Everything is glass and concrete. Hard to find a cranny anymore, a hole to duck into, out of the glare and the grind. Nowhere to dive.
But for every white and blue collar aching for reprieve, for every drunk spouting jeremiads about the good ol' days, for anyone searching for the nexus of good times and good food, there was always a blessed one-word refrain:
The narrow neighborhood bar -- dim, familiar, tactile -- no longer resembles its neighbors, the colorless hotels and banks, the beige headquarters of the National Association of Whatever, the new 254,000-square-foot, office-space leviathan next door, all the Quiznos, the Cosis, the Blimpies.
The prostitutes, bogys from a bygone era of porn shops and disrepute, still work L Street at night. Everything around them has been reduced to the common rubble of banality except Stoney's, the great provider of a beer in one hand, a burger in the other, and two talkers at each shoulder.
It is closing.
Maybe not this week, maybe not next, but soon. By the end of the year, surely, its owner, Tony Harris, says -- even though business is better now than during any of its previous 37 years. Barring a stay of execution, Stoney's must relocate or vanish. The building is now owned by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which, according to property records, paid nearly $21 million last year for a cluster of buildings on the block. The contract said Stoney's had to be out by the end of August; NAEYC did not return calls asking for comment about the restaurant's closing date.
Thirty-seven years. The embers of the 1968 riots were still glowing when Harris and his then-business partner, Steve Papageorge, meshed their first names at 1307 L St. NW.
Back then, there were more dives: Matt Kane's on 13th. The Grotto on 15th. Yogi's off Thomas Circle. The Den around the corner. The Post Pub remains two blocks west, but it's not open as much as Stoney's, which has never closed on any holiday except Thanksgiving 1970, the last time it made major renovations.
Stoney's, by the strictest definition (open more than it is closed, hazed by smoke and grit, sopping with lore), is the last true dive downtown, a time capsule untouched. The regulars call it, by turns, their living room, their treehouse, their clubhouse, their kitchen. It's the place where everyone is family, where everyone knows your name -- at least your first name. "It's the Addams Family in an eating establishment," says waitress Tonya Vaughn.
The cast features lobbyists, lawyers, ladies of the night, raconteurs, air-traffic controllers and not a few Washington Post staffers. A lot of tourists show up, too, sent by their hotel concierges, or stumbling in because of its proximity to the Washington youth hostel and the convention center.
Soon there will be one less place to come as you are, and one more rocky crater downtown, one more construction crane where once there was the foundation of a neighborhood.
A Neighborhood Fixture
As he often does, Tony sits at a table with an ice water, phone and tattered address book, a brassy big-band tune filling the void left by a departed lunch rush. Steve DeSimone wipes glasses. Sandy Irvin settles down next to Harris with a tumbler of red wine. Both Steve and Sandy are the jacks of all trades, alternately cooking, managing, waiting -- Steve for six years, Sandy for 20.
Stoney's has squatted too long on prime real estate, a stowaway on the vessel of the building boom. What has allowed the place to get away with it for so long? What is the Stoney's allure?
"These girls from New Mexico came in the other day and said it was the friendliest place they been to," Tony says.
"We're not really that friendly," Steve confides in his husky baritone from the bar. "We're surly."
"I know!" Tony says, clapping his hands. "I couldn't believe it."
"The food is always good," Sandy offers. "The friendliness depends on how busy it is."
Tony loves everything about the restaurant business -- the characters, the service, the "action," as he calls it. (Says Steve: "We're hoping to be here when he dies so we can show him -- have a Stoney burger and a wake.")
Tony's father, Peter, emigrated from Greece in 1921 and operated the Stanton Grill in Northeast Washington for 50 years. Tony, now 65, grew up washing dishes at the grill, graduated from Coolidge High, and in 1962 left Montgomery College for the Army. He encrypted reports, stationed just south of Heidelberg, Germany. He was discharged in '64, returned to Washington, and sold Chevrolets for four years until his uncle told him about a property on L Street that needed a tenant.
A History Lesson
Occupancy: 50. Square footage: 1,500, stretched narrow. Thirteen barstools, 11 tables, all in a row. Wood paneling. A swarm of law enforcement badges decorates the front wall -- Boston Fire Department, Salt Lake City Police, the Southern Ohio Violent Fugitive Force.
In front of a big mirror behind the bar, a ledge of liquor. On the right wall, signed photos of Tommy Lasorda, Pete Rose, Bobby Knight. Near the back, a framed photo of the 1954 Washington Senators. To the right, shots of Tony at various functions with Charlton Heston, Sam Donaldson, Bill Clinton.
The tiny bathrooms are upstairs, next to the office. The Vulcan oven downstairs came with the place and still makes a helluva brisket. Then there's the trademark scent -- cigarettes and french fries. You walk out wearing it. (Stoney cologne-y, they call it.)
Sometimes there is a familiar face. Jesse Jackson once came in and had a Coke. George Stephanopoulos swings by sometimes. Geraldo bunked at the bar till 2 a.m. after the inauguration in January. Roger Mudd, Janet Reno, Wesley Clark. Steve says former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger came in, smoking, and wanting a bowl of chili shortly after his open-heart surgery. When the Secret Service was headquartered across the street, the guy who pushed President Reagan into his car after the assassination attempt had his morning coffee here when Stoney's used to open at 7 a.m. "Jerry Parr," Tony says. "Nice guy."
Everyone, regardless of celebrity or anonymity, is subject to a Stoney's ribbing.
"The thing about coming in here is we try to kid people," Tony says. "Make a little noise. Scream 'n' holler a bit."
"We've been here for a long time, so it's like fighting with your brothers and sisters," Sandy, 48, says.
Later, she looks over a framed collage on the wall, photos of everyone when they were younger, thinner, alive.
There's Frank, aproned and smiling, a cook during the day and "Miss Rose" at night. One time he came in wearing a pink jumpsuit and wig, so the staff sent him to the Old Ebbitt Grill to drop in on Tony, who was dining there.
There's "Momma" Thelma Hammett, who created the bar's trademark "super grilled-cheese" sandwich (comes with bacon, onion, tomato), and her husband, Willie, who cooked during the lunch shift.
There's Chuck, who worked all the holidays and loved his vodka, and Staci, the bubbly waitress who moved to San Diego and sent a Christmas card last year with "God Bless You" all over it. Sandy thinks maybe Staci found religion; what's important is she got out alive.
"It's funny," Sandy says, snickering and pointing, coming across a photo of her 30th birthday. "Mo comes in here and looks at the pictures and goes, 'Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead. Almost dead.' "
Things change. Regulars come and go as the government moves people from office to office, town to town. People drink less, eat healthier. Gone are the days of the three-martini lunch, when the guys from the DEA would plant themselves at the tables for four-hour marathons.
The Stoney's staff used to make eggnog around the holidays. They'd fill chocolates with Rumple Minze and pass them out. They don't do that anymore.
"It seems like all the good stuff is gone," Sandy says.
Friday Night Fights
O happy hour.
It's Friday, and the bar, the tables and the outside seating are full. Freshly washed glasses perspire on the rubber mats. Wedges of lemon and lime cuddle in a steel tray beside the beer taps -- Bud, Redhook, "Stoney's Amber" (aka Michelob). The Redskins play silently on the rear TV, the Nats on the front. Classic rock is on the speakers, backed by the pip-pop-sizzle of grease on the range.
Steve waits tables. Behind the bar is Attila Locsi, originally from Hungary, "the piece of the puzzle that doesn't fit because he's so nice," as Sandy says. Ron Frazier works the grill and Cigifredo "Freddy" Guzman, who's been with Stoney's for 23 years, is downstairs in the kitchen.
Steve lumbers in from outside, the humidity stuck to him, and plucks two plates from the bar. "Attila, a pitcher of Stoney's, please."
" 'Please,' " Attila gasps, jerking the tap. "I haven't heard that word in years."
They fling muttered expletives one minute and share a booming laugh the next. Behold the Stoney's dynamic.
Steve bellows downstairs, "Freddy! Where's that pizza? I'm gonna call Domino's!," and then scurries back outside, plates in hand, doing his best Belushi. "Cheeburgercheeburgercheeburger."
Attila twists the cork out of a bottle of red wine and refills a beer glass. Red wine on the rocks. Mr. Leon's drink of choice.
With skin the color of the bar he plants his elbows on, Mr. Leon, 90, looks like he was born of Stoney's woodwork. After 28 years in the Army as a staff sergeant -- a career that took him from Guam to France -- he settled in Washington at the Massachusetts House across 13th Street.
He first sauntered into Stoney's on Aug. 10, 1970, when a bottle of beer was 75 cents, when there was a gas station next door, and Stoney's was the only place in the area that would serve blacks without umbrage. "This is my family right here," he says, his gravelly whisper almost lost in an Eric Clapton solo. The Stoney's folks call him Pops; he calls them his children. Even if Stoney's relocates nearby, it'll be too far for Mr. Leon.
"I don't know where I'm gonna go, to tell you the truth," he says, tugging the bill of his blue cap. "Here, I come get my drink and talk to my friends. Everybody's somebody."
Attila tops off Mr. Leon's glass, then pours a splash into his own. They clink, and drink.
Outside under the purpling sky sits the Stoney's marriage, Christopher Welch and Sara DeCair, who met at the dive in January 2004 and were married this March. Tonya Vaughn, who works weekends at Stoney's, unwinds with them, flying through Newports, her high-pitched one-liners embodying the loving-but-surly Stoney's sentiment.
Tonya grudgingly recounts the time Robin, the weekend bartender, took her on a "Ghost of Mr. Lee" tour on the dingy second story, where an eccentric recluse lived and died. "I have an excuse to be dysfunctional every day of my life," she says.
The group sees Colin Perkins walking up the street, fresh from bartending at the swanky DC Coast on K Street. They wave him over.
"The only bar where I've ever had a beer next to a prisoner," he says, sitting, remembering when two bounty hunters brought a shackled captive in for a pint.
The memories flow from there. Tonya's funniest hooker memory is of four large women in G-strings pushing a stalled car down L Street, their pimp following behind in his glittering truck, high beams on, shouting orders. Christopher remembers when the Lord of the Dance troupe came in after a show and broke into a jig. Then there's the rowdy mix of alcohol, guns and testosterone during National Police Week, and the motherly burliness of Leather Weekend.
When the Secret Service was across the street, you could always tell when there was a shift change at the White House; black-suited men would emerge from black limos to belly up and decompress.
Stoney's is SRO for election nights and football games.
Everything closed down for Hurricane Isabel except Stoney's, where the die-hards rode out the storm, together. It was one of the few spots that stayed open into the night on 9/11, when Washington was motionless and deserted.
"It's like losing the heart of the neighborhood," Christopher says. "This is the only point of continuity. There's no other place that defines the area."
Inside, two gentlemen finish their meals at a table and whip out a credit card.
No cards, Steve says, walking by.
The guys, flummoxed, ask where the ATM is.
No ATM, Steve says. There's one down by the CVS.
"This is 2005," says one of the guys. "You guys don't take cards and don't have an ATM?"
Steve and Attila shake their heads.
The guy persists, resorting to tourist logic. "I'm a visitor. This is a sports bar."
Steve doesn't look up from his notepad. "I just work here."
Like every Washingtonian, Tony wishes he bought his place back when he could. The previous owners were prepared to sell it for $220,000 in 1978, but withdrew their offer and sold it 10 years later to the Service Employees International Union for $1.25 million. Too bad? Sure. Regrets? No. You gotta move on, Tony says.
After all, they should've closed years ago. Tony produces an old videotape of a news segment, with scratchy shots of Momma Thelma balancing super grilled-cheeses, intercut with shots of backhoes cutting up neighboring lots. "Stoney's," a reporter intones with bawdy gloom, "may soon fall victim to the wrecking ball -- all in the name of progress." That was 15 years ago.
In 2001 Tony bought Tunnicliff's, a "nicer-looking" bar in Capitol Hill, with Stoney's veteran Med "Mo" Lahlou. When Stoney's closes, Sandy will do the books there. Everyone else's plans are up in the air. (Tony, known to help an employee with the occasional rent check, and the one who helped Freddy get his green card, says he frets about their futures, too.)
"Everybody is upset," says Sue Stewart, who's waitressed at Stoney's for 10 years. "Once people start working here, they stay. We're treated well. We have a faithful clientele. People have asked if they should start a petition."
The faithful concur:
"It was an oasis in the midst of all the confusion," says former congressman Ron Klink, who once held court at Stoney's with fellow legislators. "It was a place to let your hair down and be regular guys and not act with the stuffiness of being a member of Congress."
"Things really started changing drastically, to the point where it was either fast food or fine dining," says John Haley, one of Stoney's first customers in '68. "And this was one of the places you could get in between that."
"I didn't like D.C. very much, toward the end," says Ed Armstrong, who moved to South Carolina a year and a half ago and whose beer mug is retired at Stoney's. "The traffic, the congestion. The weather's terrible. . . . Stoney's is the only thing I miss about D.C."
Tony doesn't want to be forced out and then see the place sit vacant for six months, a year. He'd rather stay until it's time for demolition, then relocate -- perhaps up 14th Street, or farther east.
"I'm not ready to retire," he says. "And I don't want to let this name go. Over the years, it's a steady place. It's been here, it's consistent, and we've always done a nice job for folks."
"If you're sick of the abuse, why do you keep coming back here?" Tonya yells, mid-spat with a customer, well after 1 a.m. on what was a Saturday.
"Because the food is good!" insists Reed Thomas, who stopped in for sustenance between overnight jobs as a network news cameraman. ("Get fired up at Stoney's," the cover of a book of Stoney's matches says, and it's more like a promise than a suggestion.)
Despite the gregariousness of the Stoney's staff, they've never marked an anniversary with a party. Time passed covertly, and only in this new context do the years add up to something greater than a number.
But there is no rending or raging at Stoney's fate. Just an elegy in the curl of the cigarette smoke, the beer-slicked laugh, the shoulder-to-shoulderness, when you're not sure who's leaning and who's supporting.
Tonya takes a smoke break. "There's gonna be no place like this," she says. (What'll she do after? A quick exhalation, a guarded smile. "Get a real job.")
It's late, or early, almost 3:30 a.m. Should've closed a half-hour ago, but they're all enjoying themselves. Tonya dials up the lights. Two dozen pupils contract painfully. The patronage groans. Time to go out and face Sunday.
"Last call," Attila says, for the third time.