Nearly every day around 5 p.m., Bill Poling leaves his office at the Bank of Bethesda and walks across Old Georgetown Road to a dark, familiar haven with no loud music and no hanging ferns: McDonald's Raw Bar.
At the Raw Bar, said Poling, "I am never in the midst of strangers. It's not like downtown, where you walk into a bar and don't know anyone -- you're just there for a beer. Here, I've known everybody for years."
Thirty-eight years, to be exact.
Poling, now a vice president at the bank, has been a Raw Bar regular since 1948, just a year after the Bethesda landmark was opened at 7546 Old Georgetown Road by Evelyn McDonald Hite and her father, Joseph (Pop) McDonald.
But Poling's routine, shared over the years by countless Bethesda residents, will soon come to a halt. The Raw Bar is closing June 30, to be replaced by a 1,200-car parking garage planned by Montgomery County and a private high-rise retail development.
"I don't know what I am going to do after the Raw Bar closes," Poling said. "It is the last neighborhood bar in Bethesda."
"I'm going to go into mourning," said Jim Berney, a barrel-chested man who said he has been going to the Raw Bar "since before I was supposed to."
The county has guaranteed the three remaining businesses on the block the right of first refusal when the development opens, but Tim Hite, Evelyn Hite's son and the current manager of the bar, said he is not sure if he will reopen in the new complex.
"The rent will be so high," he said. "The Raw Bar has been a neighborhood bar for so long, it would be hard to change. We don't want it to be real expensive with a fancy decor."
He said he will open a Raw Bar II in Frederick this summer.
The Hites' restaurant, on a tiny block of one-story family businesses next to the Bethesda Metrorail station and the gleaming towers of the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the Clark Building, is a throwback to the old Bethesda.
"When we came in, Bethesda was a neighborhood place," said Evelyn Hite. "It's a city now."
The other store owners on the block who are being displaced agreed. "Soon the whole neighborhood will look like Rosslyn," said Tasos (Gus) Scilaris, who has run the Treat Well Carry-Out next door since 1970.
The demise of the Raw Bar is part of a trend in Bethesda, business owners say, pointing to the departure this year of another family-owned business, the Community Paint and Hardware store on Wisconsin Avenue. "The only difference is, you can't drink paint," said Thomas (Coach) Hite, who owns the Raw Bar with his wife Evelyn.
In the 1950s, recalled Evelyn Hite, the Raw Bar, with its offerings of fresh lobster tails, swordfish, clams and oysters, was a popular place for area Catholics on Friday nights. "In those days, you had to eat fish on Fridays . . . . We had lines straight out the door every Friday night."
Another Raw Bar tradition was helping those who were, as Evelyn Hite put it, "down on their luck." Every year on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, she and her husband would close the restaurant and give a traditional turkey dinner to people who had no place to go for the holiday.
While the Raw Bar started out as a family restaurant, it now is more of a sports bar, especially since the kitchen was ruined in an October 1984 fire and the Hites were forced to quit offering seafood. The restaurant caters in pizza and sandwiches, but, with five TVs and a satellite dish, sports has replaced food as a primary attraction. Last week, for instance, the place was packed for the Capitals-Islanders playoff games at the Capital Centre, which were blacked out on local television.
Customers appreciate, as Jim Berney put it, that the Raw Bar is "a good place to come to relax, and you know it won't cost you an arm and a leg."
When people come in, said John Hite, another of Thomas and Evelyn Hite's sons, "They feel comfortable. It is nothing fancy."
"We do have a dress code: No ties allowed," interjected Tim Hite. "But we don't enforce it," he added with a laugh.
At the Raw Bar, the distinction between customer and employe is often blurred. Berney and his friend John Connell, for instance, often come in early on Sundays and help open the place.
Chris Stevens, who has tended bar at the restaurant for more than five years, is another customer who crossed over. "The Raw Bar is the kind of place where, most nights, I know two-thirds of the people's first names," he said. "It's like a big extended family."
Evelyn Hite agreed. "I've watched a lot of kids grow up here," she said. "I think we hired every young kid in the neighborhood to wash dishes or wait tables. Now they bring their kids in."