But more than any single location, Englert might be best remembered for his idea to open seven bars and music clubs along three blocks of H Street NE in the mid-2000s, bringing new attention to a long-neglected corridor and turning it into a destination for nightlife, which kick-started the redevelopment of the neighborhood.
Englert began making his mark on local nightlife in the late 1980s and early ’90s, an era when D.C.’s bars tended to aim for high-rollers, interns or singles. Instead, the Pittsburgh native indulged his flair for the eccentric, with places like the Insect Club, which Post critic Eve Zibart described in 1992 as “a seriously trashy 1950s sci-fi A-bomb dropout mutant bugs movie,” decorated with giant spiders and the history of the world told through a giant ant farm.
Englert was always a few steps ahead of everyone else. U Street, the commercial and entertainment strip once known as Black Broadway, was a mess in the early ’90s, because of Metro construction, crime and neglect, but Englert opened a succession of third places along what was then dubbed “the New U”: the surrealist, Salvador Dali-inspired Andalusian Dog, which had doors leading to nowhere; the fabulously retro ’50s Zig-Zag coffee shop; and the longest-lived of the three, the Soviet-themed State of the Union, which had a giant Lenin mural over the front door and eventually became a vital stop for local poets and hip-hop performers.
At the time, “there wasn’t much thought given to the character of a place. Bars were places for meeting and drinking,” says Eric Brace, who covered nightlife for The Post from 1990 to 2003. “Joe’s bars became characters in people’s lives. You’d go to them because they were cool and different,” he says, noting the Insect Club and State of the Union in particular. “They became destinations unto themselves. They were like stage sets that made you feel that you were a character in your own life, and that your life was maybe way more interesting than it probably was.”
All Englert was trying to do, he told me in a 2005 interview, was to give people an escape: “I think it’s insulting to go out to a place where they don’t try, where they stole some ideas from a magazine. You want to go to a place that doesn’t look like what you’re around all day.”
Of course, the crazy ideas didn’t always pan out. Planet Fred, a Dupont spot that Englert envisioned as “space-themed, with world music dancing,” was one of his worst ideas, Englert told The Post in 2015. But he and his partners were as pragmatic as they were idealistic, and transformed it into Lucky Bar, which remains a destination for the region’s soccer fans.
This restlessness drove him forward, but some rival club owners complained that “Englert has overextended himself and that he’s better at starting things than sticking with them,” The Post reported in 1993. Others griped that the themes were too kitschy. Even Englert’s partners concede that he got bored easily: “Joe loved the concept. He loved putting it together,” says Matt Weiss, who teamed with Englert on projects ranging from Politiki to Truxton Inn. “That was his genius — he brought those ideas to life.” And once the place was up and running, “He was always ready to move on to the next thing.” (In fact, it was rare to see Englert at any of his bars other than Capitol Lounge, where he could frequently be found watching football on Sundays.)
In a way, Englert’s constant need for change foreshadowed current trends, such as the temporary pop-up bar. Many bargoers of a certain age still get nostalgic about Politiki, with its rum cocktails served in glasses depicting Lincoln and Nixon, beaded curtains, rattan chairs, and jukebox stuffed with Esquivel and Dean Martin. It opened to fanfare in 1998; two years later, the fanciful decor was banished to the basement, as the main floor became the Pittsburgh-themed Penn Ave. Pour House, all Primanti Bros sandwiches and Mr. Rogers puppets. “There was too much tiki,” Englert told The Post at the time. “It had become a sort of ‘event’ bar, where you’d go once or twice a month for exotic drinks, rather than a place for regulars.”
At the same time, Engert craved the novel: Former employees credit him with being one of the first to have themed movie nights in bars; to being an early adopter of the NFL Sunday Ticket; and to tying sports and bars together: Capitol Lounge used to sell tickets for section 232 at DC United Games, and would bus regulars — known as the Capitol Lounge Choir — over to RFK Stadium on a special Old Town Trolley. Englert’s bars also encouraged customers to forget about their oh-so-important Washington jobs, at least momentarily, and embrace their inner child by playing bocce (Vendetta) or putting around the giant depiction of Marion Barry as “The Awakening” (H Street Country Club).
Englert’s 1990s experiences on U Street paid off handsomely a decade later, when he began buying buildings on H Street NE, which had once been one of the region’s most popular shopping and entertainment strips but hadn’t recovered from the 1968 riots. Englert made a splash in 2005, when he announced that he and his associates were planning to open seven bars and restaurants in a three block stretch, between 12th and 15th streets.
Former D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who represented the H Street neighborhood, remembers a meeting with Englert where he came in to ask for support. “He was brusque, and rumpled,” Wells says, “and he said, ‘I want support for up to eight liquor licenses on H Street.’ I was a little skeptical, but I was intrigued.” At an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting, with Wells’s support, Englert laid out his plans but warned that he would walk if he didn’t get all eight liquor licenses. “We were all impressed with his character,” Wells says, “and his certainty” that H Street could be a success.
That’s not to say that the corridor was completely empty before Englert: The Atlas Theatre was being rebuilt, the H Street Playhouse had been around for years, and there were coffee bars and joints with go-go and jazz. But Englert engaged the community, welcoming families and Gallaudet students at the Argonaut, while his bars, promising sword swallowers and hipster bands, began drawing the curious — especially once an H Street Shuttle began ferrying customers from the Union Station end of the strip.
Englert may have gotten in on the ground floor, but only two of the seven bars he originally planned as neighborhood fixtures are still around — the Pug, which Englert didn’t own, and Granville Moore’s, which he sold several years ago. Still, Wells says, “There were a lot of people who had a lot to do with the resurgence of H Street, but no one greater than Joe.”
Englert’s most lasting legacy, though, might have been cultivating generations of bar owners from his employees. “I like to take hard-working managers and give them their own place,” he told me in 2004, after he partnered with Joe Lyon to open the 51st State Tavern in Foggy Bottom.
Bill Spieler remembers cold-calling Englert to propose a DJ event at 15 Mins. in 1990, and after a weekly gig went well, he wound up managing the downtown club. He left what he calls “The Joe Englert Organization” a few years later after 15 Mins. closed, but when Spieler and a friend had the idea for the cozy concert venue DC9 more than a decade later, Spieler didn’t hesitate to reach out to his former boss, even though Englert usually avoided live music. “He wasn’t a very hands-on person,” Spieler says. “If you’d been operating with him, he gave you creativity to do whatever you wanted.”
Englert could be prickly, but he never played the “I’ve opened more bars than you” card; he was always looking for the next place, rather than talking about the glories of a decade ago. Asked in The Washington Post Magazine in 2015 if he missed anything about “the D.C. of old,” Englert declined to answer. “I’m not nostalgic,” he said. “I think D.C.’s better than it used to be.”
If it is, it is in part because of Joe Englert’s quest to help us all find a great party.