By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Feb. 25, 2007
Tony Harris says he doesn't miss the watering hole he opened back in 1968 and nurtured into one of Washington's best-loved dives: the smoky, scrappy Stoney's, which he was forced to close last summer. Its demise was met with dismay by everyone who appreciated a decent burger, a cool beer and characters straight out of -- well, "Cheers" would be putting too kind a spin on the congregation of scribes, Secret Service agents, tourists, hookers and retirees. "I drive by sometimes. I look at it," he says of the now-vacant space on L Street NW. "We had some good times there." But he's not looking back. "I move on," says the restaurateur, 67.
Maybe he doesn't miss the original because he transferred its sign, its menu and a few of its signature props to a heavily trafficked stretch of P Street NW in Logan Circle, where "business has doubled," he'll tell you. "We've been pleasantly surprised."
I wish I shared his sentiment. I want to like the reprise, I really do, and it was a hallelujah day when I walked in early after the joint reopened to see its staff wearing T-shirts that announced "We're Back." But the reborn Stoney's is such a cleaned-up version of its old self, I scarcely recognize the place. The police and firefighter badges that used to color the back of the bar? At the new joint, they're displayed under glass, as if auditioning for the Smithsonian. Steve, the affable manager, didn't make the transition, and neither did no-nonsense Sue ("she retired") or somewhat more genial Sandy ("We need her at Tunnicliff's," the Hill hangout Harris also owns). The rec room paneling infused with decades of smoke (if those strips could talk!) has given way to walls of forest green and fresh air -- not such a bad thing unless you miss, as I do, Stoney's unshaven, nonconformist appeal.
Like hot dogs that taste better when you're eating them at the ball park, the cooking at Stoney's needs to be evaluated in the context of its setting. Some of it, such as the meaty chicken wings and zesty chili and cornbread, are better than you'd expect; other dishes, such as the vapid, gray meatloaf and "wet" packaged fries with gravy that tastes canned, or the achingly sweet barbecue, wouldn't be much fun no matter where you found them. If you're the kind of diner who judges food by how much of it you get, Stoney's is hog heaven. A mountain of fried calamari threatens to put squid on an endangered species list, and the spinach salad yields a barge of (underdressed) greens. The gloppy spinach-artichoke dip is framed with enough triangles of bread to fuel a frat party.
Stoney's pizza -- blond of crust and sturdy of texture -- is better than Domino's but miles from, say, Pizzeria Paradiso's. After a buddy and I asked for a pie with "the works," we were twice asked if we really wanted anchovies in the usual topping of mushrooms, pepperoni, green pepper, onions and more. "Bring them on!" we twice replied. Alas, the little fish failed to make an appearance.
There are a few consolations. The old place never had more than four beers on tap; the new one offers about a dozen. And the best-selling item on the menu, the hamburger that can be presented at least nine different ways, remains a nice option if the kitchen grills it the way you ask (my request for medium-rare came out medium the last time). Right behind those burgers on the mass-appeal index is the revered "super" grilled cheese; the thick sandwich lives up to its superlative with its cushion of buttery grilled bread, melted American, tomato slices, sweet chopped onion and crisp bacon. Each bite conjures the good old days -- and reminds me that all was not lost in the move.
At Stoney's, Everything Old Is New Again
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, January 19, 2007
The patches are behind glass now. The grease and sweat and smoke and grime accumulated over a few decades on an L Street wall have been cordoned off, sealed away in a shiny new frame that can be polished at any moment with a spritz of Windex.
They're not, though, sitting in boxes anymore.
As for Tony Harris, the beloved curmudgeon who has owned Stoney's Bar & Grill for more than half of his 67 years, well, he's doing a bit more sitting these days. His body no longer seems to want to stand behind the bar for hours at a time. But he's happy to give you a hard time from the comfort of a bar stool, if that's what you're after.
"Hey, Freddy! Freddy!" Harris yells, loud enough to turn heads throughout the pub in the Logan Circle area of P Street. "Freddy, how long have you been with me?"
"Twenty-four years," says Cigifredo Guzman, a slight, skull-capped man in a chef's jacket, who is then quickly dispatched for a plate of corn bread.
There is discrepancy on the 24 years, and on more than a few spindles of Stoney's lore, but Harris's point is that the story isn't over.
"It was a good move up here. It's an area that's booming right now," insists the man who was forced to close the watering hole's L Street NW business last year. "I don't know if we did something right or something wrong, but we're still here. Hopefully we made people happy."
We'll let a few stalwarts play judge on that.
"Here's the test," Mike Martin says as he pulls open a laminated Stoney's menu. Martin was a longtime regular at the old place, just across the street from his office at the American Postal Workers Union. Like everyone who had been there more than once, the bartenders knew his name, knew his order, knew what to tease him about.
"Looks the same," Martin says.
"Looks the same," agrees his friend Sara McLaren.
Actually, it's not quite the same. The quesadillas are new. There were four draft beers on tap before; now there are 12. Probably on L Street the wine selections were never described as "refreshingly crisp with hints of grapefruit."
"Our old bartender would come over with a pad of paper and take the orders of 15 people," Martin says after requesting a beer from a waitress carrying a BlackBerry-type gadget.
"Then he'd go to two more tables before he'd put in the order," McLaren adds.
"And have it all back to you in two minutes," Martin replies.
And thus was the quandary for Harris and his crew, who quietly opened the P Street location in November. They wanted to make the place nice but not too nice. They wanted it to stay gritty but lose a lot of grit. They want Whole Foods shoppers and luxury loft-dwellers and world-weary union stiffs, too.
"One of the guys who used to go to the old Stoney's called me up and said, 'When are you gonna open?' " Harris recalls. "I said, 'Soon, but we've gotta clean and paint,' and he said, 'Why would you do that?' "
So there is paint. And new mirrors. And old photos and old patches and new frames.
For months after the L Street closure, Harris and his team sniffed out potential locations around the city, while the old Stoney's paraphernalia sat in storage at his Capitol Hill bar, Tunnicliff's Tavern. There was a spot on 19th and I streets, another on E Street, a few in Chinatown. All of them, Harris says, were wrong for the same reason.
"To get a true Stoney's, we needed an older building. We couldn't be in a brand spanking new place," he says. "We've got to bring some of the flavor of the old place."
Harris says he thinks now that their choice was the right one. The day the bar opened, flowers were delivered from a neighboring business. The weekday lunch crowd isn't quite what it used to be, but the late-night carry-out orders make up for it. There are old men at the bar, hipsters in the rear and Redskins fans parking themselves for the duration some Sundays.
"I think Washington is making a comeback with places like this, neighborhood bars," says Harris, who even seems to look the part of his new location, in a black sweater vest and funky wire-framed eyeglasses.
A visit to Stoney's should feel, Harris's partner Billy Walls explains, "like putting on your favorite pair of jeans and sweatshirt and coming over to see your friend."
Martin and McLaren and a half-dozen others who held monthly gatherings at the old Stoney's are catching up now, around a table just outside the new fluorescent kitchen. They talk about the traffic and the parking, the construction that never seems to end in this neighborhood, the boom of overpriced sandwich shops and the vacuum created by Stoney's disappearance from L Street.
"The only thing that had any soul on the whole block was Stoney's," Martin says.
They talk mostly about how this Stoney's is different and how it's the same.
"It's a little clean for me. A little antiseptic," concludes one friend, Harry Wolf, as he fiddles with a condiment caddy. "But it'll get worse, which is good."
In the meantime, the beers keep going down, and the grilled cheese is deemed unchanged, which means delicious.
Harris didn't swing by their table that night, but if he did, he might tell Martin's crew that he reopened their old haunt because he "missed the money," and that would be, maybe, one version of the truth.
"I didn't realize how popular we were until after we closed," Harris says later. "I kept the number open for a long time, and we'd get three, four calls a day."
More than the money was missed.