Nurturing Simpler Tastes

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008

Anyone who knows the neighborhood around the ramshackle Argonaut Tavern in Northeast Washington knows that money doesn't typically find its way there. And the lime-green pub, near 15th and H streets, has never been mistaken for a downtown hot spot.

Dimly lighted and decorated with nautical lanterns, globes and a fish tank, the bar is known for its fish tacos, "booty beer" and Booze Clues trivia game night. Think Red Lobster meets greasy spoon.

But this Thanksgiving, bartender and server Chris Babor asked his boss whether he could open the place up earlier, about 1 o'clock instead of the usual 8 p.m. holiday time. It might boost business, he reasoned, and he could use the extra cash.

"I thought I'd call my friends, send them a text message, let them know what's up," said Babor, 30, who lives off H Street. "There's a lot of people sticking around the neighborhood."

In the face of a weak economy denting thin pocketbooks, some Washingtonians traded traditional plans for a simpler Thanksgiving -- perched atop a barstool, sitting in front of a beer and fries.

By midafternoon yesterday, a dozen regulars had gathered at the Argonaut, drinking at the bar or relaxing in one of the wooden booths. Two TVs showing different football games blared in the background, as customers chatted about late-night escapades and neighborhood gossip.

"I wasn't planning to come in hung over, but I did," one patron tells a friend. "Need an aspirin?" the friend asks, reaching toward his pocket.

Javier Sanchez, who works for a nonprofit research firm in the District and lives in the Trinidad neighborhood, said money played a part in his decision not to spend $200 on round-trip airfare to see his family in Hammond, La., near New Orleans. Instead, the 27-year-old spent some of his Thanksgiving at the Argonaut, drinking and listening to the occasional joke.

"It's not that bad. I'll get some pumpkin pie later," Sanchez said. "But I'm definitely going home for Christmas."

The economical approach to Thanksgiving fits in along H Street, a once less-than-sightly stretch of boarded-up buildings and vacant lots where changes have been brewing for years.

About a year ago, the bar's 29-year-old owner, Scott Magnuson, decided to renovate the restaurant he bought in 2005. "We wanted to go from dive bar to family friendly," he said. "The area had matured, so we thought we'd change along with it."

Gone is the pool table that sat prominently in the center of the bar. A chef was added, as was a wine list. Wednesday became kids' night.

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