An Aug. 5 Weekend article about Galaxy Hut incorrectly said that the Arlington bar had lost its liquor license twice for selling alcohol to minors. The bar has been cited only once for underage sales. It currently does not have a license for hard liquor because it does not sell enough food to meet Virginia's minimum ratio of food sales to liquor sales. (Published 8/10/2005)
BEFORE THE Black Cat, DC9, Iota or even the now-shuttered Metro Cafe existed, before the 9:30 club moved to V Street NW, indie rockers, rockabilly cats and Americana singer-songwriters found a home at Galaxy Hut (2711 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-8646).
The one-room storefront bar is about the size of a studio apartment and lacks a permanent stage; tables and booths are stacked in a rear corner to make room for amplifiers and the drum kit when live music is featured Saturday through Monday. A capacity crowd at the Hut is 48 people, and there's never a cover charge for shows, just the way it has been since the place opened in fall 1990.
Touring bands from across the East Coast and Canada are featured regularly, and you never know if the band performing for nothing is going to be the Next Big Thing. New York post-punk rockers the Strokes and Canadian space-rock band Godspeed You Black Emperor! both played the Hut before moving on to bigger venues (stadiums and the 9:30 club, respectively). Since Galaxy Hut is owned and operated by the very cool singer-songwriter Alice Despard, it has developed excellent word of mouth among musicians.
"The charm of the Hut is that it's so small," Despard explains. "I wanted it to be like [the long-closed nightclub] d.c. space; d.c. space had a very special feel because you could just stand in front of the band and watch them play. It was like a living room."
But live music isn't the whole story.
Before Pottery Barn, Whole Foods and the Apple Store competed with six-figure condos for space, before a slew of bars popped up to cater to young professionals who flocked to the Clarendon neighborhood, offering sports on big screens, cheap happy hours and DJs on Friday nights, there was Galaxy Hut.
It's still a funky, bohemian gathering spot where rotating art shows hang on the walls, a stellar lineup of microbrew beers awaits and the customers hanging out at the bar are more likely to be regulars talking about their bands or their friends' bands than practicing pickup lines. "Simpsons" reruns trump "SportsCenter" on the lone TV, and get this: People actually come in, order a drink, open a book and begin to read.
Unlike at other spots in the neighborhood, you'll rarely see anyone with a BlackBerry and cell phone clipped to a belt, let alone wearing the dreaded blue-shirt-and-khakis uniform. There's a comfortable, friendly atmosphere. When I'm asked which bars I recommend for single women who just want to sit and have a drink by themselves, Galaxy Hut is always high on the list.
"Since we've opened," Despard says, "we've stayed the same," and a new generation of customers is noticing.
"I was talking to this kid -- he looked like he was about 24 -- and he said, 'Thank God for Galaxy Hut. You guys are like a refuge from Arlington.' I said, 'Excuse me?' He said, 'Yeah, Arlington is so uptight and full of yuppies.' And I was like, 'Say what? How long have you been here?' He said, 'Two years.' I said, 'Oh. That makes sense. You don't know what Arlington was like in the old days. Arlington was a refuge from yuppie D.C. That's why we opened out here.' "
Now, Despard is ready to move on.
As of Sept. 1, she's selling Galaxy Hut to longtime bartender Lary Hoffman. "I don't know what I'm going to do next," she says. "I'm a mother. I've got two teenagers. It just seems like the right time." But she admits that financial pressure was starting to get to her; she has paid thousands of dollars in upkeep and infrastructure in recent years, the rent is set to rise, and business, while steady, isn't keeping up.
For Hoffman, it's a dream come true. "I've just really always wanted to do this," he says.
But he's under no illusions about the task he's facing. "I'm taking over a bar that doesn't always make money," he says. Changes are in the works, including a number of cosmetic fixes, a revamped menu and, for the first time, a cover charge during live music. At the moment, bands are paid with a percentage of the evening's sales, which Hoffman disagrees with. "I understand why Alice kept it free," he says. "But I can't give away $20,000 a year to bands. This isn't a community center."
Despard and her then-husband Bill Stewart got into the nightlife business in the late '80s, throwing parties in what Despard calls "an abandoned building -- basically a crack house" near Logan Circle.
Despard's band, Hyaa!, would play, and Stewart would pour his home-brewed beer. "My band's practice space was nearby, so we'd run an extension cord over," Despard says. The success of those underground parties led the couple to open a legitimate venue called the BBQ Iguana in a warehouse near 14th and P streets NW. It only lasted about a year because of repeated break-ins and licensing issues.
So they came to Arlington in 1990 and opened Roratonga Rodeo, a South Seas-themed place with brews, simple food and a jukebox fashioned from a '59 Cadillac. Six months after opening the bar, though, the marriage dissolved. Despard kept Roratonga, and Stewart went on to open a slew of nightspots, including Amdo, Bardo Rodeo and Ningaloo, which eventually became Dr. Dremo's Taphouse.
In the early days, Despard says, the bar was "event oriented," hosting live music several nights a week. Then it all got to be too much. "For two years, from 1991 to 1993, we didn't have live music. I thought we needed to get a reputation as a pub. People were saying, 'We can't go to Roratonga and get a drink and talk and hang out because there's always a band.' That's why I only wanted music on certain nights of the week.
"Saturday's a good night to have bands, and Sunday and Monday were slower, so I thought I'd put bands there."
That balance between being known as a cool pub and a cool live music venue is one of the reasons that Galaxy Hut has remained free over the years. "We so needed to have our regular pub customers in there that I just did not want to charge a cover. They'd come in and drink their beer and listen to whatever was thrown at them. There's no excuse not to check out the band if it's free. And if you like them, you can buy a CD or whatever."
The return to live music led Despard to change the look, feel and name of the bar, from Roratonga Rodeo to Galaxy Hut. She got rid of the tiki-hut decor in favor of a cleaner look and tables and walls decorated by local artists. It's also when it became known as one of the region's premier venues for small indie rock bands. "As soon as we opened as Galaxy Hut, I started booking indie. That's what I liked," she says.
"Between [local record labels] Teenbeat, Simple Machines, DeSoto and Dischord, there was plenty of talent in Arlington. I gave [Teenbeat founder] Mark Robinson a tab. It was like, 'We're a venue, we're in your neighborhood, we want you to look at this as your place.' Then word got out. For me, it was all about building a community."
Despard has been a den mother to dozens, maybe hundreds of musicians, offering them shows, letting them sleep on the floor of her house, recommending them for gigs at larger clubs such as Iota or the Black Cat when she thinks they're ready. All the while, she has been playing in her own bands, most notably Hyaa!, the Beggars and the Alice Despard Group.
She's preparing another album, which will be released in mid-September; look for the album release party at the Hut.
Over the years, Galaxy Hut has remained the local hangout of Arlington scenesters, but it has seen its share of problems. The bar, which lost its liquor license twice after police stings resulted in sales to minors, no longer sells hard liquor. An Arlington County inspection found numerous problems that the bar had been ignoring or just working around, and Despard had to pay "a lot of money" to come up to code. "We never had heating," she laughs. "How crazy is that? In the winter, we kept it warm with body heat and maybe a small heater near the door. That was it."
Looking back, Despard explains, she's amazed it how long it all lasted.
"When I started, the only bars around here were Whitey's and Joseph's, and they're both long gone," Despard says, with a touch of shock in her voice. "We've watched the whole neighborhood all get built up, and we've managed to hold on. I can't believe it."
A SPOT OF TEA
Two weeks ago, I wrote about a trio of summer cocktails I'd sampled at local watering holes. Here's another one that's worth your time: Tainan Tea, served at Firefly (1310 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202-861-1310). It's an exotic variation of an old frat-house favorite.
Restaurant manager and resident mixologist Derek Brown explains: "I was reading [New York Times cocktail columnist] William Hamilton's book, 'Shaken and Stirred,' and in there, [veteran Rainbow Room bartender] Dale DeGroff says the only problem with Long Island iced tea is that it tastes good. He's right."
Long Island iced tea, for those who've never tried it or don't care to remember, is a potent mixture of vodka, gin, white rum and tequila, topped with lemon juice and Coke.
Brown jokes that Firefly is "a little too classy" to put that on the menu, so he began experimenting with the recipe, adding Cricket, a cola infused with green tea. The first version was better in theory than on the palate.
Eventually, Brown and bartender Rachel Jones settled on a formula, which, in addition to the four liquors, includes green tea, Coke, litchi juice and the house's fresh, citrusy sour mix. The Tainan Tea balances a sweet flavor and a dry body, making for a surprisingly refreshing cocktail. Just be careful: You can't really taste the alcohol, but it's there.