End of the Roadhouse

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

The exact whereabouts are like secret knowledge, passed around by people who grew up in places like Mount Rainier, or Bladensburg -- when they were hard-living blue-collar white-complexion neighborhoods just over the city line, before they got "art districts," brew pubs and Salvadoran restaurants, and everybody else moved to Calvert County.

Now around midnight you're scrutinizing the scribbled address by the dashboard light. Can't be. Yup, is. This is the place.

On the edge of rushing Kenilworth Avenue, between a tire shop and a used-car lot, is a blunt brick-and-cinder-block bunker. No windows. Exterior shafts of dim yellow, green and blue light illuminate beer signs. On top, a small neon beacon: "Surf Club," with silhouettes of a cocktail glass and musical notes. Parking is in back. Somebody has brought his dump truck.

It looks like the kind of place where it would be best not to make eye contact. Where a wise man has probably said, Son, if you don't start it, there won't be any.

Put your faith in the rusty electric guitar nailed like a religious icon to the facade, and step inside.

It's not often you can be present at an extinction.

* * *

Chick Hall's Surf Club, born in 1955, is the Washington area's last roadhouse.

Not to take away from a few other joints that bear elements of that classic American style of refuge, but Chick's is the last of the originals, combining all the essential ingredients: Planted hard by the highway. Offering live music six or seven nights a week -- preferably country, honky-tonk, a rootsy blue sizzle. Charging little or nothing at the door. Featuring a big oak dance floor -- but no line-dancing, friend, and no mechanical bulls or Urban Cowboy airs, either.

Chick's has got "atmosphere," all right. As authentic and earned as callused hands, not re-created and market-tested like pre-faded jeans in Branson, Mo.

It's the kind of place where guys still use a pocketknife to groom their pool cue tips. Where the mechanic next door comes in to ask his buddy at the bar for help with a timing belt. Where mothers used to send their youngsters to drag Daddy the hell home for dinner. Where there was sawdust on the dance floor -- only guess what, it wasn't really sawdust, it was powdered shuffleboard wax. Where the fading "rules" are still printed on the wall -- "Anyone fighting will be barred" -- and posted side by side are schedules for the Redskins and NASCAR.

Chick Hall -- a country-jazz guitar virtuoso who made Armed Forces Radio records with Glenn Miller -- installed himself as the main attraction, the house band in his own house. But he had lots of help. Patsy Cline sang her heart out at the Surf Club, when it was located not far away on Bladensburg Road in Colmar Manor. Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark, Charlie Daniels, Lefty Frizzell, Jim Reeves dropped by to jam. In 1975 Chick relocated to the current location, 4711 Kenilworth Ave., in Edmonston.

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