Thrive Bar (thrīv bär) Noun. A popular, profitable bar patronized largely by upwardly mobile white millennials with disposable income who relish the establishment’s reputation as a ‘dive bar’
On a frosty Friday night last winter, my friend Hilda (a white 26 year old with a modest trust fund, as far as they go) insisted we check out a cool spot she’d been reading about on local blogs, a putative dive bar in LeBloomingdroit hyped as a great place to dance and meet guys. Hilda lives in tony Glover Park where there are no dive bars. So she chartered an Uber and journeyed across town, meeting me outside of Showtime Lounge on Rhode Island Avenue. Before we went in, she smoked a cigarette as I watched three more Ubers pull up and drop off twentysomethings. Clearly this was a place to be.
Inside, Hilda offered to buy the first round, ordered two beers, and plopped down a credit card at the cash only bar. Perfect, I thought. I gave her a twenty and pulled up a stool, taking stock of the swelling scene. I was struck by the incongruity of the setting and the characters. Showtime Lounge has all the aesthetics and intangibles of a dive bar, like cheap canned beer and spartan decor. It looks like a proper shithole. But the clientele, uniformly young and energetic, had dressed up for the occasion. Many were dancing to the beats of nineties pop music–the same sort you’d hear at Policy or Buffalo Billiards. I overheard a conversation about graduate school and assorted bits about office jobs and vacations. Several more people tried to pay for their PBR with credit cards. Something was off.
These people hadn’t come to Showtime because they needed cheap beer–virtually every patron appeared to be the ubiquitous sort of employed, upwardly mobile millennial with disposable income to burn. They weren’t there because it was their local watering hole either–like us, many had come from across the city. They were there simply because Showtime Lounge is cool. And Showtime Lounge is cool because it’s full of social young people who think they’re wallowing in a dingy dive bar. It seemed like a contradiction. Can a bar really be considered a dive if it’s cool with people like Hilda? If its customers are almost exclusively millennials with money? This bar and these people aren’t divey, I thought, they’re thriving.
I’m well aware that the District’s dive bar debate has been beaten to death. I’ve read and heard an abundance of argument in this city about what constitutes a dive and which joints qualify. Local bloggers love the subject, and have compiled countless contentious listicles ranking D.C.’s best dives (see: DCist, Eater, Urban Scrawl, Punch, Serious Eats, PartyEarth, Timeout, Foursquare, Boosh, and this characteristically terrible Thrillisticle that farcically names The Board Room in DuPont Circle a dive and includes a picture of a guy in a suit playing Jenga under strong lighting). D.C. hit peak dive bar dialectic in August of 2014 with the Washington City Paper’s publication of The Dives of Others: How to Open a New Old Bar by Jenny Rogers, which covers a spate of new, no-frills bars that have opened in the District in recent years (Jackpot, Showtime Lounge, DC Reynolds) and the question of whether a new bar can be considered a dive at all.
I’m not particularly concerned with the authenticity of taverns. But living in Washington, I’ve been around too many well-off twentysomethings who revel in the perceived low culture of dive bars. I’ve been rubbed the wrong way by too many obtuse millennials fetishizing dive bars’ supposed shittiness, especially ones in expensive areas like U Street. I’m no professional drinker; I can’t say with any authority just what makes a dive a dive. But I think it’s plain enough that a bumping bar full of rich and wannabe rich kids pretending to slum is something else. That something is a thrive bar.
Unlike dive bars, thrive bars are easy to classify. First and foremost, a thrive bar is widely considered a dive bar, and its patrons are there for just that reason. Those patrons are mostly employed white millennials who can more than afford to pay for their drinks (and their Ubers home). And, unlike a classic neighborhood hole in the wall, the bar itself is a high capital endeavor, paying a steep rent and turning a profit with a high volume of business. It doesn’t matter how much the beers cost or how shitty the place looks. If it meets these three qualifications, it’s a thrive bar.
Washington is full of thrive bars, but there are a select few whose widespread reputations as dive bars are particularly laughable. These are Washington’s top five thrive bars:
- Wonderland Ballroom
On a Friday or Saturday night, the second floor of Wonderland is packed wall to wall with yuppies grinding on each other in the dark like it’s an eighth grade mixer. Eighth grade mixers are the diametric opposite of dive bars.
- Showtime Lounge
All the $5 beer-bourbon combos in the world can’t make up for Showtime’s thriving weekend customer base and hip as fuck atmosphere.
- Red Derby
A dive bar can’t very well have a brunch menu.
- American Ice Co.
American Ice Co. (the Co. in the name is asinine) is one of the many big-buck bars churned out by brothers Ian and Eric Hilton, who also started decidedly-not-divey Marvin and The Brixton. Jenny Rogers put it best: “lots of wood, exposed brick, Mason jars, chalkboards—basically a rustic wedding Pinterest board.”
- The Codmother
The Codmother may be the most contrived bar in Washington, D.C. Calling it a dive because it’s in a basement, sells PBR, and has writing on the walls is like calling Gwyneth Paltrow a hipster because she gave her kid a quirky name and has an eclectic diet. It’s all window dressing. The chalk on the walls is pure gimmick. The proprietors even graffitied their own restrooms, writing “there’s a time and a place for everything and it’s called your twenties” in both bathrooms. It may as well be a mission statement for Washington’s thrive bars. The Codmother is full of carefully-coiffed twentysomethings rubbing against one another. It’s a regular stop on bustling U Street that pulls in thousands a night from it’s exclusively upwardly mobile customers. The Codmother is some bullshit. It’s thriving really hard.