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It's early on a Friday night and I'm at the Forest Inn in the Westover neighborhood of Arlington. There's a small but lively crowd watching the Nationals game on a television in one corner of the room, so I squeeze into a wooden seat at the end of the bar and join them. There, I meet Dave Batten, a regular who's been frequenting this dive for more than 10 years. Dave explains why the room feels crowded... even when it's not.
"It's about a 20 seat bar with like 6 booths that are up against the wall," says Batten. "It's a pretty small place — L shaped. It doesn't hold a lot of people — 50-60 people at the most."
The bar, which has three decades of history in the neighborhood, has been in its current location since the mid-'90s. And for years, until Virginia's restaurant smoking ban was enacted in 2009, it was a pretty shabby place.
"If you were in here for a few hours and then you went home, you basically had to stand in front of the washing machine and take your clothes off because they would reek of nicotine," recalls Batten.
These days though, the Forest Inn is smoke-free and has a relatively new coat of paint, but it hasn't lost its quirkiness. As I'm chatting with Dave I notice something fascinating about the room — the kind of idiosyncrasy that makes a dive a dive.
The entire top shelf of the bars liquor cabinet is filled with elephant figurines.
"The elephants are sacred to the owners," Batten explains. "The owners are Hindu from India. So they collect elephants, especially elephants with the trunks turned upright because that is a symbol of luck."
The collection is a work in progress.
"People have brought elephants in for I don't know how many years," says Batten. "Probably at least 20 years. Some are ceramic, some are glass, and some are plastic — just all sorts of elephants. No matter where you look, there's a bunch of elephants up there."
Bar manager Ken Choudhary says this endearing and surprising cross-cultural exchange started in a purely organic fashion.
"It started with the one, two, only three elephants," Choudhary recalls. "And then other people, whenever they were going on vacation, everyone started bringing a little gift for their favorite bar."
Choudary is clearly surprised and proud of the outpouring of support.
"And I mean look at that now," he says pointing to the collection of mismatched pachyderms. "How did we end up with that big collection over there? And people they still keep bringing them!"
Most of the folks who've brought these offerings to the bar are regulars, a varied bunch that bar regular Dave Batten says span several generations.
"It's just been here for so many years," says Batten. "You have people coming here of all ages — from retirees in their 60s, 70s, and maybe even 80s, up to restaurant workers that are younger that are discovering the place now.
One such worker is 26-year-old David Calhoun, who grew up in the area and works at a beer garden just down the street. He says the bar's long-time connection to the community is a big draw.
"You've got a lot of people that grew up in Arlington," says Calhoun. "It's fantastic. A lot of the places in Clarendon, the Courthouse area, people move in here and they're like 'Oh, we're not going to have any time dealing with the locals,' but this is more of a community base. My grandfather knew his grandfather. My grandfather knew this guy. It's kind of cool."
The only beer on tap at The Forest Inn is Budweiser. And Linda Theodore, who has tended bar at The Forest Inn for 9 years, says this kind of simplicity is what endears the place to people.
"It's not formal, we don't have tablecloths. You have your basic menu. Basic drinks. You don't have to dress up.
But it's more than that.
"It's home," says Theodore. "I know everybody. It's just home."
Denice Loeber, a transplanted New Yorker who lives in Westover and frequents the bar regularly, echoes that sentiment.
"They treat me like family," she says. "They treat me like they've known me forever. They don't treat me like I've only been here 13 years, and they don't treat people that have only been here for a year like new people. It's a family atmosphere... in a really dysfunctional way!"
[Music: "You're the Devil in Disguise" by Elvis Presley from The Essential Collection / "Fame" by The Backing Tracks from Play Guitar With David Bowie]
Photos: The Forest Inn