To those in flyover country, Washington summons all the merriment of a dead puppy. Our city’s reputation as a fountain of mirth, I suspect, lies somewhere on the spectrum between Detroit and, say, Syria. We’re the anti-Magic Kingdom: the most joyless place on Earth.
At least that’s the perception. And that’s the bias I carried into Thomas Foolery, a Dupont Circle establishment that pins its business plan on the vaporous hope that, underneath all those power ties and pencil skirts, Washingtonians really do want to have fun. The kind of fun where you lose your carefully constructed identity, your sense of dignity and maybe even your precious little smartphone for a while.
To be fair to the residents of our painfully caricatured city, Washingtonians are not the only ones who have trouble with play. One of my favorite thinkers on human behavior is Brene Brown, a scholar and author who researches shame. Yes, shame, that black, cancerous gunk that we hide from everyone, including ourselves.
During one lecture, Brown asked the audience to stand and take part in four exercises: She invited them to laugh, sing, dance and then strike a pose that says “I’m cool, and I’m in total control of the situation.” Some struck the same pose for all four: an expressionless power stance closer in spirit to a department store mannequin than a human with a pulse. “That’s how cool works,” Brown told the crowd. “Cool is an emotional straightjacket.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Turning up at Thomas Foolery, gobbling down a PB&J and playing Hungry Hungry Hippos will not instantly turn you into the weepy, poetry-reading offspring of Morrissey and Jewel. But it will likely make you uncomfortable.
One recent Saturday, as friends and I were playing Cards Against Humanity (slogan: “A party game for horrible people”), I spotted a dude in full D.C. uniform (suit, tie, cloak of superiority) approach Foolery’s entrance in the former Zeke’s DC Donutz space. Once he spotted the goofiness inside, he spun on heel and fled, as if he had just witnessed a murder and wished not to get involved.
Which is sort of divine justice. Owner Steve Davis, the man behind the equally goofy Mr. Yogato fro-yo shop, says he launched Thomas Foolery (with 48 investors) so he would have a bar to call his own. He says he feels awkward and uncomfortable in traditional meat markets, where the prime cuts must all be perfectly trimmed. So to speak. Davis admits he can’t dance. He doesn’t care much for alcohol, save for fruity drinks and Smirnoff Ice, which he adores (and has even found a way to make the moronic Bros Icing Bros chugging trend marginally charming).
“The fanciest piece of clothing I have is a hoodie,” Davis cracks.
Did I mention that Davis collects degrees like some collect barf bags? (He earned a PhD in economics “mostly for fun.”) He’s also an engineer at SpaceX, a company that designs and manufactures rockets and space capsules. I guess you could say it takes a rocket scientist to build a place like Thomas Foolery.
Maybe Davis doesn’t realize it, but by publicly embracing his inner dweeb in all its unrefined glory, he’s provided cover for the rest of us to let our freak flag fly. Suddenly, Washingtonians have a safe place to be a dork.
Foolery boasts a carnival midway of games, all of them free. Don’t Break the Ice. Connect Four. Big Boggle. Apples to Apples. Jenga. Even “dirty” Jenga with improvised, handwritten directives on each block (sample mission: “makeout w/ your beer”). You can also play “Mario Kart” or create a tabletop masterpiece with an Etch A Sketch. There are even rules here. Among them: “Limbo below your ‘thigh-midpoint” and get a free candy from Tom’s Candy Store.”
The chalkboard menu at Foolery consists of, in Davis’s words, “little kid food”: thin, crispy sourdough triangles of grilled cheese from the Big Cheese truck; moist, rich cookies and ice cream sandwiches from another street vendor, Captain Cookie & the Milk Man. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are available, too, with optional strips of bacon when you get tired of mainlining sugar. The cocktail list comes straight from Sesame Street: The Elmo, for example, combines peach schnapps, prosecco and cranberry juice. It’s like drinking a Care Bear.
But the food and cocktails, even when they surprise you with their quality, are beside the point. They’re so beside the point that the staff won’t even tell you when they’re out of chips to accompany the Midnight Moon sandwich (an excellent combo of goat cheese, Gouda and caramelized onions on muti-grain bread). They’ll just give you extra gherkins instead. The only element here that a “Portlandia”-style trend-humper could endorse is the craft beer list, which runs 40-plus bottles, an oasis of cool in Legoland.
One danger about Thomas Foolery is that you will experience the place, but not fully grasp it. One night, my companion laid down her next-to-last card and shouted “Uno!” in ticklish triumph. The problem was, she forgot to look down: I had made a move requiring her to pick four more cards. That I pointed this out with mock exasperation, in essence, indicated my own maniacal desire to win.
Thomas Foolery should be a place where competition goes to die, replaced with a willingness to sacrifice ego, artifice and cool. Like the table next to ours one night: They had spontaneously launched into a game of Thumper, their hands beating the table in tribal unison. They were laughing, occasionally kissing and sometimes just making a riotous noise. They represented that rare, gorgeous breed: Washingtonians acting silly in public.
2029 P St. NW.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.
to 2 a.m.
Nearest Metro: Dupont Circle, with a 0.2-mile walk to the restaurant.