Photo of Tony Harris by Darrow Montgomery

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Let’s clear two things up. There is no one named Stoney. And Stoney’s wasn’t always on P Street NW across from Whole Foods. The neighborhood bar famous for its Wednesday trivia nights and gooey grilled cheese sandwiches was initially located at 13th and L streets NW. It’s celebrating 50 years in business this week.

The original space was initially Herman Susser’s namesake restaurant, Herman’s. Susser sold it to Tinny Parzo in 1966. While Parzo was exceptional at cooking giant steamship rounds of beef in his restaurant’s Vulcan oven, he didn’t have the same touch when it came to gambling and found himself in financial trouble. 

Parzo only lasted two years in the restaurant business before two gents made him an offer for $41,000. “I put in $3,000, my friend put up $3,000, and we borrowed another $6,000 from my father,” Tony Harris recounts. They put the $12,000 down and assumed Susser’s existing mortgage. Harris and his partner, Steve Papageorge, needed a name for their new bar so they combined their first names to make Stoney’s.

This was in May, just one month after the civil unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. scorched the city in 1968. Papageorge and Harris were tossed in jail at the old prison in Lorton, Virginia, one night during the unrest for violating curfew and spent the time discussing whether they should move forward. 

“I was having doubts about doing this downtown, but we went ahead with it,” Harris says. “We had some demonstrations for the Vietnam War, too. We were right in the center of it, but we survived all of that.”

Papageorge left the business in 1973 and moved to Florida, leaving Harris the sole owner, bartender, and entertainer. Harris is a talker, but once you realize his stories are more entertaining than TV, you don’t mind at all. You’ll want to sit down with a pint and hear him out, which was probably the key to the bar’s early success. Harris was always there, “ranting and raving.”

He’s a first generation American. His father came to D.C. from Greece in the 1920’s and ran Stanton Grill for half a century. “When someone didn’t show up, I’d go in and work,” Harris says. He was drafted by the Army in 1962 and spent 18 months in Germany. When he returned to the U.S., he sold Chevrolets. “But I knew I wanted to go into the restaurant business.” 

When Harris and Papageorge opened Stoney’s at 13th and L streets NW it had the look of a luncheonette with chrome base stools with red tops. The countertops were formica, the floor linoleum. They renovated it to look more like a lounge in 1970 by putting in carpeting, replacing booths with tables, hanging Tiffany lamps, and resurfacing the bar. 

Harris even conducted impromptu trivia nights using questions and answers published by the Washington Daily News, whose offices were diagonally across the street. “This was 40 years ago. Now it’s this big thing,” he says.

The original Stoney’s sold burgers and fries to start, plus barbecue sandwiches made from the leftover legendary roast beef. Later, they added pizza, salads, chicken, and turkey. Burgers were about a buck and a quarter and beer was even cheaper. “Bud was 40 cents when we took over,” Harris says. “The owner, Tinny, said you could probably pop it up a nickel. We raised it to 45 cents.” 

Back in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s it wasn’t uncommon for staff to stick to one restaurant for decades. There’s a tremendous benefit to long-term employees. As one passes the baton to another, the chain is not interrupted and the spirit of the place lives on.

Take Thelma Hammett. Harris thinks she worked at Stoney’s for about 30 years. Hammett created the bar’s signature dish, the “Super Grilled Cheese” featuring tomato, bacon, and onion. It’s what she made for herself on lunch breaks. Harris is fuzzy on the year it debuted on the menu, but remembers the superlative “super” was popular because of the first Super Bowl in 1967.

Freddy Guzman, who also worked for Stoney’s for three decades, improved upon the Super Grilled Cheese. The former dishwasher learned how to cook and made terrific chili, cornbread, and Thanksgiving stuffing. Ask for the Super Grilled Cheese “Freddy Style,” and it will come with chicken fingers lovingly wedged between the other fillings. 

When Harris tells yarns about former employees and his old clientele, everyone is labeled a “good guy” or “good people,” as if you’d have to be a serial killer to get on his bad side. The early customers were a motley crew of characters—folks causing trouble, folks policing trouble, and reporters covering trouble all under the same roof. 

There was a clinic for firefighters and police across the street, as well as the Washington Daily News, which Harris calls a worthwhile tabloid. When Stoney’s first launched, it opened at 7 a.m. and could serve booze at 8 a.m. “We had a few newspaper guys who would come in after they got off shift,” he says. 

The Secret Service training center was also nearby. Stoney’s saw a large contingent of those officers as well as Drug Enforcement Agency workers. Harris says Jerry Parr, who was on President Ronald Reagan’s Secret Service detail the day of the assassination attempt in 1981, came in for breakfast every morning. “They used to keep the car where Reagan was shot in the garage across the street,” Harris says. “One time they took me down and showed me the dent where the bullet hit.” 

Secret Service officers would bring visiting law enforcement from across the country to Stoney’s. That’s how the bar collected police department patches that are displayed in frames on the first floor of the current Stoney’s on P Street NW. 

According to Harris, Secret Service officers weren’t stuffy. “A regular came in one night and handed me three joints and said, ‘Hold onto these for me,’” he recalls. When a group of Secret Service officers came in later, Harris attempted to turn over the joints. He wasn’t a fan of marijuana. To his surprise the agents responded, “‘Let’s smoke them!” 

The original Stoney’s was located on one of the more scandalous blocks in the city when it came to red light activity in the 1970s and 1980s. The police put up signs that prohibited right turns after 9 p.m. because cars would come up L Street NW, turn right on 13th Street, then turn right on K Street NW and repeat the whole sequence to get a look at the ladies of the night. “People would come from the suburbs and bring friends down,” Harris says. “It was pretty risqué at one time, but the internet has taken all of that off the street. It was a parade.” 

After 37 years, Harris’ landlord told him time was up in 2005 because he was selling the building. Following a period of uncertainty, Harris signed a lease at 1433 P Street NW in 2006. Harris had looked at the property in 1996, when it was The Stage Door, but the asking price was too high. “We brought over the old sign, but that’s about it,” Harris says. “We tried to capture what the old place was about. Now it’s up to the staff to be friendly and draw the customers.” 

The two-floor bar is easy to love and an ideal place to catch a game while eating wings or to enjoy a generous weekday happy hour. Four years ago, Harris opened a sister bar, Stoney’s on L, in West End. Throughout the years, Harris surrounded himself with young partners to keep up with the times. Billy Walls is a partner at both Stoney’s locations. Justin Glass is a partner at Stoney’s on L. At one point Med “Mo” Lahlou was also a partner at Stoney’s.

“I’ve been in this business for 50 years,” Harris says. “I look at the first 35 to 40 years, there weren’t big changes. They were subtle. The business really changed a lot in the last number of years.” He calls it “luck” that Stoney’s has lasted so long, and tacks on one of his favorite sayings: “Money comes through the front door, goes out the back door to pay the bills, and hopefully, we can grab some on the way by to pay ourselves.” 

Stoney’s just signed a fresh lease that has eight years to go. Harris says that if he opens another Stoney’s, he’ll target Northern Virginia. He only has one regret—he wishes he documented more from the early days. “I’d also like to see more people from the past,” he says.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.