GOOD VIBES. Felt any lately at your local luxury hotel cocktail lounge? Aha. Well, yes, the carpet is kind of a nice plush, Williamsburg green. But we were asking about vibes.
You know: the feeling that hits you every time you slip into certain worn, dark rooms to have a beer and talk. Or to sulk, or act silly, or show a little team spirit among the usual noisy, familiar, comfortably dissimilar crowd -- which also happens to be a good way of describing the stuff on the walls.
You know the feeling: That you're safe here, that it's okay to loosen up and learn some things about your fellow man, that the waitress surely must act this way with everybody. That you're among friends, even though you might hardly know anyone. That somebody really should dust the antlers on that deer's head, but if someone does you'll be among the first to complain about how the joint is losing its character.
Hey. It's a corporation-eat-corporation world out there. It is not unusual to want to spend some time in one of the last working strongholds of the independent, family-owned business: The neighborhood bar. The corner pub. The gathering place. The no-frills, low-cost grill.
The place where, in most cases, what you see is what you get. Often for less.
To paraphrase Steve Seville, manager of Whitey's in Arlington: It's easy to trick people into coming in. It's impossible to trick people into coming back.
A neighborhood bar these days doesn't even have to be in your neighborhood anymore -- or anyone's neighborhood. These ancient trappings, this haphazard decor and we-got-our-own-problems attitude will transport quite a few of us back to quite a few different old neighborhoods. So what if outside the creaky old door, growing legions of bottom-line developers seem to have forgotten that the bottom line ought to be accessible to foot traffic?
Is it personal service we miss? Accountability? Listen -- like narrow ties and certain Republicans, some things have a way of coming back into favor again years later.
And here are 16 pretty good places to sit around and either fret about this, or wait patiently. COLONEL BROOKS' TAVERN (901 Monroe Street NE. 529-4002)
Maybe it's that cute striped cat sipping a bowl of milk outside the kitchen door of Colonel Brooks' Tavern that makes you like the place before you get in the front door. (Or maybe it's knowing that the chef has a tender heart but enough sense to keep the little beast outside). In any event, you'll feel as welcome almost immediately at this Brookland pub.
There's a constant flow of neighborhood folk, black and white, who have been regulars since the place became a tavern six years ago. Before that, the two-story brick building in the shadow of Catholic University had been a storefront church, a '30s cigar shop and pool hall, later a tailor shop, and even a newspaper home-delivery drop. But these days it's a popular establishment where patrons dress just slightly better than they would for dinner at home.
It is often noisy, partly because so many of the patrons know each other, and partly because the wooden floors don't absorb any of the sound. But the floors and the large bay windows that look across Monroe Street to the recently renovated Brooks Mansion are a large part of Colonel Brooks' relaxed charm and character.
More than 150 years ago, businessman Jehiel Brooks and his wife settled on a 185-acre tract and built the stately mansion as a wedding gift to her. His portrait, shot by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, hangs behind the wooden bar. And that's where you'll also find at least a dozen beers on tap, one of the city's largest assortments of draft brew. Prices for a 12-ounce mug range from $1.25 for Pabst Blue Ribbon to $1.90 for any of six imported beers. There's a wide range of menu choices, including four kinds of burgers for under $4; quiche of the day; and usually fresh fish, too. If you drop in for just a snack, try the potato skins. CHEVY CHASE LOUNGE (5534 Connecticut Ave. NW. 362-4256)
At the moment, one of the guys at the bar is saying this old place is just too new. What probably happened is the door in the men's room hit him in the back when he wasn't looking, and now he's just cranky. The men's room was much bigger in the old Chevy Chase Lounge, see.
Enough about the old Chevy Chase Lounge. It is now the site of a 7-Eleven. Life goes on.
Two years ago, the Kinseys, Gary (behind the bar) and Mary (in the kitchen), opened this spare and sparkling new place about a half-block south of the cluttered and significantly darker old place, which they left because of an imminent, impossible rent increase. The Kinseys bought the Chevy Chase Lounge in 1975, had managed it since 1963 and weren't about to leave.
So the new place looks like less of a lounge and more of a family restaurant -- which it always ways during the day anyway. Otherwise, it's the same place (except now they do accept credit cards): Same strange oldies-prone jukebox. Same everpresent game on the TV. Same noisy, late crowds when the Avalon books a winner, or when the college crowd get out every spring (particularly the under-21 college crowd, it being just two blocks to the Maryland line).
At the central, curving bar, a $1.60 Bud still comes in the long-neck returnable, the Lounge Burger still satisfies for $3.55, and you had better get your box scores straight. This being on the fringes of Broadcasting Heights, the familiar-looking fellow next to you might quote you on the 11 o'clock news. THE COLD DUCK (1732 Connecticut Ave. NW. 667-6211)
Ice has been both good and bad to Jimmy Geralis, the 56-year-old D.C. native who's owned this upper Dupont Circle storefront landmark since 1964. Geralis, the affable presence behind the Cold Duck's tiny, regulars-dominated bar most nights, has never had enough room for a full refrigeration system; he's always kept the bottled beer cold with ice.
But it was ice that forced him to close down for about a month three years ago, when the pipes burst in a record chill, ruining much of his three-story building. He had to replace the entire plumbing system. It was the longest he'd ever been closed (the Cold Duck deliberately stays open on holidays, and for the last 15 or so years has put on a free Thanksgiving buffet for neighbors with no other plans), and Geralis didn't like it at all. "I closed on Christmas 1983, but I was open again for the Super Bowl," he says. "And I had business-interruption insurance, you know. I could've taken my time."
The clientele often seems to be a little older than the neighborhood at large, but the Duck is homey enough to frustrate most generalizations: Over here's a table of Young Democrats. Over there's a table of retired machinists and their wives. They're about equally rowdy. What's missing here, in the end, are the old booths: They went the way of the old plumbing.
What you should not miss here is the meat loaf ($4.50), the pan-fried chicken ($4.25, and what's a 45-minute wait when both of Geralis' cooks have been around for 20 years apiece?) or the lifetime of sports- and customer-related snapshots, awards, boxing gloves, hockey sticks and otherwise captivating paraphernalia on the north wall. FRIENDLY INN (5723 Tuxedo Rd., Tuxedo, Md. 773-7402)
The glass front door is swung open, letting in a gentle spring breeze while the ceiling fans push cigarette smoke outside. Humphrey Bogart is making a pass at Ingrid Bergman but no one's paying attention. Instead, the dozen or so patrons are concentrating on the shuffle-bowl game. The competition is fierce, with both sets of doubles coaching each other, giving pointers on the best wrist action and bounce shots. It's a typical evening at the Friendly Inn, a tiny brick-and-glass tavern wedged between a small mechanical company and the Cheverly-Tuxedo firehouse.
"I like the atmosphere here 'cause you meet a cross-section of people," says regular George Meyer, a retired fireman who now works as a fire and arson investigator. "Believe it or not, I get a lot of technical information from engineers who come here. It actually helps me in business."
Like many of the faithful at "the Friendly," Meyer, 58, has been stopping in since the late '40s when the inn was located a couple of blocks west on Tuxedo Road. Although there are more businesses and traffic in the well-worn industrial area these days, little has changed at the neighborhood pub.
"It's the same wooden bar as in the old place," he says, offering proof of the tavern's authenticity. He could just as well have pointed to the four orange vinyl booths where rips are mended by adding another strip of metallic tape. The designer silver is Cheverly chic.
From daybreak to long past sunset, the Friendly Inn caters to a steady flow of diners who recommend the $1.75 cheeseburger platter or the daily specials like fried chicken or ham steak in the $3.50-to-$4.50 range. A glass of Lite from the tap is 75 cents plus tax. Happy hour runs from 4 to 6 weekdays, but who notices when the price difference is only 15 to 30 cents? GALLAGHER'S PUB (3319 Connecticut Ave. NW. 686-9189)
Though there is nightly live folk-Irish-acoustic entertainment, and far too many people hovering for a seat on Friday (and hardly any of them are from the Cleveland Park neighborhood), Gallagher's somehow remains a solidly recommendable neighborhood bar. Why?
It may be the unchanging, high-ceilinged, homey-but-sophisticated look of the place. Or the fact that none of the more weatherbeaten regulars at the long bar look as if they'd be interested in a young man's original folk songs, but then half of them actually are, it turns out, and a third of them even applaud.
It may also have something to do with the gentle, dependable presence of longtime owners Ginny and Conan Gallagher, or with longtime waitresses who, if not quite as gentle, are just as dependable. Or maybe it's the thoughtful oldies-and-folkies jukebox, or the curious skill, possessed by many a Gallagher's bartender, of making a first-timer feel like he's been here before.
Or maybe it's just the soup. Yeah, that's it. The soup. McDONALD'S RAW BAR (7546 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda. 652-9750)
"It was a really good thing for a long time," says waitress Pia Fulcher of McDonald's Raw Bar as she slips into a chair, joining two newcomers at the Bethesda landmark. But her remarks are actually an obituary. The Raw Bar will close on June 30, and the building will fall to the wrecking ball by summer's end to make room for a 1,200-car-parking garage.
Fulcher says she'll lose her month-old part-time job when the Raw Bar moves to Bentz Street in Frederick "but I'll still have my full-time job as a secretary up the street." Life goes on, as they say.
And, for a month or so, so will the five TVs with nonstop sports and the steady stream of conversation that has made the beer-soaked, happily tacky tavern a popular meeting place since 1947.
That means there's still time to stop in and enjoy a bit of the past. Don't worry if you're only wearing cut-offs and a tee-shirt. And also don't expect anything but cold sandwiches or an Armand's Pizza to eat. A kitchen fire in October 1984 put an end to the fish and oyster business but couldn't stop the flow of cold beer and warm company. MILLIE & AL'S (2440 18th St. NW. 387-8131)
Al Shapiro remembers a time when his dependably offhand little saloon, like ever more precious Adams Morgan itself, was a genuinely tough place. "When we started 24 years ago, it wasn't so bad," says Shapiro, whose wife and partner Millie died 12 years ago, and whose son John now helps him run the place. "Then things went downhill gradually till about seven, eight years ago, when the neighborhood really started to change. Now it's all these hippies, yippies, whattayacallems. Young professionals. Yeah. You seen one, you seen 'em all."
That's kind of the way Shapiro and his place are: Whoever wants in, fine. Might as well be nice to 'em. You seen one, you seen 'em all.
He says that last line a lot, the way some of us say "Y'know."
Furthermore, draft beer is a buck, $4.75 by the pitcher, and one of Al's large, sloppy and ever-popular combination pizzas will feed most of your family, or your feminism-awareness discussion group, for $9.50.
"I liked it better in the old days," says Shapiro, surveying the primarily college-age crowd chatting, at the top of its lungs, just beyond the more experienced regulars at the bar, some of whom appear mesmerized by a soundless telecast of a country music awards program on the TV over the door. "Used to be I could come in here and sit at just about any table with people I knew. But those days are gone. Now at night I'm lucky I know anybody."
But, Shapiro says, he doesn't really plan to change the place, or sell it. "I'm getting up in age," he says. "I think about selling it. But then I think, what will I do? I'll probably die in here." THE OXFORD TAVERN (3000 Connecticut Ave. NW.)
Most people call this the Zoo Bar -- the sign outside only says TAVERN, and the phone number's unpublished -- and this may or may not have something to do with the National Zoo, which is just across Connecticut Avenue. The Oxford Tavern's been in the same spot as long as anyone -- including the Korean couple who last year bought it and generally spruced it up -- can remember. As the paint and carpet have gotten newer ("It's too damn CLEAN in here," says graffiti in the men's room), the regulars have been getting younger, as at so many other plain and gimmickless bars. There aren't as many nights when you can walk in, for example, and find five beefy, 60ish guys hunched over the bar, four of them wearing expando-caps with embroidered U.S. Marines insignias, all of them intently watching the TV, on which is playing the original film version of "The Wizard of Oz."
The sidewalk area out front is as nice a place as you'll find on a warm night to order a pitcher of beer and discuss, say, the state of rock music; dream analysis; animal husbandry; lying, worthless ex-boyfriends; and Montgomery County real estate.
Those were all separate checks, by the way. Is that Zoo Bar nickname starting to make more sense to you yet? THE POST PUB (1422 L St. NW. 628-2111)
When brothers Jim and Bob Beaulieu bought this plain and personable little place, the decor amounted to "about three plastic pictures and an old rug," in Bob's words -- about one item per regular customer, to stretch a point. That was 10 years ago, when more people probably lived in the neighborhood than nowadays -- but fewer felt comfortable mixing with decidedly bluer collars of a decidedly grimier Pub.
Now that the place attracts a more catholic mix of neckties and workshirts, Bob Beaulieu will tell you "we're a neighborhood bar without a neighborhood" -- although this is a slight exaggeration, and it does downplay the effect the Pub itself has had on keeping what's left of this neighborhood together, as surrounding blocks fill with box after box of Available Office Space.
At lunch most weekdays, in any case, there's generally a line outside the Pub -- which is small, serves reliable food (including terrific onion rings and Greek salads, and among the city's best burger platters, the work of two cooks who each pre-date the Beaulieu brothers by at least 10 years) and engagingly, haphazardly decorated with beer-company mirrors and framed photos of regulars past and present. The kitchen is new, Bob says. Also, the dartboards are pretty much inoperative, and the woman whose snapshot you always seem to sit next to in the back booth doesn't come in anymore.
A visit after happy hour, however, gets you closest to the heart of the Pub, inhabited in these hours by nearby office-bound stragglers, various softball stars and beach-house partners, old-timers and an eclectic mix of tradesmen, craftsmen and salesmen from the namesake newspaper across 15th Street.
Most nights, this mix -- conspicuously lacking one large neighborhood element, by the way, that being the one working on nearby corners, generally in high heels -- is presided over by bartender Basil Hanlon. Hanlon's cherubic face appears on the menu, and his distinctive, friendly New York accent, generally in mid-gibe, is clearly audible back in the farthest corner of the men's room. Which is another story. THE SALOON (3239 M St. NW. 338-4900)
Normally, a place in Georgetown would not have made this list: so much of what makes a neighborhood livable, after all -- from affordable rents to a remote chance of on-street parking -- is missing west of the West End lately, and especially late. The Saloon provides a dash of low-tech, high-ceilinged, no-dress-code relief.
Co-owner and manager Kami Jahanbein has kind of a renegade sense of humor; this is evident in the generic name he and partner Don Turano gave the place nine years ago, and in the odd signs stuck on various exposed-brick surfaces here, as in: "Fat Lady With a Typewriter Wanted," "We're Not a Meat Market But We Do Sell Bananas," "What Are You Looking Up Here For?" and so on.
Furthermore, in his words, "if you come in a lot, and you are nice, we'll paint your name up on the wall." Small name plates also are attached to bar stools, evidently so Jahanbein can be in on the fun when someone comes up behind someone else and says, "Excuse me, but you're sitting in my chair." He grins, setting this up. "What's the first thing you would say?" Jahanbein says, nudging. "You say, 'Why, does it have your name on it?' " What a card, that Kami.
Speaking of those, Jahanbein likes to point out that The Saloon does not honor American Express cards. Other cards available here, however, include official Saloon postcards, with a cartoon depiction of the pub's odd preppie-punk-diplomat-dirtball clientele; and similar-sized cards with the bar's schedule of nightly jazz acts. There are also mid-week steak specials, and on Monday nights the bar sells 50 kinds of beer, a dozen of them drafts, for $2 to $3 apiece. STETSON'S (1610 U St. NW. 667-6295)
"We have a label now," says Pete Shillinglaw, co-owner of this unadorned and bustling Tex-Mex temple of exposed brick, tiled floors and spare neon. "We're a yuppie bar. I wish someone would tell me what that means."
Well, it certainly reflects the overall gentrification of this latest neighborhood-in-transition, about equidistant from the more built-up hearts of Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle. And Shillinglaw himself, in fact, does provides a pretty firm handle on said yuppiedom later on, as he's talking about a recent private party Stetson's had in its upstairs room (open to the overflow public on weekends) for "about 90 traveled, intelligent, not-poor kids, who didn't tear the place up."
So one guy did climb up on a table, Shillinglaw says. "But I went and got him down off the table -- and he didn't hit me in the face, like they would've in Liverpool."
Shillinglaw is from Liverpool, a sort of career pub-ologist who probably accounts for most of Stetson's sophisticated, uncluttered ambiance (and for the best 45s on both jukeboxes, ranging from Billy Holliday to Lou Reed to OMD). Partner Ralph Leblanc is from Texas, by way of the Third District police headquarters across U Street, where he still works and which he still doesn't like to discuss much. Leblanc is the homier presence here: Shillinglaw makes sure you know that Stetson's was the first with Rolling Rock on tap ($1.35, 99 cents in happy hour), or that the margaritas have been at $2.95 for the last three years. Leblanc just tells you he mostly wants you to feel comfortable sitting here, whether you're alone or with people whose apartment security codes you know intimately.
Anyway, Stetson's now has a 40-seat back patio, and this block of "the U Street Renaissance," formerly known as plain old U Street, now boasts two, soon three other restaurants. Already, lunch business straggles in from the partially complete new municipal center at 14th & U. Already, you will have to sell the car to afford the apartment around the corner. Stay tuned. TOWN HALL (8135 Baltimore Blvd., College Park. 474-3322)
In College Park, there's a world of difference between City Hall and Town Hall. Although people always get around to talking politics at both places, they seem to enjoy themselves more at Town Hall. That's probably because they manage to soak up some suds, shoot a little pool and a lot of breeze, play the video games or watch sporting events on the big screen. Folks over at City Hall can only talk about beer.
But that's not to say the University of Maryland hangout is a beautiful place. It ain't pretty. Not with red-brick tiles running halfway up the walls, and a plain cement floor that's hosed down nightly. The only decorations on the rest of the walls are the Terrapin posters and the massive beer signs listing half-price nights. If a first-time visitor were to turn on his heel and head for one of those new, brass-and-blond-wood, palm-packed hotspots along nearby Greenbelt Road, we'd understand.
Most patrons come in to see their friends, get away from their dorm mates and, during the week, to take advantage of the half-price specials on imported bottled beer or pitchers of draft. On any given night, there's an odd collection of university kids mixed in with locals who are pursuing their higher education at Town Hall. But the collective logic is the same. Who cares that the ribs are served on a paper plate? And for that matter, where else can you get a huge pile of nachos for $1.50; a bottle of Heineken for $1.25; and watch a ball game, and maybe see a half-dozen rising sports stars from across the way, live and in person? THE TUNE INN (331 1/2 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 543-2725)
Of all the bits of Tune Inn minutiae that stick in the mind of owner Joe Nardelli's son Tony, 43, most striking is the slice of humanity that stopped by to express support in 1977 after the elder Nardelli was robbed on the way to his car, and shot six times.
"The walks of life that came in here, you would not believe," says Tony Nardelli, taking a break from bar duty at the comfortable and cheerfully motley Tune Inn, a neighborhood refuge for McBurnout victims from all over town. "There were congressmen, business executives, construction workers -- and a guy who'd broke out of jail, for crying out loud, who slipped in one night just to ask how my father was doing."
He did all right. Joe Nardelli, a one-time West Virginia coal miner who bought the Tune Inn in 1955 (and the building, finally, in 1984), is now 71 and still comes in to open up most every morning. He is the barrel-shaped one in suspenders, with the thick shock of white hair, who talks in staccato bursts and still hunts deer every fall in upstate New York.
This last fact accounts for the immediately noticeable taxidermy festival overhead, of course; most of the mounted heads and skins are (or were) deer, plus a couple of bears ("Those were from someone else"), a squirrel or two and a muskrat Joe once ran over with his car. You go to hang up your sweater, and the coat hook is a deer's hoof. Some of the city's better graffiti adorns the rest rooms -- both of which sport their own, ah, novelty-item vending machines.
There's other amazing, ridiculous, everyday stuff up here -- including a blowfish, a wasp's nest, some tragically nonfunctional lamps, dusty old fake swords. "We seem to get a lot of junk from other people's garages," says Tony Nardelli. "And once something's up, it's pretty much up."
This includes a few seriously yellowed signs, one detailing how "Squaters Rights" may be revoked by management, another listing the modest but never-wavering Tune Inn menu: That sign went up "at least five years ago," says Tony Nardelli, and the food prices have, believe it or not, remained the same since then. (Two eggs, ham or bacon or sausage, $2.75; hot roast beef sandwich with home fries, $3.30; chili, $2, etc.) National Bo draft is 75 cents a glass, $3.50 a pitcher. A call-brand drink is $2. The waitresses have been here 15 to 20 years apiece, and if they drop a wet rag on your table as they go by and you ignore it -- instead of wiping up the table yourself -- you have given yourself away as a tourist.
All of this helps pack this place, particularly after work, with a young, noisy, non-neighborhood crowd. The older regulars, from the neighborhood or just the past, come in for breakfast and lunch, or at mid-afternoon, or at odd intervals otherwise.
"There's no pretense here," says Tony. "You come in here any day, any time, and you'll see a blue-collar guy sitting next to a guy who makes $75,000 a year, and there's no difference. You come in here, you get a drink, you order a sandwich. And that's all. That's all we want you to do.
"If you want something special, this is not the place for you." THE VIENNA INN (120 W. Maple Ave., Vienna. 938-9548)
Across the bar, which rests heavily in the middle of a small, rectangular, more or less wood-paneled room, the softball team is in full post-game schmooze. Nearby, a man in a dark business suit turns to a man in a T-shirt and sport cap and says: "They don't make places like this anymore, do they?"
The guy in the cap turns, smiling ever so slightly. "That," he says, "is why I'm here."
Later, when someone compliments Meyer (Mike) Abraham on the warm and homely little beer-and-chili-dog joint he and his wife Mollie have owned and operated these last 26 years, he doesn't miss a beat. "Well, then you must own a comfortable old pair of shoes you don't wanna throw away," he says, winking as he draws two Buds with one hand and grabs two more mugs with the other. "Because that's what this place is."
If you wondered what happened to the four-door beer cooler your grandfather sold in 1955, stop by and look between the similarly antique, beat-up cash register and snack containers. Also stop by if you wondered if there's anyplace left in the world that opens for breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and is still selling 75-cent chili dogs and 90-cent beers at midnight, or that employs Lifetime Waitresses who let you keep your own tab.
Closing time is marked by the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner." If you are still here at closing, this will not seem odd.
As deceptively dainty outside as it is funky, packed and bright inside, the Inn is made even better by being in Vienna, probably the most stable and closely knit community you will find in Northern Virginia. Also, the Abrahams' son Philip, a 24-year-old graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who also knows what he likes, is doing a heckuva job in the kitchen. WHITEY'S RESTAURANT (2761 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington. 527-2163)
Since 1954, it has sat, so nondescript as to be invisible, on a residential corner not far from the tangle of highways around the Pentagon known as the Mixing Bowl. But Whitey's was no mixing bowl, much less melting pot, when the Sevilles -- husband-wife owners Calvin and Linda, and Calvin's younger brother Steve, the manager -- took over in 1977. It was also not very busy. Things are different now.
It is one of the most plain and accessible pine-paneled rooms you will find in nearby Northern Virginia; a surprising number of regulars are in fact from the District and Maryland. The food is, first of all, reliable, not fancy but good -- the big familiar neon sign out front doesn't say "Whitey's," it says "EAT." Some of the food is "Broasted" -- a brand-name process that involves deep-frying under pressure, among whose consequences is a juicier piece of fried chicken.
Inside, on one 15-foot-high wall, a semi-chronological row of U.S. presidents watches over several rows of sturdy pine booths -- filled at any hour with a comforting amalgam of jeans and dresses, muddied boots and unsullied commuter Reeboks, after-work office parties of four, retired couples (all retired couples alive today live in Arlington, it is believed), motorcyclists, truck drivers, musicians, kids, hippies, yuppies.
On the opposite wall is the bar, and over the bar is one of those electronic, moving-letter billboards, programmed to gossip informally about the breakfast, lunch and dinner specials. Or about the nightly entertainment, which is generally a singer and his or her guitar, except for the Wednesday night oldies deejay and the Tuesday night open mike.
The Sevilles, and just about all the help, are comfortable with the comfortable nature of their place. Whitey's doesn't advertise much; the family figures the best advertising passes from person to person. But Steve Seville does have one good-natured request: "You're not going to do this thing in alphabetical order, are you?" THE ZEBRA ROOM (3238 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 362-8307)
When Hal Lake left the wine-selling business to own his own place, it was as easy to find the Zebra Room in the phone book then as it is now -- or maybe easier, since the book was much smaller.
That was 1960.
Hundreds of thousands of American U. students, local merchants, amateur teams of all types, neighbors and homeward-bound Marylanders later, the Zebra Room is still where the 58-year-old Lake spends six of seven days a week. And likes it.
"If I hadda fight myself to come to work every day, I'da sold the place," says Lake, a compact, fast-moving fellow with wavy gray hair and a quick smile.
On slower nights he's behind the semi-circular bar in the back -- which, like the rest of the room and adjacent sidewalk porch, was substantially redone, and fortunately brightened, last year. On busy nights -- particularly on Tuesday's and Thursday's half-price pizza nights -- he'll work the floor, seating customers, dodging pitchers and orchestrating what must be one of the city's speediest crews of non-colliding servers. He's a familiar presence; he was once recognized by a former customer in a New York City cab. (The cabbie threatened good-naturedly to throw Lake out, which is what Lake had done to the guy years earlier.)
This stretch of upper Wisconsin hasn't changed much since Lake arrived; he has a large and loyal base of regulars, including retired people, off-duty officers from the Second District police headquarters a block away and elements of the nearby broadcasting and college communities. "We have a lot of people where if they don't come in for two or three days," says Lake, "we'll call 'em."
Lake's cooks have also been around for more than 20 years -- protecting the secret of the Zebra Room's crunchy-flaky pizza crust, among other things -- and his day manager's been here 18 years. You get the feeling the place won't be closing soon. But if one more AU student comes in and says he met his wife at the Zebra Room, and now they have a kid in college . . . .