I set out to review The Nest, a slightly off the beaten path yuppie hangout in Bethesda, MD, but then I found myself with the same problem as when I tried to review Fire Station One in Silver Spring. The Nest, while obviously a great date spot if you’re into that noisy herd of transplants thing, is, essentially, boring. Yet another overpriced and soulless watering hole.
I found myself sullenly nostalgic (again) for the Bethesda of the late 80’s, during my formative teenage years. Back before the tall buildings and the gentrified glitter. Back when Bethesda had open spaces, rows of two-story shops, and some hint of humanity. The soullessness was always there, though. Bethesda has always been polluted by the snooty fucks. What Mr. Williams, the school security guard at BCC, called “pencil neck yuppie motherfuckers” whenever he caught us cutting class. He’d haul us to McDonald’s or, if he knew we were on the same page, to the abandoned rail tracks beneath the Air Rights building where we’d pass a bottle of cheap Canadian whisky around and condemn the upper classes. (And, no, he didn’t rape us.) The Bethesda of the late 80’s and 90’s still had something of a hard edge, even though it was morphing almost daily into a destination, a safe zone. At that point, it was midway through transforming itself into the jewel of Montgomery County. Silver Spring was still a hell-hole of abandoned buildings and crazed hobos. It was moving towards renewal a touch more slowly, roughly ten years behind Bethesda’s boom, so there was no escaping Bethesda as the somewhat solitary happening mecca when I was in high school.
Which was fine, because you could ignore the burgeoning soullessness prior to 95. If you were an observer, it was clear what was coming down the pike, but the 80’s and early 90’s saw a Bethesda that still had dive bars, and headshops, and weirdo delis and diners that challenged the mediocre quality of the surprisingly busy restaurant culture. By 95, Bethesda boasted 300 restaurants within eight blocks, the vast majority of them worthless and horrible. Consequently, restaurants would vanish and be replaced almost as quickly as you read about them in the paper. There were many cases where you’d read a review in the Post on Friday, then head out to the new place the following week and find it gutted and waiting for the next restaurant. The outlaw days of haphazard restaurateurs are now a thing of the past. Bethesda’s fully come into its own, and now houses a semi-urbanized population that can support a proper restaurant culture. The headshops are gone, the dive bars are all above-ground and sterilized, the delis and diners have been forced to cater to a more sophisticated crowd.
I can’t knock Bethesda, though. Even though it’s almost unrecognizable from the Bethesda of 20 years ago, it still has hold-outs. Tommy Joes, a bizarre dive masquerading as a sporty frat bar. There’s Ri Ra, which ranks in my top five DC-area faux-Irish pubs. Of course, faux-Irish bars are, in my opinion, a living nightmare wherever you go – be it DC, Bethesda, Albuquerque, New Orleans, Prague, Paris, or…well, Dublin and Belfast. The Irish bar is to drinking culture what McDonald’s is to food culture. A horrifying global hegemony of cultural decay. Yet, on occasion, a guilty indulgence. I can stand on a soapbox and condemn McDonald’s all day, but the fact is that a vital part of every road trip is that early morning stop at some foreign small town McDonald’s and a greasy breakfast crammed into my mouth as I speed down a deserted Interstate with the rising sun in my rearview.
With Irish pubs, I’m the same way. Once a month I’ll slink into Ri Ra, or the singularly repulsive Dubliner, or the cold comfort of Nanny O’Brien’s. I don’t know what I’m looking for. There’s no guilty indulgence equal to a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit. There’s no sense of grounding, or Guinness-fueled fantasy pretending, behind closed eyes, that I’m elsewhere. It’s more a compulsion. Like when you’re truly desperate to get laid and you go ahead and fuck a woman you loathe just to release the poisons.
It occurred to me, as I sat at the small bar inside The Nest, surrounded by the empty-headed happy children of progress, that I’ve become far to jaded to write bar reviews. My ideal bar is the impossible to find – a country pub along a canal in England where I can sit in the beer garden and indulge in a bit of gongoozling. (Then walk along the towpath after eight strong pints and die horridly.)
Failing that, I’ll take the oddly welcoming darkness of 45 Tchoup in New Orleans. If I can’t gongoozle, then I might as well sit in the dark and listen to Gram Parsons on the jukebox and shakily count out sweaty dollar bills.
There are many acceptable levels of bar culture – from sunny beer gardens and cheerful pubs to a cash only hole in the wall. From dingy ceilings that seem very close to your head at 2am and dirt floors to a café down a sidestreet in Europe where, from a table on the sidewalk, you can watch the Communist-era trains rattle by. It’s such a wide variety that I’m constantly mystified by the tedium of DC’s bar culture. I don’t know if it’s the quality of the help, or the attitude of the patrons, or just a generally stagnant, sick culture. Certainly the latter is a disease in the DC area – a realm of transplants and transients who rarely have the time or interest to really plug in and get their hands dirty. For the transients – the Hill People, the support staff for the ever-changing Administration – that’s fine. I understand. You’re going home in two, four, six, or eight years. You’re busy doing whatever it is Hill people do. But I don’t trust the transplants. Of course, to tell you to become an enemy of progress might sound a little crazy, eh? If you want to pay an extraordinarily high rent and $6 for a glass of beer served by a just-business bartender, then… Well, no, wait. Which of us is crazy?
But going on about this stuff is exhausting. My uncle recently told me that I should pick another thing to harp on and change Greatsociety’s tone for the next ten years. The previous ten years have been all about me railing against a dying culture.
I don’t know, though. The only way to get out of the rut is to either leave it, which I plan to do in 2012. Until then, my only choice is to avoid it. But that’s easier said than done when my soul pines for a good bar and, again and again, I’m disappointed. God help me, I’m planning on hitting Truorleans on H Street on opening day. DC’s latest faux-New Orleans pub. But maybe things will be different this time. If I go into it assuming the worst, I’ll be surprised. That is, after all, how I approach just about every movie and TV show. Greatsociety’s next ten years, then – adopting the philosophy of low (or no) expectations. As long as I don’t get Ebola and raped in the bathroom, then the outing was a success!