Raising a Glass as the Black Rooster's Last Crow Approaches

By John Kelly
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The man from Philadelphia descended on the Black Rooster Pub like the Angel of Death. Out came the tape measure, out came the notebook. He specializes in breaking up bars and restaurants, does the man from Philadelphia, and he surveyed the contents of the L Street watering hole -- the hand-carved bar back, the vintage sconces, the old mirrors -- with the efficient air of a butcher sizing up a steer.

"It broke my heart to see it," said Jody Taylor.

Jody was sitting on a barstool a few hours after the man from Philadelphia had left. I was sitting one barstool over. Jody's 62. He has a graying moustache and a barstool build. He's worked at the Black Rooster on and off for 35 years. He's owned it outright since January. Barring a miracle, he'll close it for good on Friday.

The Black Rooster wasn't the oldest bar in Washington. It wasn't the prettiest or the cheapest or the best. It was what it was. And what it was was just fine for its regulars: paper pushers who wanted a burger for lunch or a beer after work, college students ambling over from GWU, rugby players toasting their victories or salving their defeats.

A long skinny space -- bar down one wall, tables down another -- it provided a bit of life to a downtown that can be awfully sterile after dark.

The sign outside reads "Est. 1970. Proprietor A.A. Augcohant." There is no A.A. Augcohant, Jody explained. There was Auger, Cohen and Antonelli.

There was a time in Washington when all across town William Cohen owned the building, Dominic Antonelli ran its parking garage and Ulysses "Blackie" Auger ran its restaurant. Jody worked for Blackie for 33 years, starting as the doorman at the Black Greco club, at 2oth and L NW, and rising to company regional manager. Blackie's empire was once spread out like islands in the Aegean: Blackie's House of Beef, the Black Ulysses, the Black Tahiti, the Black Rose, Samantha's, Cousteau's, the Ha'Penny Lion. . . .

Blackie died in 2004. His family got out of food and into hotels. The Rooster is the last of his establishments, sold 10 months ago to the loyal Jody Taylor for $1.

In the flurry of activity of getting the Rooster the way he wanted it--new flat-screen TVs, a renewed sidewalk seating license--Jody neglected to pick up an option to extend the lease. The option went to the GSA, which wants the space for 1919 L Street's main occupant: the Peace Corps. Word is it will be a conference room.

"I knew this going in," Jody said of the month-to-month lease that proved his undoing. "They didn't pull the wool over my eyes."

Supporters of the bar started a petition, and some local politicians wrote the Peace Corps, but none of it did any good. So on this quiet Columbus Day evening, Jody reminisced about the Black Rooster.

His 28-year-old son, Jake, has worked there for eight years. His dad hazed him like any new hire. One day soon after Jake started, Jody said that he'd lent a vital piece of equipment -- the Rooster's "beer defoamer" -- to Rumours, a bar a block away. Jake ran over there to pick it up. At Rumours, he was told they'd lent to the Sign of the Whale across the street. And on it went, a snipe hunt around the downtown bar scene.

"He came back and said, 'Dad, can we buy another one of those?' "

Jody once invented a drink. One night after closing the bar, he and a rugby friend mixed ingredients until they'd concocted a cocktail that went down smooth and kicked like a Rockette. What to name it?

"Well you're from Colorado," Jody said to his friend.

"And you're a [very bad four-syllable noun, the most famous personification of which is Oedipus]," said the friend.

And thus was born the "Colorado [very bad four-syllable noun, the most famous personification of which is Oedipus]." Its ingredients: tequila, rum, Kahlua, milk, Coke and Crème de Banana.

"Well shaken," Jody stressed.

The Black Rooster's staff has stayed with Jody, even when it was clear the pub wouldn't make it to Halloween. Now the employees contemplate their next moves. Bartender Gordon Cameron wants to get his sommelier certification. Waitress Kate Williams will fall back on her other job: German translation. And she'll probably try to find another bar to work at. "I've closed a lot of places," said the veteran of Machiavelli's and the Zebra Room.

Jody's been looking around for a new location, but if it isn't within two or three blocks, he's not interested. This is where his customers are, after all.

"It's been a good run," Jody said. "People tell me I should write a book. I've got the perfect title: 'As the Rooster Crows.' "

My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com

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