During college football season, every big school has its own little Saturday morning fiefdom in the Washington area: Alabama draws hundreds of fans to the Old Dominion Brewhouse by the Walter E. Washington Convention Center; Texas packs the Rhodeside Grill in Arlington with burnt-orange shirts flashing the Hook ’em Horns; Notre Dame fans fill the Exchange sports bar near the White House.
All of this is fine if you went to a particular school and want to wear your colors with pride.
But if you just want a spot to spend a lazy Saturday watching college football — and there are few greater things to do on a fall afternoon — those one-note bars can disappoint. For a more immersive experience, I’d rather go to Mason Inn.
The Glover Park bar is home to four alumni groups, all from the powerful Southeastern Conference: Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi. The Bulldogs, Gamecocks and Gators are ranked in the preseason top 10, so you know the quality of football will be high. And while the Rebels haven’t been that good lately, Mason Inn co-owner Fritz Brogan notes that Ole Miss fans “come out in full force and take drinking seriously.”
But what makes the atmosphere so festive is that these four schools aren’t the only representatives of the SEC that show up. Patrons at the bar sport Razorbacks T-shirts or crimson polos, though Arkansas and Alabama alumni “officially” gather elsewhere. Every SEC contest, along with the day’s other big games, are shown on a dozen flatscreen televisions and a 100-inch projection screen.
“One of the things about Mason Inn is that it reminds a lot of folks of being at a bar in Athens [Georgia] or Oxford [Mississippi],” says Doug Matties, a 2001 Georgia graduate and the president of the local alumni group, DC Dawgs. “It’s got a Southern college town feeling. If you’ve been to one of those places, you know what it’s like: It’s more relaxing; there’s a lot of dark wood.”
Though Georgia has other viewing sites in the D.C. area, including Crystal City Sports Pub and Public Bar in Dupont Circle, “Mason Inn is special for us — it’s more of a Southern sports bar, versus just a Georgia sports bar,” he says.
For some alumni, going to watch a game at Mason Inn is no different than heading to the stadium. They embrace dressing up on gameday, no matter how odd it may be to see Ole Miss alumnae wearing pearls and sundresses (in the school’s red and blue colors) while sipping bourbon cocktails, or Georgia alums in red button-down shirts, black ties and battered ballcaps at a dive bar before noon on a Saturday.
For Meghan Milloy, a 2009 Ole Miss graduate, watching Rebels games with friends is a way to reconnect with the school’s traditions. “At Ole Miss, we like to dress up for the games, and we do that here, too. It’s like being in the Grove,” she says, referring to the famed tailgating spot on the Oxford campus. “I don’t think that everyone dresses up as well as Ole Miss does, but if you come here, you know you’re not at a Pac-12 bar.”
While everyone is welcome, Mason Inn knows how to cater to its regulars. Before the South Carolina Gamecocks take the field, the bar’s DJ blasts Darude’s “Sandstorm,” just as they do at Williams-Brice Stadium. During timeouts and at halftime, fight songs and marching band tunes blast from the bar’s speakers, and fans shout along. Pop-country and classic rock songs get crowds dancing. The bartenders, most of whom went to SEC schools, wear jerseys and talk football while pouring $9 pitchers of Miller Lite and $4 mimosas.
South Carolina has two other gamewatching spots in the area. Ben Shand, class of 2006, says the other official bars are “okay. Mason Inn is a better atmosphere. It’s 100 percent in, they play fight songs, and it can get rowdy.”
Shand compares it to “being at a game, where people are so passionate about their teams.”
Part of that has to do with Mason Inn’s relatively close confines; Georgia flags hang a few feet from clusters of jersey-wearing Florida fans. The bar’s 130 seats are usually filled on a first-come, first-taken basis, so on big game days, groups show up before the bar opens to stake out tables hours before kickoff.
“There’s of course some playful trash talk,” Shand says. “I’ve exchanged words with Georgia fans, but they don’t have much to say to me, since I’ve never seen them beat us since I’ve been going to Mason Inn.”
He recalls the 2011 South Carolina-Georgia game, when the two groups of fans sat “right next to each other” in the crowded bar. “There was a lot of real trash talk going back and forth. Then we got a sack — Jadeveon Clowney threw down Aaron Murray — and we all jumped up and celebrated, and all the Georgia fans had their heads in their hands. I think a couple of them were crying.”
Shand emphasizes that it wasn’t mean-spirited: “We made sure they knew we were having a good time.”
Of course, fans can be gracious in defeat as well as victory. During last season’s game between Ole Miss and Texas A&M, “there were a few A&M fans sprinkled in the crowd” at Mason Inn, says Ole Miss’s Milloy. “We thought we were going to win, but they came back to beat us at the last minute.
“In the tradition of Mississippi hospitality, we bought some of the A&M fans a drink. There wasn’t much else we could do. It was their first game against Ole Miss [since joining the SEC], so it was nice to welcome them into the family.”
That kind of SEC sportsmanship and solidarity is a key thing at Mason Inn, says Georgia’s Matties: “When other SEC schools are playing, you want them to win, especially when it’s out-of-conference games. It comes back to conference pride. Last year, when Alabama won the national championship, the players were not saying the name of the school, they’re saying the name of the conference. It makes your school look better.”
So, does that mean he ever finds himself rooting for archrival Florida?
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Matties says. “It’s more rooting against the team they’re playing.”
At Mason Inn, there are plenty of chances to do just that.
2408 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-337-1313. www.masoninndc.com.
Doors open at 11 a.m. on Saturday and noon on Sunday. DJs or bands begin performing at 9 p.m.