For the first time in 40 years, Sonny Zerega didn't fry fresh fish and roll out pizza dough yesterday at his family-run, downtown Washington restaurant. On the last day of business for the Cafe St. James, Zerega was having a day off from cooking and the customers were bringing their own lunches.
Zerega, 59, and his son Jimmy, 28, served whiskey on the rocks and draft beer to their longtime customers, many of whom had become friends over the years. The customers toasted the Zeregas as they ate their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or munched on "imported" pizza.
The St. James, at 519 Massachusetts Ave. NW, a blue-collar bar that catered to government employes, police officers and lawyers who work in the area, was one of the last of its kind in the city. This was a no-fern, no-menu, no-credit card bar where customers often helped themselves when the Zeregas got busy.
The food was simple, with a daily special for $3.50, and the draft beer was just 80 cents. But it was the atmosphere of a family place that kept the regulars, who called it "the church," returning over the years.
"This is the only place I know where I can say I'm going to choir practice or a prayer meeting and get away with it," said Jim Dawson, 47, a telephone company employe and 15-year customer. "And checks made out to the St. James always look good."
The St. James was one of the last Italian businesses in a neighborhood that was the heart of Washington's Italian community until the late '50s. It is now a neighborhood of large new developments, such as the Washington Convention Center and the planned Techworld trade mart, alternating with vacant lots and boarded-up buildings.
The Salvation Army has a contract to buy the St. James building and has already bought and demolished many of the neighboring buildings. It plans a new headquarters on the site, according to Lt. Col. Fred Ruth, divisional commander for the organization.
During the St. James' final week, customers wrote bawdy poems, sent flowers and printed special buttons with gold lettering to commemorate the passing. The City Paper, a weekly newspaper located around the corner from the bar, ran its first obituary noting the death of the St. James.
The bar is closing because Teresa Zerega, a founder of the bar and the owner of the building, decided earlier this year to sell it. The move caught family members by surprise, and they tried to talk her out of the sale.
Her son, Sonny Zerega, is philosophical about the forced closing of the bar where he had worked his entire adult life.
"I think my mother was thinking about me when she sold the building," he said. "She wanted me to retire. I'm not angry. Maybe she did the best thing."
Teresa Zerega was not available to comment on the sale.
Barbara Jean (B.J.) Harden, 31, daughter of Sonny Zerega, is the only waitress at the bar.
"I've been crying all week thinking that this place is closing," she said. "I wouldn't be comfortable working anywhere else. This is the kind of place you can cuss and yell and no one cares."
Jimmy Zerega hopes to get back his old job as city police officer, which he left last year to help his father run the bar.
Kathy McArthur, 33, who celebrated her last nine birthdays at the St. James, collected names and addresses of customers so they could all be found if the Zeregas open another bar.
"I think I will take out an ad in the paper that says, '100 loyal bar patrons seek new home. It must be dark, dingy, downtown and very friendly,' " she said.