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Two years ago, Dan Callahan knew he was onto something good. He’s only now realizing how good.

Callahan is the managing partner of the Rock, a bar on 6th Street on the south end of Chinatown. That makes him an urban pioneer. Back when he first signed the 30-year lease on the space in the summer of 1995, it was a good neighborhood…for a rat. His building had once housed a printing and newspaper business, but like most others on the block had been vacant for decades. The burned-out, once-sturdy structures lining the street offered passers-by a vista about as close to the South Bronx as anything in the city. Things have changed a bit, but if you want a beer and indoor plumbing, the Rock is still the only game in this part of town.

But not for long. Soon enough, Chinatown will have games out the wazoo. Basketball games. Hockey games. Indoor soccer games. You-name-it games. Next winter, the MCI Center will open right across the street from the Rock, bringing some 20,000 sports fans and their hunger pangs and thirst buds to Callahan’s ‘hood on game nights and days. And he’s ready for ’em.

He already is. Ever since the massive building project began, an assortment of heavy equipment sounds has wafted over from the construction site all day long and until 3 a.m. each night. But when he’s on the job, Callahan can hear nary a jackhammer. Not over the din inside his club, a cacophony of televised play-by-play, disco, barroom bullshitting, and, oh yeah, cash registers.

“How are we doing? Well…let me just say we’re doing better than we expected to do at this point,” Callahan mumbles, though he’s wearing an embarrassed smile that declares something along the lines of, “We’re making a freakin’ killing!”

The owner’s grin isn’t the only indication that things are going well for the Rock. His words come on a Friday night when all three floors of bar space are packed. A group of unknown origin and purpose calling itself the Aquarians dominates the first floor. A party of young Democrats has rented out the second. The lounge and pool hall on the top floor had served as an escape from the two parties below in the early evening, but by the end of happy hour it’s just as jammed and even more smoky.

“I wish we had our roof-top bar ready to go now,” Callahan says. In three weeks that job will be completed, and there will be another floor to pack. And if the Rock’s brief past is prologue, supply will create demand.

Over in Landover on this same night, the Bullets are hosting the Bulls in what is likely the playoffless home team’s biggest game of the year. President Clinton even made the trip to Maryland to see the defending NBA champs, and his face keeps popping up from courtside on the Rock’s numerous monitors. Surely some of the folks give a damn about the Bullets and care what numbers Michael Jordan will put up over at USAir Arena this evening. But those who do aren’t letting on. They’re too busy gnawing fatty foods and imbibing like sailors to watch television. The Rock calls itself a sports bar, but from the looks of things its patrons care far more about Jell-O shots than jump shots. (By the end of the first quarter of the Bullets game, the entire night’s supply of Jell-O shots has already been sold.)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, Callahan admits. Not this big, this early. Sure, the crowds were supposed to come, but not until the arena opened. But as it is, there’s not going to be anyplace to put more people once that day comes. On this particular Friday, the density inside the Rock is fairly oppressive, and brings to mind Yogi Berra’s cautionary advisement: “Nobody goes there. It’s too crowded.”

“I loved the idea for a downtown sports bar near a downtown arena ever since I made a trip to Cleveland and saw how great things worked out when that city did what D.C. is doing now,” Callahan says. “So when we opened up, I was just thinking about the day the arena would open. It was like, ‘OK, just break even, just break even, hold out for a year.’ But no question about it, we’re doing way beyond that now. The start-up costs for any business like this are tremendous, but we’re already paying our bills.”

Callahan, 35, knows a lot about the bar and restaurant business in this town: He grew up in it. His family lived in the Dupont Circle area and owned La Fonda and other eateries in the neighborhood until selling them off last year. His partners, including Joe Englert and Eric Fritz, proprietors of the Big Hunt, Insect Club, 15 Minutes, and a host of other nightspots, also thought they knew what to expect. But even with all that experience, the owners of the Rock weren’t prepared to have things go so right. The arena of their dreams is not even built, but the people are coming anyway. As it turns out, they’ll come whether you build it or not.

Callahan says none of the principals counted on getting much business from the thirsty masses who work in office buildings adjacent to the grungy neighborhood. As it has turned out, those people are packing the place. (A lesser, but equally unforeseen, source of revenue has been the construction workers doing the actual erecting of the new arena.)

“I know now that there are so many offices around here,” he says. “We’ve got the Securities Exchange Commission down the street with a few thousand workers, and then AARP’s headquarters with a couple thousand more. They have made our lunch shift incredibly successful. And until we came over, there was never any reason for those people to stay downtown after work. Really, there still isn’t anything but us. And we know now that these workers want to stay downtown.”

Callahan, being a local product, also calls himself a “huge fan” of the sports teams that will be the main tenants of the MCI Center next year. If it weren’t for that, he might not even give a damn about that big building going up across the street from his bar.

“I can’t wait for the MCI Center to open. Can’t wait,” he says. “I’m going to go to all the games, and you’ll find me in the seats yelling for the Capitals just like I did at the Cap Centre when I was a teenager. But I’m not looking forward to it so much for this business any more. To tell you the truth, from that angle, I don’t know that we even need the arena.”—Dave McKenna