Time feels different on the block of Connecticut Avenue between Northampton and McKinley streets NW. The architecture of the old Avalon movie house suggests matinees and double features. The Chevy Chase Bicycle store and the On the Avenue gift shop clearly cater to a longtime local clientele. And on the corner of McKinley and Connecticut, the unglamorous beige brick facade of the Chevy Chase Lounge looks out of step with nearby high-gloss shopping malls.
That's the way the regulars at the Chevy Chase Lounge like it.
George Gatins, a retired government employe, has been dropping by the lounge for a couple of beers almost every day for more than a decade. "This is the best neighborhood bar in Washington," he said.
James Buchanan and his family still call the place by the name it had more than 20 years ago: Piccolo's. "The bar hasn't changed that much since then," he said. "And that's good. You know what you're getting."
Buchanan said his brother Pat--former White House press aide and now a broadcaster--comes by for a drink when he visits the neighborhood. Perry Como stops by when he's in town. But on their next visits Buchanan and Como may find the Chevy Chase Lounge is no more.
The bar's building, 5600 Connecticut Ave. recently changed ownership, and its storefront tenants say the new owners have asked for rent increases of up to 300 percent.
One shop already has closed. A television repair shop had its last customer last week. And the optician next door is getting ready to move out. But the owners of the Chevy Chase Lounge, Gary and Mary Kinsey, are looking desperately for a way to save the bar that has kept them and their customers happy for so long.
"Half our afternoon regulars grew up in the neighborhood," said Gary Kinsey. "Their families used to bring them in here for dinner. When they turned 18 they started coming in here on their own."
The lounge's lunch-time regulars are an older crowd. Gatins comes in daily to meet his friends, Don Todd and C.W. Sexton. "You can get a conversation going on anything from Aristotle to the Redskins," said Todd, who after 20 years of patronage calls Gatins and Sexton 'neophytes.' "And we may argue, but we never fight."
The visitor to the Chevy Chase Lounge is struck by an unmistakable sense of comfortableness--it has the well-worn ease of a living room. The space--just large enough--is decorated with a nondescript carpet in ocher colors. Comfortable booths invite loungers and intense private conversations--the soft Muzak is guaranteed to stay in the background.
From the imitation stained-glass lampshades to the easy bar chairs, nothing looks new, yet nothing looks tatty. Decoration on the paneled walls is sparse: a few photographs of the regular patrons and an arrangement above the jukebox that could be called the Redskins Altar. A television on a corner ledge provides the only alternative to the patrons' devotion to talk. The regulars watch all the major games together here.
"What could you replace this place with?" asks Sexton. "A fast-food hangout for teen-agers?"
Pamela Malone, who runs the 60-year old card and gift shop next to the lounge, is the only other tenant trying to remain in the building. "We both provide an important community service here," she said. "The lounge may be a bar at night, but in the daytime it's really a lunch counter for dozens of elderly ladies who can get a hot meal there in an atmosphere that's not threatening.
"We have lots of customers who walk in here every day and buy one card," she added. "They could come once a month and buy 25 cards, but this is their daily outing. If they don't show up we call them, we always keep in contact. I have roots here, I grew up here, and I don't want to leave."
The Kinseys bought the bar eight years ago after a decade of managing it for the previous owner. "We had been looking for a place," Gary Kinsey said. "My wife is a waitress, has been since she was 20. And even when I was a policeman here in the District, she always said I looked so much like a bartender that that's just what I had to be."
While two of his sons, Darren and Brent, work the kitchen and Mary Kinsey bustles among tables, Gary Kinsey stands behind the bar, picking up strands of conversations from the other side as he sets down one beer after another. In the evenings the Kinsey's two other sons, Michael and Scott, take over.
"It's easy," said Michael, who has no plans to leave the bar for a different line of work. The secret, he said, is keeping the drinks strong and his temper even.
"The reason we can afford to run this place," Gary Kinsey said, "is that we're a family operation. Our prices are so low we don't even use credit cards." The Chevy Chase Lounge may be the last place in the neighborhood that offers its noon patrons a heaping plate of flounder, coleslaw and steak fries for $3.10.
Unpretentious food, good talk and generous drinks may seem a forgotten recipe for time pleasantly spent, but casual visitors to the lounge are quick to discover the secret. On a recent afternoon, Willie Thompson, who is working on a construction project nearby, paid the lounge his fourth lunch-time visit.
"When I first started working around here I checked out a little joint on the corner, but it was too high," he said as he polished off an omelette. "The next one down the street wasn't too sharp. The first time I came here I was satisfied, so I'm coming back."
"That's bad news, that this place may be closing," said his neighbor, Charles Page.
The Kinseys say they have been looking unsuccessfully for another location in the neighborhood since their contract ran out in July. Mary Kinsey said they have arranged a meeting with the principal owner for later in the month.
"We hope we will be able to talk to him then," she said. "We're still hopeful that something can be done."
"We can't afford the rent increase the new owners are proposing," Gary Kinsey said. He said the building's previous owners, three elderly women, "decided they didn't want to deal with it any longer. We tried to raise the purchase price among all of us store tenants . We got to $700,000, but the building finally sold for just under a million, I believe."
The thought that the Chevy Chase Lounge might disappear provokes grumbling and dismay among its patrons."The people who run this place are decent and good," said Sexton, "and this is a place that should stay."
The Kinseys cannot conceive of their bar's demise--there is nothing, they said, they would rather be doing. "I'm too old to be a major league ballplayer," said Gary Kinsey, "and that's the only other thing that would interest me."
"I think I've made my choice," Mary Kinsey said. "This is what makes me happy. If we can't stay here, we'll have to find another restaurant in the neighborhood to carry on the Chevy Chase tradition."