On a chilly Sunday night at Jay’s Saloon and Grille, with a clutch of regulars watching the Packers-49ers game at the bar, owner and bartender Jay Moore welcomes a new customer with a greeting familiar to many: “Make yourself at home.”
It’s an implausible suggestion at some businesses, but the atmosphere at Jay’s, with its lending library crammed with paperback suspense novels, dog-friendly patio and worn Old West decor, is far removed from those of the upmarket Clarendon bars nearby.
“When you come in here, it’s like coming into your living room,” says Tom Bacon, an IT contractor for the Pentagon and Jay’s customer since the mid-1990s. “Matter of fact, that’s what we call it: ‘The living room.’ ” Adam Porter, a technical writer at the National Institutes of Health, has been a regular for seven years. “We all know each other,” he said. “Every last one of us.”
But soon, the bar’s devoted regulars will find themselves dispossessed. Developer Clark Realty plans to build a residential-retail complex on the lot occupied by Jay’s and two adjacent car lots, pending approval by the Arlington County Board and neighborhood residents. In the meantime, Jay’s operates on a month-to-month basis.
Jay and Kathi Moore said they haven’t made definite plans after the bar closes. Jay Moore researched starting over elsewhere but found rising real estate prices prohibitive to the prospect. “It’s just too expensive in this area. You can’t run a neighborhood bar and pay your rent. They wanted $18,500 a month for rent for a place this size. And you know if you’re going to be a neighborhood joint, you’ve got to sell your beer at a decent price. You can’t charge six bucks for a bottle of Budweiser.”
Both say they’ll miss the many customers who have become friends over the years. “We’ve had weddings here, funerals here. We’ve had a divorce here,” Kathi Moore said, recalling the time she asked a lawyer who worked next door to witness the signature of two longtime customers on their divorce papers.
Former government employees who worked in human resources at the Central Intelligence Agency, Kathi and Jay Moore quit their jobs to open Jay’s Saloon and Grille in 1993. In October, the bar held a party to celebrate its 20th anniversary, complete with commemorative T-shirts.
In rapidly changing Clarendon, narratives such as the Moores’ are commonplace. In the two decades since they opened their modest bar, the neighborhood once populated by local retail stores and restaurants — many family-owned and multiethnic — has been transformed to one dominated by high-rise residential housing, upscale restaurants and national chain stores catering to the area’s increasingly higher-income demographic. “When we first started, in 1993, it was still like a Little Saigon, with all the [predominantly Vietnamese] restaurants and shops. That made it fun,” Kathi Moore said.
“We’re a neighborhood bar — that’s who we are,” she said of Jay’s, which regularly made regional lists of top dive bars. She said it attracted an older demographic than others in the area. “We’re geared toward the 40- and 50-year-olds. They’re the ones that keep us in business, because they come every day. The 20-somethings and 30-somethings, they’ll come over from Mad Rose, Clarendon Ballroom, on a Friday and Saturday night, looking for beer, go back out again.”
Jay Moore said his biggest compliment comes from visitors who tell him Jay’s reminds them of a bar back home.“And I get it from people from the North, the South, East, West, Midwest. Someplace you can just roll out of bed, come in in your sweats, don’t have to do your hair or makeup.”
The group of regulars watching football at the bar takes a grim view of the impending closing. “It’s sad,” Bacon said. “Known these people for many years, and the big question is, where will all these people go?” Longtime customer Rick Callin suggested that Clarendon’s large-scale retail and residential development comes at the expense of small businesses such as Jay’s that contribute to local character. The same thing happened to Georgetown in the 1980s and ’90s, he said. “They kicked out all the [bars with] personalities, and everything that made Georgetown what it was.”
As for what bars he’ll frequent after Jay’s closes its doors, Bacon is emphatic: “There are no bars around here,” he said dismissively. “When you go [to other Clarendon bars], you’re just in a business. And that’s the big difference. This is home. It’ll be a sad day when it closes.”