The first shift piled into Mr. Henry’s Restaurant on Capitol Hill. As usual, the morning crew expected to encounter the perpetual sins of the late-night brigade: unmarried ketchups, ashtrays bursting with Marlboros, tables and chairs sticky with splashes of Coke and 7Up. But they encountered an unusually bizarre scene one morning in 1969. Manager Alvin Ross heard a strange gargling sound, as if someone held a squirting can of whipped cream to an amplifier. He noticed every single beer tap slapped forward to the open position. Not a drop of beer poured from the taps; last gasps of CO2 hissed from the exhausted draft system. And then Ross spotted the culprit: hand-me-down bartender Rudi Appl, sprawled out on the bar, snoring loudly after a night of wrecking the establishment’s liquor percentages. Drunk, reckless, and so likeable you couldn’t fire the guy. Damn it—Rudi made it into work, at least, and he wouldn’t stop coming in for…for…well, forever.
Like brick sidewalks and scoundrel politicians, Rudi (everyone who knows him calls him by his first name) has always been a fixture in the District. Starting in 1966, he took his post behind a bar full of gin, vodka, and whiskeys, and since then, Rudi, now 79, has been standing tall, counseling, laughing, directing, empathizing, upselling, and entertaining in his home away from home—Mr. Henry’s Capitol Hill.
Back when he started, the Hill wasn’t chock-a-block with two-income power families, cable TV–driven gourmet burger places, or $2 million show houses snapped off the real estate market within hours. Denizens were known as “Hillbillies,” famous for their blue-collar ways, hard-drinking habits, and love of a good, old-fashioned throwdown. Almost every night, the cops had to call on Billy’s, a roadhouse right across Pennsylvania from Mr. Henry’s, to break up melees. You almost got used to the sound of breaking glass.
The more genteel clientele of Henry’s included wild-eyed newspaper men from the Washington Star, located down the block, who used to drink daily three-martini lunches and dinners there when it was known as Ted’s Grill, on the corner of 6th Street SE. A brash cabal of real estate mavens—promoting, lending cash on, buying, and flipping properties—were regulars, too. Gay men felt free to show their sexual side, at what was then one of only a couple safe-haven bars in D.C.
Rudi’s boss, Henry “Mr. Henry” Yaffe, liked to buy the dreck of Capitol Hill housing stock. What the houses lacked in workmanship, space, and structural integrity, Yaffe masked by staging the units with beautiful paintings, rugs and sculptures. He didn’t roam far from his winning formula when he purchased Ted’s Grill in 1966, loading the corner bar with original and knock-off Victorian paintings, pub signs, sconces, and chandeliers. He went on to open up eight more similar Mr. Henry’s in D.C. and the suburbs. Only the Capitol Hill location remains.
With the ramshackle barroom, Henry inherited the soused scribes. He ditched the country/western theme, but on the previous owner’s insistence, retained Rudi Appl. The place at the time also boasted one more moneymaker: Singer Roberta Flack had taken up a long residency in the cramped first-floor bar.
“I lived upstairs,” Rudi recalls. “And I took a trip back home to Germany. I came back to find my apartment locked. Evicted. Because of the large crowds Roberta brought in, Mr. Henry needed to expand and kicked me out.”
Only out of the apartment, though, not out of the joint. Rudi has had the same vocation for five continuous decades and counting: bartending. Night after night of pouring beer, listening, nodding, keeping the party going with banter and wisecracks. From the start, he set the tone at Mr. Henry’s: The barroom wasn’t a library. No book reading! Socialize! And no television either, the idiot box starting all sorts of rows, sports versus news, reruns versus game shows. What a conversation stopper! Once somebody brought in a TV, and Rudi bounced the thing across the sidewalk into an oncoming WMATA bus.
An August 2012 Forbes report estimates that a worker born between 1977 and 1997 can expect to change jobs once every three years. This means a modern American can expect to have 15 or 20 paying positions over the course of their working lives. Rudi looks like a piker in comparison.
But life did not begin at Henry’s for Rudi.
“One of the nice things about being Rudi—nobody knew him from the old days,” says current Mr. Henry’s proprietor Larry Quillian, who won ownership of the bar from Yaffe in a poker game in 1972. “So he could be whoever the customer wanted him to be, whatever the customer wanted to make up. Isn’t that the perfect bartender?”
Quillian, who owns real estate all over the Hill, hits Rudi’s appeal squarely in the jaw. So disarming and friendly, Rudi sucks you in. You want to be cast in his little Mitteleuropäischer drama. He immediately transports you into a more civilized world and time. What’s his story? Do the pre-Henry’s facts even matter at this point? Most everybody Rudi knew in his youth is long gone from this earth or doesn’t speak enough English to verify the exact details. But this is Rudi’s version of his life’s major events:
At 9 years old, Rudi escaped World War II when a family friend drove him across two continents in an old BMW from his home in Brno, Czechoslovakia, to Beirut, Lebanon. (He was Catholic, but he fled because his father feared for his youngest son in the chaos of war.) He enrolled in the American School. “There, I skied in the Cedar Mountains,” he says. “It reminded me of home.”
After the war, the entire Appl family reconvened in Frankfurt, settling in the American sector of a rebuilding Germany, until he and his parents left for the Canadian Rockies. (Rudi’s two older brothers stayed in Europe with their brand-new war brides.) 21-year-old Rudi took any employment that came his way for five years, including working the oil fields as a roughneck. He got bit by the hospitality bug working the dining room at a resort outside Calgary, Alberta. When the next tourist season rolled around, Rudi traveled south to work for Huntington Hartford’s Paradise Island in Nassau, Bahamas. Paradise Island was the playground for stars like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Yul Brynner, mobsters, playboys, trust funders, emirs, and sultans. Cubby Broccoli eventually used the resort as a backdrop in the Bond movie Thunderball. Dashingly handsome and the sole heir to the A&P grocery chain, Hartford became famous for his riches to rags story: With an addiction to beautiful women, grandly archaic art theories, and costly navel-gazing, he ruined everything he touched and lost most of his fortune.
In the resort’s off months, Rudi became Hartford’s drinking buddy and assistant. On a trip to Hollywood, they met Wallace Seawell, then a leading cinematographer. Seawell took some stills of Rudi, which yielded work as a stand-in for Marlon Brando and Robert Stack. Despite the thick accent, the producers and directors liked tall, debonair Rudi’s subsequent screen test just fine. “But these were the days of the studio system,” he recalls. “I didn’t want the contracts or the obligations.”
After Paradise Island shut down for the season in 1963, Rudi took off for Washington: “I am a people person, but the powerful intrigue me most.” He shuffled back and forth between Paradise and D.C. until settling for good here in 1966.
Instead of pampering the lions of stage, screen, and song, Rudi now entertained the likes of news broadcasters (Chet Huntley, David Brinkley) and political stars (New Mexico Sen. Joe Montoya and the surviving royalty of Camelot, Ted and Ethel Kennedy). Before cell phones and 24-hour news cycles, public figures felt more at ease letting loose in private. A drunk pol behaving badly, speaking out of school, or driving after leaving the bar were all de rigueur. “You used to be forbidden to shut people off,” Rudi says. “They drank until they fell down.”
He used to do the same, though these days, Rudi’s nothing but a tippler—maybe a social wine or beer once in a blue moon. As a young man, gambling tickled his fancy a bit too much, too. “Rudi would lull you to sleep,” says Ross. “He would act drunk or distracted and then win hand after hand. He won so much we stopped playing with him.”
(Gambling figures prominently in Rudi’s story. To hear Rudi tell it, even before losing his bar in a liar’s poker hand, Mr. Henry had a habit of cleaning out the register four, five, seven times a day to finance gambling bets, and an annoying habit of neglecting to leave a record that he’d absconded with petty cash. Though Yaffe owned the place, Rudi had responsibility for the drawer, and the only way to balance at the end of the night was collecting slips marked with Mr. Henry’s initials. “I kept a ruler by the bar and hit him in the hands if he tried to go in there without documentation,” Rudi says. “Not on my watch.”)
Everybody smoked, and Rudi happily obliged his customers. Not much of a partaker, he still never went to work without two packs in his breast pocket: It helped ensure customers stayed with him for a few more puffs and another round, running up tabs and returning his hospitality with generous tips.
Just like his old pal Mr. Henry, Rudi managed to make money day and night, buying and renovating nearly a dozen of houses on the Hill, using the barroom as his office to review building progress with a steady stream of carpenters, AC guys, plumbers, permit-runners, bankers and real estate agents. In the late 1960s and 1970s, he cleared between $10,000 and $20,000 a flip. By the mid-’80s, Rudi made the transition to lunchtime bartender. He bought a rambling mansion in Baltimore, living there and commuting back and forth for a few years. When he had time off, he traveled the world, going to Germany and Switzerland to visit relatives, skiing the mountains of Chile, and taking long tours of Thailand.
Times changed month by month, year by year, decade by decade. The old days became more distant and alien. Blue-collar men on the Hill became rarer and rarer. The Evening Star shuttered. Newspaper men didn’t often choose to hang out in the bars any longer. (Neither did the newspapers.) Regulars became grayer, thicker around the middle, slower and not so positive. Only Rudi seemed never to change or lose passion for his line of work and the steady tips. Besides, real estate always seemed to crash every decade or so, especially on the Hill. The bar business didn’t.
And every day right before he ended his shift, Rudi uttered what his devotees came to hear: “You don’t have to go home, but you have to leave!” At the risk of contradicting himself, he’d usually follow up with a Moravian-accented order: “Go home to your mudder!”
By the time I arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1984 to try to become a freelance writer, Rudi Appl had already been tending bar here for two decades. I found a room in a boarding house at 16th and Swann streets NW. I wrote awhile for publications like the Washington Times. On rare occasions, cross-town buddies talked my friends and me into long cab rides to the Hill to hop from the Hawk ’n Dove to the Tune Inn and Mr. Henry’s, instead of our usual haunt, Fox & Hounds near Dupont.
The bars I knew, no matter the neighborhood, were more replicant than a snowflake: maybe not exactly alike, but eerily familiar, long-established watering holes, close approximations of each other in appearance, attitude, and smell.
Weeknights at D.C. bars ended closer to dawn than now, thanks to smokers who needed extra time to rip through another half-pack. The men drinking in these places didn’t join sports leagues (neither did the ladies), though they might enjoy a bowling or softball outing as an excuse to drink and smoke in a different locale. Neighborhood places had hardcore mainstays, who went to converse, to listen, to become a regular—to have the ear and perhaps earn the trust of their local bar staff. Words like “yoga” and “mindfulness” never came up in conversation.
No one avoided beef, cream, sugar, or sloth. Like cigarettes, whiskey, and an occasional snort of blow, you knew these vices were detrimental to your health; you did them anyway because they felt and tasted good. People didn’t feel the need to publicly declare devotion to bacon. Bar owners were less desperate to own a title. A cook calling himself a “chef” risked ridicule and probably even a shoe up the ass. Putting a chef’s name on a laminated menu was about as likely as some jerk asking to put a curling match on the TV.
Proprietors worked their own joints, and drank in them as well. If a patron said, “Buy you a shot?” the owner gladly raised a toast and imbibed. No Yelp or camera phone could tear you down for enjoying the moment. There were no culinary empires to destroy. Not many publicans thought of vertical integration as a life ambition; franchising did not compute. You had your one place, and you made the best of it, dutifully rationing butter pats and syrup packs and counting empty vodka bottles. When needed, you stepped behind the line to salt French fries and toast buns for cooks during the rush. If you brined your own pickles, you mentioned this fetish to no one.
You didn’t expect to get rich, or be covered in the press, or judge other poor bastards’ cooking chops in televised competitions. A publican prayed to make his bills, not become addicted to his wares, and build a loyal staff that could be counted on not to rob him blind while he took off to Ocean City for a weekend or to see a romantic comedy with a date.
Back then a bartender held court in the same joint for years, like Rudi. A regular could count on some good old-fashioned attention, never competing against a phone or text. A bartender wasn’t concerned about memorizing a “beer list”—a newbie customer either wandered into a Bud or Miller establishment, and that was usually determined by the preference of the barkeep.
Originally a nightclub guy, I realized that in such a serious, political town, there just weren’t enough reasons to dance. So I abandoned my first niche for bars. And I launched dozens, all of them relying on similar hooks: Embrace the emerging new beer culture. Make food from scratch. Offer lots of sports on banks of televisions. Plenty of wing specials. Pool tables. Satellite jukeboxes. People’s attention spans were growing shorter, so I provided ever more social lubricants: trivia; drag bingo; karaoke; comedy; games, games, games.
Perhaps my favorite game was hiring the original Mr. Henry himself as my host and sidekick at the Capitol Lounge in 1996. I watched the man eat too many meals, unfortunately paid for by me; met the acquaintance of a string of his Weiner dogs; and bet him often, taking the old man’s money when he stupidly gambled on the post-Joe Gibbs Pigskins. All of his old friends from real estate, the Hill, and restaurants dropped in as Henry did paperwork in the window of the Lounge.
This is when Rudi entered my life, stopping by every week to have a laugh with his old boss. Between busting Henry’s balls, he regaled us with crucial gossip and stories of travels or run-ins with people like Formula One hero Michael Schumacher.
These fellows gave me great pride to be part of the Capitol Hill dive bar continuum, a new caretaker of misfit toy regulars, purveyor of chicken wings, the bacon burger, and the drunken Irishman joke. My dive was a new dive, just like the old dives, with cigarette burns, a nine-ball league, and football pick ’em cards. Mine came only a bit shinier, with twists like pepper jack instead of American cheese.
I went about opening up lots of joints in the neighborhoods where Henry and Rudi flipped their houses long ago. But unlike them, I didn’t usually have employees and co-workers who dug in with me for the duration. The kids who worked in bars by the time I got involved usually left after a few years to work a “real job,” a phrase that would never cross Rudi’s lips.
Looking back on his career, Rudi remains proud that he learned an art and stuck with it. “People think bartending is easy,” he says. “But it’s a profession where you need several professional degrees: priest, philosopher, attorney, psychiatrist.”
He doesn’t like the new fluidity of restaurants, the continual expansions, the opening after opening of new places. “All the new activity is ridiculous,” he laughs. “They’ll close sooner than they can open.”
Over the last decade, Rudi began trying to put in fewer hours, choosing to be a part-timer. But he realized how much he disliked staying off his feet for too long. So he began picking up shifts at Thai Roma, a now-defunct restaurant three blocks west of Henry’s, featuring an intricately designed wooden back bar, a nautical theme, and a decidedly geriatric crowd. Rudi added bar stools of regulars to the mix and cultivated dozens of young patrons attracted to his gregarious and infectious manner and his professionalism.
By late fall 2004, he wasn’t feeling well. Was it just the second job and its extra shifts? For the first time in his life, he was tired, fatigued, even a bit depressed. What he didn’t realize at first: His heart was failing, and he was suffering the classic symptoms of arterial blockage.
Working an afternoon shift at Thai Roma on Christmas Day 2004, Rudi felt very feverish. After a violent spell of chills, he collapsed. Bar customers called 911, and an ambulance whisked him to George Washington University Hospital, where he stayed for four days and was fitted for a defibrillator. (Nine years later, when the little implanted machine kicks up, “it can still knock me on my ass,” he says.)
Rudi wanted nothing more than to come back after the first surgery and get right behind the bar once again, but his friends urged him to face facts: He needed recovery time. He stayed out of work for six months to relax—and the inactivity, the lack of people, attention, and give-and-take drove him crazy. “Only the landlord’s dog kept me in it,” he says. “I took him for several walks a day.”
Long before the heart problem, Rudi had shed each vice, one by one. Only his slavish devotion to rich food could still be counted as a deadly sin. His palette showed as much variety as his bar crowds: At home, he whipped up a mean Schnitzel, and he relished scarfing up savory scallopini, cream sauces, and tarts at restaurants like Tiberio’s or La Bagatelle. When those places went out of business, he turned to heaping spicy portions of red curry and noodles at hole-in-the-wall Thai places. Now the doctors insisted he cut out the salt, the hot peppers, the fat-laden dishes. After outlasting so many, restraint and sacrifice wound up as his only rewards.
Like a good Central European, Rudi shows up for each meeting, lunch, or coffee klatch a bit on the early side. During lunch at my tavern, Capitol Lounge, Rudi perches regally in his chair, ramrod straight, the product of violin lessons and long-ago music professors with a passion for Italian musical terms, decorum, and good posture. (Sitting and playing proficiently with four books balanced on your head can’t help but leave you with an impressive mien.) At 79, he still looks every inch of 6-foot-1. Recently Rudi underwent cataract surgery. Coming straight from a follow-up visit with an ophthalmologist, his eyelids are pocked with lines of orange medicine.
His shirt pressed under a fitted navy jacket, the old grey eyes outlined in orange dance as Rudi brags that he only needs his glasses now for small-print publications. And for the computer: Rudi constantly surfs the Web, for news, for entertainment, and to keep up with his older brothers, still alive and kicking. He prowls his inbox each day for letters, jokes, updates from scores of nephews, distant relatives, younger friends, while Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Haydn or an old movie plays in the background on cable. “I keep in touch with relatives, new friends,” he says. “But the old ones, they are all gone.”
The knock on D.C. is that it’s a transient town, that people come and go. But like many of his longtime regulars, Rudi landed here, enjoyed what he found, and stayed put. Maybe in the other Washington, people were transient, but not in Rudi’s world. At Henry’s, the neighborhood stayed intact, and the neighbors never stopped coming by.
Alvin Ross began as a waiter at Henry’s a few years after Rudi did and spent the next five decades marveling over his friend’s resilience, constant cheerfulness, and ability to harmonize with the jukebox or a kitchen singer at the drop of a hat. (Rudi claims to have been in the Vienna Boys’ Choir; Ross swears his old bartender’s voice is so distinctive and beautiful, he must be telling the truth.) Now Quillian’s co-owner, and thus Rudi’s boss, Ross never tires of the old joke that Rudi could be a secret spy. Like a combination of son/protégé/antagonist, Ross plays the straight man to Rudi’s cut-up. Ross smiles, thinking of how many times he has heard Rudi say, “Do you remember so-and-so who used to work here? Well…he’s dead.”
“People ask me how old Rudi is,” Ross says with a laugh. “I answer that he was the bartender at the Last Supper.”
When Rudi first wanted to get back to work after his heart attack, Ross stood in the way, trying in vain to employ logic. “Don’t be crazy!” he told him. “I can’t hire you back!” Most men over 70 weren’t clamoring for full-time, on-your-feet, back-straining jobs. Wasn’t it time to stay home to retire? God, wasn’t Rudi sick of the job yet? (And God, wasn’t Rudi lucky that Mr. Henry’s paid for his health insurance so he could receive such wonderful medical treatment?) But Rudi never for a moment doubted he’d return to work. After all, his parents hadn’t passed away until their late 80s. What was he going to do for all those remaining years?
Rudi called Ross endlessly, asking for his job back and as many shifts as were open. Finally, Ross agreed to one shift per week, then eventually added a happy hour shift as well. (Help can be so hard to find these days.) At least Rudi wouldn’t need training or show up late.
One night last October, I go to visit Rudi at Mr. Henry’s. The bar’s catering to the neighborhood’s young families. Rudi—the life of the party, the crooner, the card player—acts as the frontman for a G-rated movie. Bright miniature plastic rows line up in front of the bar, Lilliputian replicas of patio chairs in lime green, cherry red, canary yellow, Sunkist orange. Kids under 10 disappear in their little Day-Glo thrones. Rudi, game face on, tends bar while a Mickey Mouse movie begins. The upstairs starts filling with neighborhood parents. Back in the day, Rudi used to make a mean Ramos Fizz. At the Paradise, his Mai Tais and Hurricanes were legendary (at least according to Rudi). Now he pours a couple of Sprites, a slew of ice-cold milks, and serves up chicken finger specials. Gracefully, cheerfully, he tends to sippy cups and French fry baskets. And as usual, a thin smile graces his lips. A craftsman turns out a beautiful product even when the tools aren’t as sharp as the old days.
That night, it seems like Rudi might just keep on keepin’ on. But nothing lasts forever. On March 10, Rudi stopped showing up at Mr. Henry’s. His damn heart has failed again, he tells me later. For a month straight, Rudi basically lived at the hospital. This time, Rudi laments, the doctors installed a new, larger pacemaker. The clunky hardware causes pain from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. And Rudi hates the fact he has to take pills to dull the ache. He tries to hide the frequent wincing from the spasms.
But nothing’s worse than inactivity.
“I hate sitting in the house,” he smiles. “I want to get out and work!” It’s a week or so after his return from the hospital. I’m sitting in his basement apartment, marveling at the thousands of numbers of friends in his cell phone. (When we talk about love and lovers, Rudi doesn’t elaborate much. I can’t get an answer about girlfriends, boyfriends, partners. He sits squarely in the “a gentleman never kisses and tells club.”) Are all these contacts in the phone even still alive? When’s the last time they sat while Rudi mixed them a nice, strong drink? Did he force them all to talk instead of watching another rerun of Law and Order?
On June 6—D-Day—Rudi will turn 80 years old. He dreams of spending the day behind the bar. All that’s standing in the way of his plan is clearance from his doctor.
Rudi just knows the approval will come any day. Looking at how well he moves around Henry’s during a recent visit and then back home, who could doubt him?
The old Henry’s patrons can hardly wait for his return. Just to see the familiar face, the poise, the presence—and a chance to hear Rudi roar his old line when a customer bids him adieu:
“Go home to your mudder!”