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.
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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.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery