Feed the bartender: A Dietle's Thanksgiving tradition
John Hovde, former manager/bartender
ROCKVILLE, Md. - The initials of thousands of locals who have enjoyed a late night at Montgomery County's oldest watering hole are still carved into its wooden booths. While the hitching post no longer stands outside Hank Dietle's Tavern along Rockville Pike, the memories aren't going anywhere.
Hank's Montgomery County beer and wine license is No. 001. The Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control confirms Dietle's holds the county's first Class D, beer and wine, license and is the county's first bar.
Customers still come in to reminisce about their fathers taking them to Dietle's to hear a song on the juke box, says bartender Jenette Ford. Some even remember shopping with their grandmothers at the tavern's home when it was surrounded by farm land.
"I had customers who actually would ride their horses over from River Road, and tie them out in front of the place and have a drink," says John Hovde, who ran the tavern from 1971 to 1986.
Hovde's father was a bartender at Dietle's in the '60s. After serving overseas in the Marine Corps, Hovde came back and looked for a job. After a few short weeks, he fell into his father's footsteps when he became Dietle's head bartender.
Learning the drink menu wasn't very tough -- Dietle's still only serves beer and wine -- but learning the history of the watering hole took years.
"Originally it was owned by Edward Offut," says Hovde of the stand-alone house that Dietle's calls home near White Flint Mall.
Offut lived next door, which is now Addie's restaurant, Hovde says.
"He built this building, and it was a country store. Sometime, right prior, or right after the second World War, he sold it to a man named Freddie Salami. Freddie owned the place for many, many years up until Hank bought it. So basically, you only had three owners of this business since 1916," Hovde says.
Tony Huniak owns it now. Huniak says he got a call on Dec. 31, 1997 from another Dietle's regular telling him the bar was about to go under. The man asked Huniak if he was willing to help save it. He's owned it ever since.
Huniak is modest about his efforts, but he's cleaned the place up and made it welcoming to new customers, Hovde says.
"It was a little more cluttered. There used to be stuffed fish hanging on the wall because Hank was a great fisherman," Hovde says.
The décor inside Hank Dietle's feels comfortable. "Welcoming" is the word Ford uses to describe it. The dark green walls are covered with photos of Dietle's "regulars" taken over the years. The self-described family of this tavern, also called a fraternity, is often allowed to pour themselves drinks behind the bar.
"If I don't know you or if I don't like you, you'd get hollered at. But yes indeed, if the bartender was on the phone, yes absolutely they could pour themselves," Hovde says of his days tending the bar.
While the tap has replaced the jars of eggs and pickles that used to sit on the bar, the clientele has stayed the same.
The recent big news -- the bar has started serving sandwiches and hot dogs. Though, Hovde seems to think they have a long way to go to compare with the pulled pork he prepared in the late '70s on a hot plate that sat on Dietle's radiator.
One of the reasons people flood Dietle's on a Friday night is for the live music. A number of bands, including a local favorite, the Night Hawks, still play in the corner of the house.
"Especially with the Night Hawks, wall-to-wall people, no where to sit," Ford says, explaining the atmosphere of the tavern on a live music night.
Down the rickety stairs to the home's cellar sit Dietle's relics -- old cash registers, holiday decorations and an Utz potato chip tin covered in dust. It may be rough around the edges, but anyone in Dietle's will tell you, this place has heart.
"Virtually every time I come in, even to this day 40 years later, there are still people here that I know almost every time I walk in the door," Hovde says.
Perhaps it's the feeling most regulars have -- that this is their second home -- that has kept Hank Dietle's Tavern around and turned it into a piece of state history.
Follow @WTOPLiving on Twitter.
© 2013 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.