Cowboy Cafe

Dive Bar
Cowboy Cafe photo
(Julia Beizer/washingtonpost.com)
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Editorial Review

Brothers buy a beloved bar, give it a facelift, enjoy the rewards. The storyline is almost a cliche, like that "Family Guy" episode where all the renovation takes place during a speedy construction montage set to '80s music. But that's basically what has happened over the last year with Zac and Matt Culbertson, a pair of brothers who made over North Arlington's Cowboy Cafe.

"It was floundering a little bit, I felt, due to mismanagement," Zac said of the bar, where he had worked for six years when the opportunity to purchase the place arose. The brothers bought the divey hole-in-the-wall in November 2007, and in March updated the look with new furniture and added a cigarette-smoke ventilation system. Down went the terracotta Elvis Presley head; up went new coats of paint, flat-screen TVs and a Wii. The menu has been transformed as well. Now jerk wings are available in addition to hot wings, and house-made pickles accompany the bar's popular burgers.

"It's like 'Cheers' but not as cheesy," said Mike Pugh, a regular who struck up a conversation with this camera-wielding reporter last night. The Cow, as Pugh assures me "everyone calls it," is just like that: people talk to strangers, families with little kids gather for dinner and barflies tease owner/bartender Matt about being a Giants fan. Last night, a few patrons agreed, the Cow is like a home away from home.

Change isn't always easy, Zac acknowledges. "For some of the old customers, it took them some time to get to used to. It was kind of a like an old sock," beloved but worn-out, he said. Last night when I ordered tempura-battered shrimp with wasabi sauce, Pugh scoffed. That sort of thing would never have been on the old menu. But even old-school patrons say that the food's gotten better in the hands of Chef Chris Kenworthy. The chef has added a Southern angle to the menu -- shrimp and grits, stuffed calamari -- and expanded the dessert repertoire to include kid-friendly options like Butterfinger bread pudding.

The bar has some new additions as well. The pickled cowboy cocktail is a taste of something different: a dirty martini made with Hendrick's gin and juice from the house-made pickles instead of olive juice. The bar offers Starr Hill lager and pale ale on tap, but rail drinks and bottle beers have been popular with patrons on my visits.

Live bands crunch into the tiny space on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Want to give the Arlington dive a shot? Check it out during happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. on weekdays. There are specials every night, including half-price burgers on Tuesdays, and 50-cent wings on Wednesdays. On weekends, brunch comes with half-priced mimosas, bloody marys and screwdrivers.

-- Julia Beizer (GOG Blog, Dec. 23, 2008)