hank's. Check out Seventh Hill or--the sleeper of the group--Lavagna.

    But for the love of God, don't go to these McRestaurants and then be disappointed.

  8. #8

    not a place where regulars will gather. too expensive, $7 beers on a tap line that is extensive yet still manages to be awful. unless you want 10 different flavors of pilsner beer. the only ipa they have is from baltimore and is the worst version of that product within 200 miles. such a shame when there are so many good beers made locally in the DC, VA, Delaware area.

    the hawkburger remains, but it is not $8 anymore it is $14.

    it's loud. hard surfaces everywhere make a half full bar sound like a drag strip on saturday night. i guess the clashing chandeliers prove i am no architect, but they look out of place next to the corporate hardwoods and de riguer brass fittings. every server with their tie tucked in beneath the fourth button. do i have to paint you a picture?

    he doesn't want regulars. he wants expense accounts and tourists who will pay these prices. seems just like the horrible no soul places that define K street. i am sure it will make money, and that's all that matters isn't it?

  9. #9

    I was heading into the Tune Inn last month when a drunk guy peeped in the windows of the Hawk n Dove (just prior to reopening) and started yelling to nobody in particular: "NOOOOO, they yuppified my bar!!"

    (ps, for the love of God, here is the definition of a dive bar: it's a bar where the working class and poor go to drink. Everything else "divey" stems from that one singular factor.)

  10. #10

    7 bucks for a side of french fries? Haha, no thanks buddy.

  11. #11

    Xavier is actually a nice guy. Smart too. and his bars are nice places with good atmosphere. But because they're new and renovated they lack the "old" neighborhood feel of the Hill. the guy is basically catering to the new young hip Hill residents which is exactly what anyone else would do. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of any of his places and I agree that they all feel/look alike. Its kind of like "cookie-cutter newbie Capitol Hill". Senarts has good oysters tho.

    But like whats up with all the TV's? why does every place he opens have 5 or more TV's?

  12. #12

    I definitely don't remember any urine smell. I remember it as a great bar. http://sociologyinmyneighborhood.blogspot.com/2013/02/what-wrong-with-chains.html

  13. #13

    I don't remember any urine smell either. The place had four lavatory rooms that were used. Food was good and reasonably priced. There is no reason to build up this straw man of the hawk as an unsafe uncomfortable place. It was not.

  14. #14

    I think fixing structural things and things that aren't safe whey you buy a space that has been hard used is smart and necessary. I don't mind keeping the name - why bother coming up with a new one. Just don't call it the new "Hawk and Dove" - the new place is just that, a new place. Not a revamp of the old.

    It just seems that all his places are more concerned with the decor than they are with he food. Sure the new place is clean and such, but if the food is not worth the money and you feel unwelcome because you know the owner seemed more concerned with the decor why bother - there are other places to eat. What differentiate any of his places other than name and decor - not much. I do think that he is definitely catering to the newer Hill dwellers. Sure I like dives mostly because the do feel a little less self-consciously pretentious, but more importantly I like good food at reasonable prices. He seems to be selling ambiance with so-so food.

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