No, that’s not the answer to an off-kilter question on life, the universe, and everything, but rather the number of years I’ve been going to the Vienna Inn. For longer than most of us on this site have been alive (55 years and counting, that is), the Inn has been the only thing approaching a true watering hole within miles of Vienna, a status it maintained until the recent revitalization projects alongside adjacent Church St. While many of the newer establishments should be lauded for helping save this moribund town from the clutches of commuter, strip mall, and franchise chain Hell, the Inn will always be first and only of its kind: a dive bar nestled in the heart of some supposed paradise for rich families consistently ranked in the Top 5 Places to Live in America.
In considering this review, I realized it would be hard to look past nearly two decades of bias. I also realized that the strength of a true neighborhood bar is, well, all the memories neighbors build with one another. So I’ve asked a good number of my high school buddies as well as my family to chime in with their thoughts and some of their favorite stories. I hope you enjoy reading about this place as much as I’ve enjoyed sucking down hot dogs and birch beer all these years!
Watering Hole: The Vienna Inn
Address: 120 Maple Ave. E, Vienna, VA 22180
Contact ’em at: www.viennainn.com, @ViennaInn
“I remember how our Athletics Director kept offering pancakes at the Vienna Inn to everyone on Varsity who also got good grades. The teachers were so mean, though! They never let us go. Unless you got an awesome teacher.”
“Always reaching out to the community – every time we had a weekend wrestling meet we’d go there in the morning. So of course they’d offer us free breakfeast, but since we were all trying to make weight, we were stuck sucking on ice cubes…”
Food Cost: 1/2 $, if possible
Total Beers: 7-10 on draught, 75+ kegs available (yes, that’s right – they sell kegs, too!)
Beer Selection: Owing as much to its roots as a true dive bar as well as its continued popularity among all the baseball and soccer team kids now of drinking, child-rearing, and even soccer team coaching age, you’ll find a split between macros and a few surprising micros. On any given night, half the lines will be pledged to macros/semi-macros (Bud, Coors, Miller, Yuengling, Blue Moon, etc.) and the other half to micros. Your micros can then range from stalwarts such as Devils Backbone Vienna Lager and New Belgium Fat Tire to regional seasonals from Troegs, Dominion, and others. On this particular night, I started with a heavy hitter in New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk (pictured at right), an 11% monster on an Imperial Stout – in other words, the exact kind of beer you wouldn’t expect at this kind of joint. And where you’d typically get a snifter, I was handed a full pint of it. As my night started to improve, I then waded into the Inn’s Annual Ale, an APA brewed specially for them by Dominion Brewing that came off as nutty as the Vienna Inn’s insistence in using the exact same paper placemats as when my voice was still shrill enough to crack mirrors. As the chili arrived, I switched over to the DB Vienna Lager, because to paraphrase, that stuff goes with everything.
“There’s always at least one good beer.”
“Dominion Oak Barrel Stout. That was like my introduction to good beer.”
“You get exactly what you expect, but it’s still like, ‘whoa! the beer is actually reasonable!’ Great dive bar.”
“The beer selection was always good, and I always loved the Chili Mac while lots of folks liked the chili.”
Chili shows up on the menu 7 times. Wonder if it’s any good…
“Centrally located, and it has hot dogs! If you want a cheap hot dog, it’s the place to go.”
“I mean, why go to a dive bar? Good crappy food! Damn good onion rings.”
“Just good food with a neighborhood feel to it.”
Food Selection: So a watering hole should always be known for “their” thing. Wings, burgers, steaks, gravy, etc. The Vienna Inn has staked a claim to the throne lorded over by the chili masters of the Midwest. Forget your simple slow-cooked cup or bowl of fire; the Inn does chili in or on just about everything from fries to burgers to dogs, and even spaghetti. Over countless visits I’ve honed my tastes to the chili cheese fries and chili mac. While the former should be of little surprise to many of my friends, the latter is one of the best/worst kept secrets in all of NOVA. A great secret for every time you get to introduce someone new to it, and a terrible secret given how packed to the gills the Inn is from happy hour to kitchen’s close seemingly every night of the week. Imagine a heaping bowl of noodles with a mound of chili and, if you like, extra portions of onions, cheese, and beans. If chili’s not your thing, well, you can get basically everything that comes with chili without it, as well. Other ballpark and dive bar staples such as chicken fingers, chile poppers, burgers, and even open faced sandwiches with gravy await you. They also list some manner of fish and these trendy things known as “salads,” but the next person I see order one from there will simultaneously be the first. The (standing room only) crowd which arrives at the Inn knows precisely why it’s there, and that reason is in no way linked to health or evolving palates. That is because, by far, their #1 seller is chili dogs. They keep piles of ingredients for the little intestinal tubes of crack around, such as that veritable wall of hot dog buns which greets you at the bar.
“It is a one of a kind, no frills neighborhood tavern good for friends and families. The decor runs from dated to dumpy, and the bathroom has to be experienced to be believed. The price was right, and it was always a fun place for groups to go.”
“It’s like understanding your own reality. No one can sit on a level surface. If you’re cool with that, then you’re good!”
“Black and white – nice suburbs and then your poorly poured beer is spilling all over the table.”
“It’s fun that you see all the different generations of Vienna residents.”
Atmosphere: As dingy, grimy, and, well, divey as the Vienna Inn looks, you’ll find everyone from young families to soccer teams, work groups, old timers, and even couples on their first date. No really, while I was sitting at the bar waiting on my family to arrive (including my almost 70-year old father who was visiting from Florida and demanded he come here within hours of landing), I could hear the pair next to me awkwardly bantering over their love of cats, NCIS, and how their respective commutes suck. At the same time, it was easy to tell they were regulars as a trio of chili dogs and a side of fries practically crashlanded on the countertop. As someone who is not exactly a regular but still gets back at least once a year, I can easily see why a place like this puts so many folks of so many ages and backgrounds at ease: it feels just like it did when you were a kid. Dives like this seem like they’re a dime a dozen, but every time something closes like The Tavern in Charlottesville, or Pop’s in Seaford, we lose a part of what connects us to where we grew up. Sure, they may have a few LCDs and some micros on draught now, but I’m pretty sure that not only are those the same ceiling tiles, but that’s also the same copy of Golden Tee wedged behind the corner table. And it’s the same exact corner table. Beyond that, it’s all the little touches, and for me personally, knowing that I can still come here nearly 20 years later and get a Fanta Birch Beer is almost astonishing. It’s not that I never found it anywhere else (and I didn’t), but that others are keeping that soda line up and running speaks to the idiosyncracies which have kept the Inn going just the same as the duct tape and bubble gum affixed to the 60s’ era, rickety old booths.
“The best option for a laid back drinking hole I’ve seen in Vienna. The prices are decent, and it’s pretty decent bar food.”
“Years later I ran into [this cute girl] from high school…remember her? At first I was gonna be like, ‘oh wow! you look great!’ …and then I realized she was pregnant. Uf.”
Overall: There’s a lot of attachment here, and it’s not just the fond recollections or the sense of camaraderie you build from cramming a pile of teenagers into “booths” meant for half that many. The Vienna Inn has that mystique and oeuvre which all the designers of warehouse and retro style brewpubs are pining for. It doesn’t just feel lived in and neighborly, it has been lived in by neighbors, oftentimes for decades on end. It lacked parking before attaching wholly inadequate parking lots to every new building became weirdly fashionable. It doesn’t evoke the comfort food from our childhoods, it is the comfort food from our childhoods.
All that being said, I couldn’t just pop in, have some chili and a few brews, and attach a score to this place. 17 years of history and attachment demanded more. So I went with my family, and then with some old friends. And there was that one thing on the tip of our tongues that we couldn’t put to words, until we were about ready to up and leave from our most recent reunion:
“It’s where everyone gets together when they come home.”
What I realized in the end is that no matter how I or others feel about the Vienna Inn, one thing is for damn certain: it’ll be the exact same place when I take my own kids there for the first time.