People hate change. Jackie Greenbaum jokes that she got death threats when she took over Silver Spring’s Quarry House Tavern in 2005. “I did get letters and emails that were quite ferocious,” she says. Someone even started a “Save Quarry House” website. “Meaning, save it from us. It was not nice to us.”
“I remember when someone was bitching about onion soup,” says Gordon Banks. Greenbaum appointed him Quarry House general manager soon after she took over, and now he’s her business partner at El Chucho, Bar Charley, Slash Run, and Little Coco’s. “They wanted the old onion soup, so I went back and handed them a packet of Lipton.”
Regulars dubious of the new ownership didn’t understand that the bar, though it’s been around since the 1920s, was on life support. The previous owners blamed the financial issues on the normal life cycle of a bar, plus the implementation of the smoking ban, according to Greenbaum.
“It was there during prohibition,” Greenbaum says. “When they started issuing liquor licenses in 1934, people say Quarry House was license No. 1, but our license number says 30. It is one of the few that are still in existence from back then. It’s a rarity and a treasure.”
Animosity persisted for the first three to six months, then it dissipated. Regulars returned, among them Maryland college professors, neighborhood families, “tattooed kids,” and restaurant industry pros. “To the plain eye, it seemed like nothing really had changed,” Greenbaum says.
Nearly 14 years later, Greenbaum and Banks are experiencing déjà vu. Quarry House suffered damages in a March 2015 fire at the adjacent Bombay Gaylord Fine Indian Cuisine, forcing it to close. To keep continuity, Greenbaum and Banks reopened inside the former Piratz Tavern across the street, but that ended in February 2017.
Now Quarry House is a few weeks out from reopening at its original address, 8401 Georgia Ave., and the pressure is on again to keep the spirit of the place.
“I think people are going to be surprised by how the same it is, but with air conditioning that works,” Banks says. The bathrooms got the most significant upgrades, but that doesn’t mean management plans to wipe the freshly painted walls clean of graffiti. Greenbaum is even considering equipping peeing Picassos with Sharpie markers. “It’s always been a hole in the wall,” Greenbaum says. “It’s still a hole in the wall.”
Greenbaum and Banks’ qualifications for preserving a local bar go back generations. Greenbaum’s parents were native Washingtonians and her mother’s father’s mother was also born in the District. She’s convinced her Uncle Toots was a local bootlegger and bookie who ran booze during prohibition. Banks’ grandmother lived on Park Road and Georgia Avenue NW and his grandfather lived on Rock Creek Church Road NW. He grew up in Silver Spring.
Together they’ve nailed the neighborhood restaurant at a time when the term is abused in D.C. Some restaurateurs pitch their eateries as places with ambitions no grander than pleasing those within walking distance, but then prices inch higher, reservations get swallowed up, and suddenly a humble bistro is hankering for a Michelin star.
Banks employs the “Tuesday Night Test” to tell if a restaurant is a true neighborhood joint: “My wife and I worked. We don’t feel like cooking or doing dishes. It’s Tuesday night. Can we go out and each get a drink and food and not spend $200?”
Banks’ strategy has been to offer something for everyone. “At Quarry House, you can come in for a PBR and shot of Old Overholt for like $6,” he says. “Or, you can buy a $30-$400 shot of single malt [whiskey]. It’s created a vibe where you have punk rock kids sitting next to lawyers with their ties loosened.” Greenbaum adds, “We’re really price sensitive. We commonly feel ripped off by food and drink prices in this city. The feeling of something being reasonably priced is very satisfying.”
Over the past 14 years, Greenbaum and Banks have celebrated the highs that come with opening restaurants and the sting that comes with closing them down. They met at Jackie’s, Greenbaum’s first restaurant, which opened in Silver Spring in 2004. “My ex wanted to name it after me because I think he wanted me to work there all the time,” Greenbaum jokes.
The restaurant was risky because Greenbaum didn’t have much industry experience. She immediately called in reinforcements—James Beard award-winning local chef Ann Cashion. “I remember developing the menu over many Scotches at her apartment,” Greenbaum says. Cashion also placed Sam Adkins in the opening chef role. “Ann was from Jackson, Mississippi, and showed Sam how to make fried chicken,” Greenbaum continues.
“I’ve been a Jackie fan since the first time we met, which had to be in the early 1990’s,” Cashion says. “Her smarts, her energy, and her sensibilities make her great company and she is funny as hell. I knew her creativity and talent would carry the day.”
The doors opened and Jackie’s was an immediate hit. Silver Spring had few restaurants of its caliber. “We opened on a Thursday, and on Friday we did 250 covers in an 80-seat restaurant,” Greenbaum says.
When Post critic Tom Sietsema’s review came out, she cried. “I was in line at Crate & Barrel,” she recounts. “The lady behind me was talking to her husband reading the review. I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit, they’re reading and talking about me and I’m in a random place.’”
Jackie’s is also where Greenbaum discovered Banks. Her future partner’s sister tipped him off about the restaurant. They only had a host position open. He applied and got the job and was named head host within a week. Then one night Banks let loose over drinks.
“He proceeded to tell me, in a rant, everything that’s wrong with the restaurant,” Greenbaum says. “We were at least five, 10, or 15 shots of Jameson in.” Instead of getting mad, Greenbaum named him general manager.
After launching Jackie’s and taking over Quarry House, Greenbaum didn’t make another big move until 2010, when she opened Sidebar adjacent to Jackie’s. She brought Banks over to bartend. It was his first foray into cocktails. “At the time it was just PX, The Gibson, and Sidebar,” he says of the then-nascent area cocktail scene. “I drank enough beer and whiskey at Quarry House. You get to the point where you just want to make something.”
The pair opened their first restaurant in D.C. proper—and their first restaurant as partners—in 2012. They built El Chucho in Columbia Heights from scratch and hired Diana Dávila, a Mexican-American chef who had been working at Jackie’s, to create the menu. (She now runs the buzzed-about Mi Tocaya restaurant in Chicago.)
Then growth picked up. “We were full-tilt in an expansionist moment back then,” Greenbaum says. “It’s very exciting to open restaurants. It’s creatively stimulating.”
They debuted Bar Charley in Dupont in 2013. “We almost named it The Bar Next To Lauriol Plaza,” Banks jokes. “We hate naming things, actually,” Greenbaum adds. Charles is Banks’ middle name. “I viewed it as a way to bring Sidebar into D.C.,” Greenbaum says. They even created a shochu-based cocktail called Jiro Dreams of Sidebar.
At both Bar Charley and Slash Run, which they opened in Petworth in 2015, Banks and Greenbaum nimbly responded to what the neighborhood wanted. Their initial Bar Charley menu was small plates-based at the height of small plate pandamonium. But last year they switched to an affordable steakhouse menu. For $29.99 you can get an 8 oz American Wagyu flat iron steak with a salad, sauce, and a side.
“We learned our customer base,” Greenbaum says. “Even though there were young people, they weren’t particularly adventurous eaters. If we wanted them to buy as much in food as they were spending on cocktails, we needed to find a sweet spot that met our standards and theirs.”
Greenbaum intended Slash Run to be a bar-meets-burger joint inspired by her punk rock alter ego. (In the 80s, she lived in the storied apartment atop the old 9:30 Club where you could hear concerts through an air shaft.) But when the doors finally flung open, the neighborhood was more of a nest for new families than a group house haven. “We thought we were opening a bar, but we opened a restaurant with a lot of toddlers in it,” Greenbaum says.
Their latest restaurant, Little Coco’s, opened at 3907 14th St NW in Sept. 2016. It’s a pizza and pasta joint headed by Chef Adam Harvey. The place manages to offer both an impressive amaro selection and an affordable dinner date option. Greenbaum and Banks are fans of nearby bars Red Derby and Lyman’s Tavern and had long sought to open a restaurant in the neighborhood.
Not every one of their businesses made it through 2016, though. Greenbaum closed Jackie’s and Sidebar in March of that year. “It’s tough to take the pulse of your restaurant during the life of it, but it’s essential,” Greenbaum says. “I had contemplated closing it for longer than people knew.” She paused annually to ask: Should we still be here? Are we doing anything interesting? Are we still good?
Much of the original customer base had moved on. Some had kids and moved away. Others died. “You have to be able to recreate or continue building a customer base, and it’s exhausting,” Greenbaum says.
As for what’s next, Greenbaum and Banks are feeling settled. “I’ve been talking about the bubble exploding for a long time, and I get the sense that that has begun,” Banks says. “There are too many restaurants for the number of people.”
“I’m also older and don’t have the drive I did before,” Greenbaum says. “In the beginning I felt I had something unique to contribute … I don’t have such an ego to think I have something more or better to offer than all of the really wonderful places.” She’s surprised by the caliber of restaurants young chefs are opening and how many neighborhoods have exceptional dining.
“We opened things faster than we probably should have,” Banks concludes, adding that they’re going to put a little more TLC into their existing concepts instead of expanding. For now. “Let’s make the places we have as awesome as they can possibly be, and then relax. Then, maybe open a dozen or more.”
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncity paper.com.