The fire that destroyed Hank Dietle’s Tavern apparently started with a burning cigarette in a flowerpot.
Montgomery County doesn’t allow smoking inside bars and restaurants, so customers who wanted a smoke would sit on the porch of the roadside bar on Rockville Pike and then throw their cigarette butts into a flowerpot. And it was one of those butts that fire officials believe is responsible for starting the blaze that consumed the North Bethesda bar in the early hours of Wednesday, Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service spokesman Pete Piringer said.
Flames most likely ignited by a cigarette that wasn’t fully extinguished Tuesday night simmered in the pot for hours unnoticed before a passing motorist caught sight of them and called 911 just before 3 a.m. By the time firefighters arrived, Piringer said, Dietle’s was already engulfed in flames.
In the span of a few hours, Dietle’s was transformed from a popular dive bar beloved by a host of regulars to a hollow structure full of ash and rubble.
Before the fire, the building had stood for more than 100 years, earning a measure of fame for receiving the first liquor license in the county, dating back to when it housed a general store selling beer that opened in 1916. It later became the dive bar in the 1950s.
Standing outside the remains of his bar Wednesday morning, owner Tony Huniak said he wasn’t sure how to go forward, but that he doesn’t want the fire to be the end of Dietle’s.
“The plan is to reopen,” he said. “But this has never happened to me, so I don’t know what’s involved or how long something takes.”
At 11010 Rockville Pike, Dietle’s is next door to Helen’s on the Pike, which also closed earlier this year after owner Helen Wasserman said medical problems made it impossible to continue operating the restaurant. The owner of the property housing both the bar and restaurant could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Dietle’s was a holdout from another era in Montgomery County, harkening back to the days before craft beer and high-priced cocktails became the rage at area restaurants and bars. On its website, it boasted that diners had three choices—beer, wine or water—and chips for food, unless a food truck was parked outside, such as the Corned Beef King, which served there several days a week for the past two years.
The damage at Dietle’s on Wednesday. Credit: Joe Zimmermann
Another famed dive bar, the Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring, was also claimed by fire. Flames from a blaze in the Bombay Gaylord, which was above the popular bar known for its burgers and tator tots, damaged the establishment at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Bonifant Street, causing it to close in March 2015. Owner Jackie Greenbaum, vowing the restaurant would reopen in its original location, moved the tavern across the street into a temporary location, where it remained until February 2017. Greenbaum announced in late January that she plans to reopen the tavern in its original location this month. She did not reply to requests for comment Wednesday.
Thomas Bowes, who booked bands for Dietle’s for the past three years, also had booked bands for the tavern before the fire. He found the North Bethesda bar was a receptive host for local bands that had lost a venue when the Quarry House closed.
“The whole unpretentious atmosphere was appealing,” he said.
Dietle’s has weathered hard times over the years. A spokesman for the Maryland Comptroller’s Office said the state has held liens against the bar, although none is active. And online records show that Montgomery County government has taken the tavern to court several times.
Throughout Wednesday, regular customers and other fans of Dietle’s took to social media to reminisce and express their sadness at the loss of the bar. Willie Barry, who sings in the Rock-A-Sonics band with Bowes, performed a version of their song “Wild Man” in front of the bar Wednesday morning, replacing lyrics with those relating to Dietle’s. A tribute video later appeared on YouTube, featuring the song being performed in the burned-out bar and intercut with photos depicting past performances of other musicians.
“This was kind of a home place for us,” Barry said. “Performing there was just about good music on a Saturday night.”
Tribute video from Chip Py.