Get Back to Basics at Solly's U Street Tavern
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, January 5, 2006
Though U Street NW has been known for its night life since the early part of the 20th century, the crowded strip near the Metro station has been experiencing a mini boom.
Of all the activity, I might be happiest about the arrival of Solly's U Street Tavern, a simple neighborhood watering hole that, so far, is doing the basics well: The bartenders are friendly, beers are inexpensive and it's the kind of place where you can just drop in with your pals and have a low-key drink.
Owner and namesake John Solomon worked at the Old Dominion Brewpub for 11 years, but, like most folks in the bar business, he really wanted to open his own place. Last year, though, there was some turmoil within Old Dominion -- the brewery was recently sold -- and Solomon says "that was the kick" he needed "to go out and do something."
Solomon and his wife, Candace, have lived near 12th and V streets "for eight or nine years," he says, so when the search for a location began, they started looking in their own back yard.
The Solomons and their partners were initially interested in taking over the vacant Salome restaurant at 9th and U streets, but they couldn't figure out who owned the building. "We knew it was an Ethiopian restaurant, so we figured that maybe the owner of [the Ethiopian restaurant and nightclub] U Turn would know who owned it. He said he thought it was already sold, but he was looking to move back to Ethiopia, so he was interested in selling U Turn."
Solly's Tavern finally opened at the end of September, after the new owners spent a few weeks refurbishing the place with the help of teammates from the Washington Irish, a rugby team Solomon coaches. They built a new bar, tore down drywall, uncovered the upstairs windows to let more light in and spent days scouring all the kitchen equipment. "It's good to know guys who have trades and can do all that stuff," Solomon says with a grin.
Solly's couldn't be any simpler: exposed brick and weathered plaster walls; a short, L-shaped bar where customers have to nudge each other out of the way to order; a TV set at each end of the room, generally turned to the day's main sporting event. An Internet jukebox pumps out a steady stream of AC/DC, the Talking Heads and the Beastie Boys, though I've heard everything from James Brown to Guns N' Roses.
The best spots are the window seats -- glass-walled nooks that protrude from the building like tall bay windows. You feel like you're sitting in a fishbowl, but on weekends, there's no better place to perch and watch the parade of U Street clubgoers wander by.
The upstairs room is fairly plain, too, but the space has character. Six flat-screen televisions for watching football hang high on the walls, and customers pack into a large dining area filled with battered old tables or try to grab one of the half-dozen stools at the small bar. A low stage along one wall seems barely big enough for a drum kit. Illuminated mostly by a few strands of Christmas lights and the glow from the TVs, it's so dim you might not notice the uneven floors. (Watch out when you're going to the bathroom.) No matter where you sit, look around and you'll see the majority of the crowd drinking cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, regardless of age or hipster cred. Why? It's $3 a can, all day, every day.
The idea came from a brewer at Old Dominion, whom Solomon describes as "a PBR junkie." Though Solomon initially planned to offer rotating beer-in-a-can specials -- "something like a can of the week" -- PBR has proved too popular to remove. Solomon says they sell twice as much PBR as any other beverage, which makes sense: bottled beers, such as Yuengling and Miller Lite, are almost twice as expensive.
The bartenders do a pretty good job with mixed drinks and shots, but Solly's is pretty much your whiskey-and-beer kind of place. At happy hour, when Jim Beam and Jack Daniels drinks are $4, you get more than your money's worth.
When you're hungry, skip the usual burgers and wings and go for one of the New Zealand meat pies -- a traditional filled-pastry snack with steak and mushroom, beef and cheese or curried chicken inside a flaky crust. "A guy who I played rugby with handmakes them," Solomon explains. "He's from New Zealand and has a company called Kiwi Kuisine." Add a side of tater tots, and it's the perfect bar snack. (Now, if only I could get a bottle of Steinlager to wash it down.)
At its heart, Solly's is a nice neighborhood tavern. Period. Yes, it's a nice place to grab a beer before catching a show at the 9:30 club or the Black Cat, and there's usually a lively group of regulars cracking jokes with a bartender, but the bar isn't a destination unto itself. That could change in the next few months.
As you might expect, Solomon and his rugby-loving partners plan to make Solly's a destination for fans of the oval ball. The bar will televise the Six Nations championship, which begins next month with games in Italy and England. Australians will be happy to hear that Solly's plans to show international cricket, too, starting with the Cricket World Cup in March.
After a few months of sporadically offering live music, general manager Peyton Sherwood says bands will play upstairs every weekend. Bad Brains singer H.R. performed on New Year's Eve with local punks the Screws, but most of the shows will feature more traditional alternative rock groups.
But the most interesting promotion has been running under the radar for a few months: On Tuesdays, bartender Doug Kennedy, who is fluent in sign language, hosts a deaf happy hour from 4 to close. Solomon says they "thought it would be a cool idea" since deafness has touched the lives of several of the owners. "I have a deaf sister, and [co-owner] Walt [Davis]'s parents are deaf. Doug has a pretty serious girlfriend who's deaf."
So far, attendance has been spotty -- on my last visit, there were exactly two patrons signing away at the bar -- but Solomon says they plan to stick with the happy hour, perhaps moving it to a different night to try to attract larger crowds.
It's just another way that Solly's is trying to live up to its founder's vision: "I wanted to make something where everyone feels welcome," he says.