For more than a year, John poulos, age 6, had been asking his father, George, to get out of the restaurant business so he could be home at night and do things with his children. Finally, George and his brother, Bill, decided to sell their restaurant, a comfortable neighborhood spot called Yogi's on the fringes of downtown that got it's name from the Greek word for George. But when George got home one night last week, he found his boy in tears. "There will be no more Yogi's," John wailed.
"There are other restaurants," said his father.
"Yes, but they won't have your name on it."
Washington is changing. It is becoming a city of new buildings and new restaurants and new hotels, and if you drive around downtown these days, you get the feeling that the business of Washington isn't government, it's construction. The whole city is getting Rosslynized. There's nothing wrong with this, you understand. This is progress. Washington is a boom town. Musty old buildings are getting demolished and wonderful new buildings are getting built and people are making a killing in land deals and construction, and the people who don't live there talk about neighborhoods getting revitalized.
Bill and George Poulis saw it coming and they tried to hold out. Yogi's was in an old narrow red brick building just off Thomas Circle. It got its name from the word the Italian kids in the Boston tenement thought Mrs. Poulis was hollering years ago when she was paging George in Greek. This was not a fancy restaurant. In fact, it was a lot closer to a bar than to a restaurant although it served the good, inexpensive food you used to be able to get before downtown Washington discovered expense accounts. The people who went to Yogi's were not the expense account set; they were people from the neighborhood, newspaper printers, pressmen, doormen, salesmen who stopped in for companionship.
They were people who had nicknames like Jingles, Black Cloud, Lucky, Donald Duck, Whitey, Peaches. They were people like Maggie, a data programming supervisor, and her husband Bernie, a bellhop, who live in a nearby apartment building. To them, Yogi's was their living room, and it remained so even after the hookers and the pimps took over that section of 14th Street. The pimps and the hookers went into Yogi's -- the owners couldn't keep them out -- but there were rules. The regulars sat at the bar but the hookers sipped their Courvoisier and Coke in booths. As that section of 14th Street got worse, so did Yogi's business. Throughout it all, the Poulos brothers kept hoping that the hotels and office buildings planned for the circle would go up before their restaurant went under.
It didn't work out quite the way they figured. A few years ago, a new hotel opened next door to Yogi's. It was the first of the new buildings to come to the circle, the beginning of a new prosperity. The Holiday Inn people took it over and decided to expand. They made Poulos brothers an offer they couldn't refuse. George Poulos wanted out. For 10 years, he says, he and his brother worked 80 hours a week, and took only one week off each year. They worked behind the bar, alternating day and night shifts each week. If the cook didn't show up in the morning, whoever had the night shift returned to cook on four hours sleep. And George, the younger brother, knew he had missed a lot of his children's childhood. He didn't want to miss any more. So the Poulos brothers sold the building, and last Friday night Yogi's officially closed.
Maggie was there, weeping copiously. Bernie was not. "He would cry," said Maggie. "He's ducking, you know." But Bernie called while Maggie was in the ladies' room.
"I don't know what business he has interrupting your drinking," Bill Poulos told her when she got back, "but go call your husband."
"It hurts," said Pat Steenburg, a policeman who lives and works in the neighborhood. "I've spent a third of my life here. One third sleeping, one third working, and one third here. All my friends are here. Not everybody I know, but the friends that I enjoy being with are here . . . Once this place leaves, the neighborhood is gone. It's no longer a neighborhood. It's a commercial entity.
"This is it. This is the last of the old barrooms," he said. "It's only feasible that they should sell out," he said, "but they're leaving 220 people homeless . . . . This is not just a bar closing. This is part of people's lives. Without this, where are they going to go?"
There are other bars in the area, but to the people who have to thread their way through the nightlife of Thomas Circle, anything further than Yogi's is a long way to go. Anyway, they said, there may be other bars, but there isn't one quite like Yogi's."I looked a long time for a place where you could leave your money on the bar," said Jim Dushaw, an international representative for the electrical workers union, who rents a flat near Thomas Circle and commutes to Pittsburgh where his family still lives.
He, like the other regular customers, looked upon Bill and George Poulos as friends, people to confide in, people who would remember to tell a customer his wife called. Financial transactions between customers were routinely banked in envelopes and stuck in the wine rack over the bar. While some people went there simply to drink, others went for friendship and for the Poulos banter. Bill Poulos called his early morning customers the breakfast club. Saturday night was amateur night.
"I may be closing this place just in time to save your marriage," he told a customer.
The Poulos brothers don't know what they are going to do beyond relaxing and that's a nice problem to have. Harry, the Greek dentist who lives in the area who was Bill Poulos' best man, is thoroughly annoyed at them for selling. He went on for some time Friday about how they should have stayed in business and then admitted that what he was saying had nothing to do with business. It had to do with his way of life.
Someday soon the sign will come down and the old building will be destroyed and before long there will be a new addition to the Holiday Inn and perhaps another cocktail lounge like The General's Tent where airline flight crews can drink. The Poulos brothers were businessmen who worked hard and they made out okay and that's a good thing. That's the way it's supposed to work.
But for a lot of people who live around that neighborhood, life is going to be just a little more lonely than it was.