51st State of Mind
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, October 8, 2004
51st State is essentially a by-the-book pub: exposed brick walls so worn they may have been sandblasted; a mix of high-backed booths and tall, round tables; the bar and matching chairs are gleaming dark wood. It has a large, enclosed sidewalk patio, a dozen beers on tap and a few televisions that seem to be permanently fixed on ESPN.
So what stands out about this relaxed watering hole?
Framed on one long wall are enormous 1930s Guinness ads featuring characters from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass." In one, a rampant lion and unicorn wrestle over a bottle of Guinness as Alice and the Red King look on. "Does the one that wins get the Guinness?" asks Alice. "Dear me, no," says the King. "The one that's had the Guinness wins."
Another features the Walrus and the Carpenter, who have apparently moved on from discussing shoes and ships and sealing wax. " 'If seven men with seven tongues talked till all was blue / Could they give all the reasons why Guinness is good for you?' / 'I doubt it,' said the Carpenter, 'But that it's good is true.' "
Scattered throughout the pub are John Gilroy's iconic "My Goodness, My Guinness" advertisements, in which crafty zoo animals steal Guinness from their hapless keeper. Near a pool table on the second floor, one poster depicts a kangaroo sneaking a bottle of Guinness in its pouch. That one dates to 1934, explains bar owner Joe Lyon, the man who assembled this impressive collection.
"I've always been a big fan of Guinness and their marketing," Lyon says. "Most of it, I know when it was printed -- there's a story behind every one." Lyon found most of the items on display through dealers in the United Kingdom, who regularly e-mail him photos of new arrivals. Lyon is a connoisseur of vintage advertisements -- the newest ones here are from the 1960s.
But the 51st State is not just an outpost of Dublin's Guinness museum; the two-story building is decorated with concert posters trumpeting Shane McGowan and the Popes; weathered metal signs selling whiskey and cigarettes; and political memorabilia from Northern Ireland.
For the past eight years, Lyon worked at Capitol Lounge on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. He managed the bar, poured drinks, worked in the kitchen, checked IDs at the door. "I did everything it took to keep the place together," he says. While working his way up, Lyon became friends with owner Joe Englert, one of the city's smartest night-life visionaries. Englert is the man who gave Washington places like the Big Hunt, Lucky Bar, DC9, Politiki, the Insect Club and State of the Union.
When Lyon told Englert he wanted to open his own tavern, the boss agreed to partner with him. "I like to take hardworking managers and give them their own place," Englert says. "Joe worked at Capitol Lounge for us forever. He was there from day one." The two men bought 51st State's building earlier this year, renovated it and opened the first week of September.
With two bars on two floors, a single pool table and a menu heavy on staples such as sandwiches, burgers and wings, 51st State isn't out to impress anyone -- but it'll make you want to return. Daily happy hour deals include specials for lawyers on Wednesday nights, and $10 buckets of beer and $1.50 hot dogs for Giants, Jets and Bills fans during NFL games, plus special shooters after each New York touchdown. Neither Englert nor Lyon is from New York; the allegiance is for business purposes only. Says Englert: "No one [in Washington] caters to New York fans. There's no love for the Giants or the Jets, so we decided we'd show those games, and the Yankees playoff games. I think it's a great niche."
Lyon's only hesitation about his new bar came from the location, amidst offices and apartments but straddling the border between Georgetown and the George Washington University campus. "I was afraid we might have been overwhelmed with college kids, you know, and remembering the way I used to be, I thought, 'Oh God, I spent all this money, and the Guinness posters will be gone, and there will be holes in the walls,' Lyon laughs. "But it's been good so far."