The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Alexandria, some businesses avoid the impact of Metro’s shutdown. Others are barely hanging on.

Sang Lee, the owner of Mackie’s Bar & Grill in Alexandria’s Old Town, said his business has been struggling since the shutdown of the King Street-Old Town Metro station, one of six closed for repairs this summer. (Kery Murakami/Express)

It was only about 5 p.m. last Tuesday. But at Mackie’s Bar & Grill in Alexandria, it felt like late at night, just after a bar closes and the bartenders and regulars are lingering over stories.

Only a couple of customers were at the bar — a more common occurrence than usual during Metro’s summerlong shutdown of the King Street-Old Town station, which has reduced attendance at several nearby businesses.

Steve Garcia, the bartender, and Sang Lee, the owner, discussed what it feels like to be “Sanged.” It means “finding yourself in a challenge you didn’t know you couldn’t win.”

From time to time, Lee will issue a challenge to accomplish some gastronomical feat. Recently, he demanded that Garcia eat 25 pancakes in one sitting.

The challenge wasn’t supposed to be until 8 p.m., but Lee had a trick up his sleeve. He ordered them at 4:30 p.m., “so by 8, they’re like Frisbees,” Garcia said.

“You didn’t say I couldn’t do that,” interjected Lee, a former attorney who became a foodie from watching cooking shows and opened the restaurant three years ago.

“I started feeling it around 15,” Garcia continued. “The problem was, these things were like rubber. The back of my jaw just wouldn’t allow me to chew anymore.”

Laughter filled the bar as the pair reminisced. But Lee’s smile turned to worry when the conversation shifted to the shutdown of the Metro station, one of six on the Blue and Yellow lines south of Reagan National Airport closed for repairs until Sept. 8. The Metro shutdown has Lee himself feeling “Sanged.”

“There’s a lot of things I have to take care of, and I don’t know where I’m going to get the money from,” he said.

Business has slowed, not only at Mackie’s but for others in Old Town. A June 14 to 18 survey by the city and several business groups, including Visit Alexandria, found that a little more than one-third of Alexandria businesses closer to the King Street station were making less money than last summer.

Mackie’s stopped serving lunch shortly after the shutdown, when it became apparent that fewer tourists were stopping by this summer before heading into the District. And Lee had to lay off the lunch staff.

The shutdown isn’t permanent, and Lee said he thinks business will eventually come back — if it can survive until then.

At Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub that night, the bar was full as happy hour got going. But Luiza, a bartender, said that before the shutdown, the mostly empty tables used to be full, too.

Kenny Mitchell, Murphy’s general manager, theorizes that people might not have much energy left to go out after sitting on crawling Metro shuttles home.

In brighter spirits at Vola’s Dockside Grill was co-owner Scott Shaw as he sat by large windows overlooking Alexandria’s waterfront, about a 25-minute walk from the closed station.

In that area, according to the survey, 83 percent of waterfront businesses were doing at least as well since the shutdown, and 59 percent were doing better — no doubt helped by the ongoing park renovation.

“Over the last year or two, there’s been an injection of new fresh things to do that’s drawing a younger crowd,” he said. Sales at the restaurant were up more than 10 percent over last summer, said Shaw, whose Alexandria Restaurant Partners owns the restaurant and five others in the city.

He said he’s seeing both sides of the shutdown’s effect. The restaurant group also owns Joe Theismann’s Restaurant, which is close to King Street station. Business there has dropped off by almost 15 percent compared with the same period last year.

With the waterfront businesses doing well, Shaw took the opportunity during the shutdown to close portions of Theismann’s to expand the bar and display more Redskins memorabilia.

Must be nice, said Lee.

“I don’t have multiple restaurants. He can spread the pain,” Lee said. “What do I do?”

As he spoke, Lee sat in a nook by the front. The staff calls it the Ruby Lounge in honor of Lee’s redbone coonhound, Ruby. Lee was heartbroken when she died three years ago. The restaurant, meanwhile, is named after his wife’s maiden name.

“The bar, its name, our image, our reputation, means something,” he said. “It does. It means something. It should not go down.”