The Saloon: A True Chat Room
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, August 28, 2004
"I think communication among people is one of the most important things," says Kamal "Commy" Jahanbein, the owner of the Saloon, and his comfortable U Street watering hole is set up to facilitate interaction between everyone who walks in the door. There's no television to turn patrons into staring, slack-jawed zombies. Longtime bartender Robert Valette pulls drinkers into casual conversation at the J-shaped bar while he pours half-liters of German lager. Music (mostly jazz or classical) is low enough to be pleasant background noise. Around the brick-walled room, lengthy tables become communal hangouts on weekends. One of the house rules: It's "against the law" to refuse to share any open seats.
"If you don't want to socialize or talk to anybody, you have no business here," Jahanbein says matter-of-factly. "If you're willing to trade your ideas on beer or politics with a stranger -- maybe 'stranger' sounds like a bad word -- then that's good. But if you don't . . . this is not the place for you."
Jahanbein is unapologetic about the emphasis he places on getting his customers to talk -- "We are not determined to please everybody," he says -- but it's startlingly effective. While sipping beers at the basement-level bar in recent months, I've discussed the pre-war orchestras of Count Basie and Duke Ellington with a programming executive from Clear Channel; been soundly beaten at chess by men old enough to be my father; and, last week, talked one-hit wonders with a production assistant from "American Idol."
But if you want to come in with a group of convivial friends, that's fine, too. "We like to be a pub, not a bar," Jahanbein explains. In America, he says, "if you say you're going to a bar, people think you're [just] going to drink. The definition of a pub in Europe is where neighbors get together. . . . This is more for buddies and friends to have a beer" while chatting or playing backgammon or Scrabble.
Jahanbein is always around, his wavy, salt-and-pepper hair making him easy to spot as he works the room delivering greetings and plates of food from the kitchen.
From 1977 to 1994, Jahanbein was one of the owners of another bar called the Saloon, a Georgetown landmark that started with a shared love of jazz and foreign beers. (That bar is now under different ownership and called the Saloun.) Eventually, though, Jahanbein's hands-on management style began to take its toll. "I was [at the Saloon] seven days a week, 100 hours a week. It was time to change, and dealing with students and tourists was too much." He took off for Europe, where he spent two years traveling through Austria, Germany, Sweden and Norway, exploring "business opportunities" and learning about beer by visiting breweries, sampling local brands and talking to experts.
On his return, Jahanbein and partners decided to open a new Saloon on U Street, just down the block from institutions like the Lincoln Theatre and Ben's Chili Bowl -- and years before the Ellington Apartments and trendy furniture stores began their march on the area.
They spent years renovating the modest building by hand. "We came here to be a small neighborhood place," Jahanbein explains. "We didn't expect all these changes around us. But I don't worry about it. I'm happy with what I've got here. We cannot pretend to be something we are not."
The Saloon looks like a classic tavern, with lots of hardwood accents and Tiffany-style lamps. Sepia-toned portraits, vintage beer advertisements and photos of jazz greats cover the walls. The kitchen turns out crowd pleasers such as burgers with bacon and blue cheese, cheese steak subs heavy with provolone and onions, and, on Tuesdays, 10-ounce New York sirloin steak dinners for $10.
What sets the Saloon apart, though, is Jahanbein's insistence on stocking "top-shelf" beers. He boasts that he doesn't carry light beers or "beers you see on TV," which means no Budweiser or Heineken (although he'll apparently make an exception for Guinness).
Instead, the focus is on products like Urbock 23, an extremely rare Austrian beer sold in tiny wine glasses with a strict limit of one per customer. Urbock packs quite a punch -- it's 9.6 percent alcohol -- but Jahanbein says the restriction is simply because of supply. "We get a limited quantity every three months, and we want everyone to try it. It's a sipping beer," with a smooth, dry taste reminiscent of apple cider. German lagers and Belgian ales dominate the rest of the menu. There are nine drafts and at least 20 bottled beers at any given time; current favorites include the summery Erdinger Weissbier and the rich Abbaye des Rocs Burgundy.
The beers have an international flavor, and so does Jahanbein's ongoing commitment to "good causes and making the world a better place." Scattered around the room are plaques and framed commendation letters from Habitat for Humanity, the organization that builds houses for low-income families around the globe.
A trio of letters near a window booth congratulate Jahanbein on his fundraising prowess over the last two years -- more than $58,000 earmarked for houses in Egypt, more than $50,000 for another project in Nigeria, almost $9,000 for yet another in Cameroon. But, Jahanbein says, involvement doesn't stop when a check is written. He flies around the world to meet with Habitat's local affiliates and the people who will live in the houses, and to see the area for himself.
"I've built 50 homes in Danang, in Vietnam. I just came back from Egypt, building 30 homes there. I'm in the process of building 30 houses in Nigeria and Cameroon. Habitat is very important to me." And when he goes to Africa in December to finalize arrangements for the construction of two high schools, the Saloon will simply close for two weeks.
In a rear hallway, near the bathrooms, is a framed display of before-and-after photographs showing families who have moved from tiny, rundown shacks to modest houses with help from Habitat, Jahanbein and the Saloon. Over one rear booth, the brick walls are covered with the names of patrons who donated money to help build those houses in Danang.
Elsewhere in the bar, you'll see a number of other names in gold paint. They honor folks from the neighborhood who became regular customers -- although plaques on the bar also pay tribute to the owners of Austria's Eggenberg Brewery, the makers of Urbock 23.
Jahanbein prides himself on being quirky. He laughs: "I might be the only bar to stay in business without a TV, and Bud Light and Miller Lite and Courvoisier." Instead, he relies on one of the oldest forms of entertainment: human interaction.