If you’re an aficionado of dive bars, the dive-iest one in Northern Virginia was almost certainly John’s Place, on Lee Highway in Fairfax City. You had your cheap beer and your cheap wine, no fancy liquor or craft brews. You had smoking, lots of smoking, even after the smoking ban. You had real-deal pinball machines and pool tables and a jukebox. You had a large, gramatically incorrect neon sign in the window (“Steam Shrimp”).
And at the bar, day and night, for 35 years, was John Shokoor, with a can of Bud Light and the TV remote control by his side. But the place wasn’t making enough money to pay the rent, Shokoor moved away, and it closed on January 1.
There’s a place in the world for dive bars. You hang out with a whole different crew than in your neighborhood or social circle. Nobody asks a lot of questions. You don’t see anyone from work. You can get away from, er, your family. You’ve got time to gather your thoughts, watch a little TV you probably wouldn’t otherwise watch, and basically escape from real life for a couple hours. No harm, no drunk driving, no foul.
Lawyer Paul McGlone, a longtime regular and pinball enthusiast who made the place a hub for fellow pinballers, said the passing of John’s Place “marks another milestone in the gradual disappearance of the neighborhood bar from the landscape in Northern Virginia. Nothing pops up to replace a legendary neighborhood bar like John’s Place. Some other tenant will move in and a new Ruby Tuesday will open up down the street, but there will be no more neighborhood bar-- nothing unique to replace John’s unique atmosphere.”
John’s wasn’t the cleanest place in the world, and the food was not making anyone’s Top Ten list. It wasn’t a place for kids. The mainly female bartenders might occasionally remove their shirts, and a little adult fare from Cinemax might wind up on the TV late at night. There were bras on the wall. Shokoor at one point applied for a permit for topless dancing, which Fairfax City didn’t exactly embrace.
The regulars were friendly, but some of the patrons could be ornery at times. I walked in there one night with an old pal and some big drunk walked over to him and said, “Are you gay?” Now my friend did have nice hair, but these were intended as fighting words, and we barely avoided a brawl in our first 30 seconds in the joint.
“It was just a redneck bar, and I was proud to be a redneck,” said Charles Green, a retired Fairfax County firefighter and 30-plus-years regular at John’s. Green was so regular that other patrons would place bets on what time he’d walk through the door.
John’s was open “365 days a year, rain or shine, snow or blow,” Green said. Its hours were 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. Shokoor would “do anything for any of us,” Green said. One night, to prove the size of Shokoor’s heart to other patrons, Green called him up and said he needed to borrow $20,000. Shokoor told him without missing a beat, “it’ll take an hour or two, but I can get it.”
Danny Kear, a Fairfax bail bondsman and longtime regular, said, “It was just a matter of time before the Health Department caught up to him. I hate to see it go, but I knew it was coming. He was trying to sell it,” but no one could quite be enticed into the plain little strip mall just up the street from the now-closed Borders bookstore at the intersection of Routes 29 and 50 in Kamp Washington.
The clientele ranged from FBI and CIA agents, lawyers and contractors to bikers, day laborers, the occasional journalist and other low-lifes. Scot Romoser, a kitchen equipment supplier and former head of a Fairfax City neighborhood association, said “it was a good place for me to go and not worry about running into any of my constituents.”
At one time, the pool tables were pretty ratty but they’d been upgraded. A decent outdoor tiki bar was added to the roof. And the lawyer McGlone had turned it into a pinball mecca, “the home for pinball in Northern Virginia” with Monday night leagues and the annual Fairfax Pinball Open.
“There’s no place to play pinball in a public facility any more,” McGlone said. He is looking for a spot for next month’s 10th annual Pinball Open.
In recent years, John Shokoor had taken ill and moved to be with family in California. He left his bar in his son Josh’s care, but “they didn’t have the numbers to make it go,” said lawyer Ben Pelton, who represented John Shokoor for years. “It’s sad. It certainly served a purpose for many years in Fairfax City.” Josh Shokoor did not respond to a request for comment.
John’s Place probably assumed the crown of dive-iest dive bar in NoVa after Frank’s Place, a beer-only joint on Washington Street in Falls Church, closed some time ago. Whitey’s, another great place on Washington Boulevard in Arlington, also bit the dust nearly 10 years back. There are still some good neighborhood joints left, and I encourage you to leave your suggestions in the comments (which I will then research), but the era of friendly dive bars seems headed toward a close.