Alex Cholet and Lise Sanchez stood at a high-top table more than an hour before a Nationals game this month and attempted to explain what they liked most about The Bullpen, the outdoor watering hole with the uncertain future on Half Street where the no-frills aesthetic might best be described as construction-site chic.
“It’s not trying to be anything more than it is,” Cholet, 27, said as the D.C.-based rock band Make More Animals performed Sublime’s “Santeria” on an adjacent stage. “It’s shipping containers and pallets, with a full-service bar.”
“The fact that it has no character gives it character,” said Sanchez, 26. “It’s really just a parking lot, and it’s the place to be.”
When The Bullpen opened eight years ago at the opposite end of the block from where its beer and frozen margarita-drinking patrons now congregate, it was one of the only places fans could grab a drink within a baseball’s throw of Nationals Park. Even as other restaurants and bars — ones with walls and plumbing — have opened in the area in recent years, The Bullpen has somehow remained more than just another place. For many, it’s an essential part of the Nationals game-day experience.
Like most of the fans I chatted with over two evenings during the Nationals’ penultimate homestand of the season, Cholet and Sanchez were under the impression that The Bullpen would be shutting its chain-link gates for good in 2018. Development of a residential building on the south side of the block, directly across the street from Nationals Park’s center field gate, began before Opening Day, slicing The Bullpen’s footprint in half. An office building, 25M, is scheduled to be built on the plot of land that The Bullpen currently occupies, and the writing is literally on the wall that the popular venue’s days may be numbered: Brandywine Realty signage adorns some of the shipping containers that surround the small lot.
“I was actually just saying, ‘Boy, am I going to miss The Bullpen when it’s gone,’ ” said Lisa McGrath, who comes to about 10 Nationals games a season with her husband, Tom, and has frequented The Bullpen since it opened. “We’d love for it to stay.”
“They’ve been toying with my emotions for the past two seasons,” lamented Paul Pfleger, alluding to previous reports of The Bullpen’s demise, which turned out to be false alarms. “They’ve broken ground on that other building now. It’s only a matter of time. I’m sad to see it go.”
Michael Micioni, who has sold Peroni on draft along with cigars, cigarettes and other sundries from “The Dude” stand inside The Bullpen since 2013, said customers frequently inquire about the venue’s future.
“Every year people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, is this the last year?'” Micioni said. “They’ve been saying that for five years. I’m like, ‘Where are you getting that information?’ Because I don’t know that yet. Obviously, the last five years we haven’t closed.”
Even the man one would expect to know what the future holds for The Bullpen — owner and restaurateur Bo Blair, whose Georgetown Events empire includes Jetties, Surfside, Due South and Millie’s — isn’t certain.
“The answer is we never know,” Blair said last week. “Every year since we started, we’ve been on a year-to-year lease and, incredibly, with all the development going on all around us, we’ve just kind of been able to survive year after year. We could get a call a week from now from our landlord and they could say, ‘Hey, we’ve got someone committed to the building, we’re going to start building, and you guys are out.’ ”
“We’re fans of The Bullpen, obviously,” said Adam Gooch, senior VP of development for Akridge, which is partnering with Brandywine Realty Trust to develop 25M. “It’s been a great, fun pre- and postgame event space for the past several years. I can’t say it will be back next year, but I can’t say that it won’t either. What we need is a fairly large pre-lease of the building to start construction. The more development that happens around the site, the more attractive it becomes for larger users looking for a cool space in D.C.”
Blair did offer a reason to hold off on pouring out that Blue Moon tallboy for The Bullpen for now.
“The good news is we’ve been working really, really hard for the past year negotiating a lease for a permanent Bullpen that is very close to where we are now,” said Blair, who hoped to be able to share additional details about a permanent space for The Bullpen in the coming weeks. Architectural plans for the venue include two floors with an outdoor roof deck and garage-door windows that open to preserve as much of the outdoor vibe of the original Bullpen as possible.
When Blair and his business partner Jason York opened the first iteration of The Bullpen in 2009, he told The Washington Post he had a good feeling about the venture, even though he’s “usually pessimistic going into projects.” But The Bullpen was always intended to be a temporary spot, and Blair couldn’t have predicted that it would survive eight seasons.
“Not in a million years did I think we’d still be there,” Blair said this month. “Not in a million years. I thought we’d get maybe three or four years out of it and they’d start developing the space, but it just all worked out, fortunately for us, that we’re still there.”
Two years after The Bullpen first opened, Blair opened a German-style beer garden, Das Bullpen, at the northern end of Half Street. In 2012, Blair invested $250,000 to expand The Bullpen again. The new space, which was modeled after Brooklyn’s DeKalb Market, stretched the entire block and was renamed the Half Street Fairgrounds. Cornhole boards, additional seating beneath tents and food trucks set among shipping containers added to the pregame experience.
The name reverted back to The Bullpen this season, marking a return to the bar’s small roots. The Bullpen opens two hours before games, and if not for the employees in yellow vests checking IDs and issuing wristbands 50 steps from the Half Street entrance to the Navy Yard Metro station, it would be easy to mistake it for an abandoned lot. By 6 p.m. on most game nights, the picnic tables and high-tops inside are all occupied, and the elevated platform that provides the best views of the bustling scene below is lined with people.
“It’s a part of the experience,” Cholet said. “Since the Nationals have been a team, it’s been kind of the identity of going to a Nationals game, for millennials and really a lot of ages.”
“We always come here,” Tammy Taylor, a baby boomer attending her 51st Nationals game of the season, said between sips of her koozie-wrapped can of Coors Light. “I love this place. It’s gritty, it’s real, it’s fun. Cool people hang out here.”
Over the past few years, less gritty restaurants and bars such as The Big Stick, Buffalo Wild Wings, Agua 301, Due South and Bluejacket have all opened within a few blocks of Nationals Park. Bardo, an outdoor beer garden and brewpub along the Anacostia River, opened across from the home plate gate this season. Many of the fans I talked to hadn’t heard of Bardo, and those who had said they preferred the convenience and familiarity of The Bullpen.
“This is always the go-to spot,” said Pfleger, who attends about a dozen games a year. “Before all the places over there were open, you didn’t even have to say it. Friends would just come here to meet. You’ve just got to take advantage of it while you can. I like the openness of it. It’s a casual feel. You feel like you’re just hanging out, at like a tailgate.”
“We’ve been to Gordon Biersch and we’ve been to some of the bars in the Yards [Park] area,” Lisa McGrath said. “It’s just not as close, so to walk all the way over there and then walk back over the park, you lose a lot of time.”
“Time is beer and time is money,” Tom McGrath said. “The beer’s not particularly cheap, but it’s beer, what are you going to do except drink it?”
Indeed, beer prices at The Bullpen, once among the better deals outside of the ballpark, are up to $9. The bar has other perks, though.
“I love the live music,” said Kyle Storms, who often heads to Bluejacket before games on particularly muggy days and drops into Buffalo Wild Wings when there’s rain in the forecast. “There’s not a lot of that in D.C. that’s free and easy and accessible. You can come down on the Metro, hop out and in two minutes you’re getting beer, good music and good people watching. It’s an easy spot to meet up with friends.”
Blair said he sometimes longs for the days of the larger space from a business point of view, especially for sellout games, but he prefers the more intimate feel of this year’s Bullpen.
“The whole vibe of being smaller makes people want to hang out longer after the game,” he said. “It’s more like a real club or bar.”
Kevin Banks, who has managed The Bullpen for the last four years (at least as well as Matt Williams managed the bullpen during his time in Washington), said the crowds have been more consistent this season than last year when the Fairgrounds spanned the entire block. He’s also noticed that more fans tend to stick around during the game; beers at The Bullpen are $5 from the third inning through the seventh inning.
Banks said that televisions will be installed before the playoffs, which could be The Bullpen’s last hurrah. With MLB’s All-Star Game being played at Nationals Park in 2018, Blair said he’s hopeful The Bullpen will survive in its current space for one more year.
“That would be a fitting end to it,” Blair said. “It’s been really satisfying to be able to be there this long. And we’re very excited to have a permanent place and be there forever, so that’ll be the next stage. I don’t want to say we’re definitely going to do it, but it’s getting very close to being a reality.”
The permanent Bullpen would open sometime during the 2019 season, meaning there could be a void for Bullpen-goers if the development of 25M begins in the next year. Nationals fan Allyson Yuen, who attends about 10 games a season, held out hope that her favorite pregame spot will still be operational next Opening Day.
“We walked in for the first time this year and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, it keeps getting smaller, and the development keeps encroaching,’ ” Yuen said. “It’s sad. Now it feels more real, like it’s actually closing, but fingers crossed, I would love for it to be here.”
“I keep begging for next year,” Taylor said. “We need a place like this. We need a place that isn’t like the rest of D.C.”