There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
By the time Jill Young got back from her recent Florida vacation, she had seen all she wanted of Leesburg’s rehabilitated Payne’s Biker Cafe. She’d had enough of the clean, unmarked wooden bar, the smooth, high-back booths, the unblemished mirrors and walls. That Thursday afternoon, she called on all the regulars to give the pleasant scene a big, ugly black eye.
The regulars were not about to argue. After all, Young is the manager.
A month later, Payne’s has undergone a makeoverblack-markered scribblings on every surface, photographs stapled militantly to every stretch of wall space, ladies’ undergarments dangling from the ceiling. The place brims with unfettered rowdiness, as if the sheriff has just been run out of town.
Payne’s is a deliberate re-creation of the outlaw biker bar that stood ominously across the main street facing the historic Loudoun County Courthouse. It echoes a time when the leather-wearing, wild-haired, Hog-riding Payne’s regulars were the last folks anyone wanted to see in townnever mind smack in the middle of it. It’s a rejection of the “progress” that swept away a surly past three years ago and re-dressed a dive as a cafemore Howard Johnson than Harley Davidson.
No wonder Young had her regulars trash the joint. They were a little out of practice, but judging by the way the place looks now, they caught on real quick.
The folks at the bar go by names like Buffalo, Weasel, and Action Jackson. The jukebox thunders house anthems like “Mustang Sally” and “Freebird,” and loud servings of Stevie Ray, the Outlaws, and Loretta Lynn. The bottles all say “Bud” on them, unless it’s one of those Busch cans on sale for $1. The burger is a threatening 6 inches in diameter, and rolls of paper towels are within arm’s reach of every bar customer. The Harley logo appears every few feet, printed on just about anything. A customer has even taken time to codify some biker philosophy on the bar. “Fuck you. Fuck me. We’re all happy,” it says. Maybe you can’t go home again, but Payne’s is giving it a hell of a go.
It’s a dead-on evocation of 1966, when Wallace “Banger” Payne opened up a little one-room dive named Payne’s. One longtime regular still recalls Banger’s first days in town. “I don’t know when it was he came in, to tell you the truth,” says Lenny. With a guarded smile, though, he adds, “I know he was riding a Honda.” Burly, bearded, soft-spoken, and with arms as thick as a Payne’s burger, Lenny recalls that Payne “had a pig sitting right on the bar. Everybody would give him a dollar, drop it into the pig, see, to try to get enough money to get him his first Harley.”
Motorcycles were more than a motif for the small bar. Payne conceived the place as a bikers’ haven of first resortbecause there was no place else to go.
“Back then, it wasn’t like it is now,” Payne says. “I was giving them a place pretty much of their own that they could come to, you know, as is, with mud on their feet. It was a way of life for a lot of people like myself. And believe you meback then those places were few and far between. If you were riding a Harley Davidson to different places…I had people lock the doors on me.
“I always remember this time up at Columbia Beach,” he says. “It was 10 or 15 of us that rode all the way up there, you know? We were hungry and wanted to grab some food, and we stopped at this place. But before we can get in, somebody runs up and locks the door shut. There were people, customers inside, and there we werestanding outside because they wouldn’t let us in, looking at all them through the window.
“That was not the atmosphere at Payne’s. Come in no matter who you are.”
And put your feet up. Jill Young has no trouble recalling the peculiar charms of the old Payne’s.
“The place was real gloomy, dark,” says Young, crisp blue eyes searching through that old bar. “Panties, bras, T-shirts hanging all over the walls. Cobwebs. Stains.” She waves an imaginary pen. “You could write, anywhere, and do, you know, do whatever.”
Payne’s longtimer and long-distance rider Tony Castelhano says those gritty quarters were just what the bikers ordered.
“Once you walked in the door here, I mean, you couldn’t be more at home,” he says.
But as comfy as it may have felt on the inside, there was turmoil on the outside. A gruff biker stop was not considered the ideal establishment for Leesburg’s stately historic district.
“This was the county seatthere was no welcome mat put out,” Payne says. He recounts sundry efforts to make his business squirm, from police scrutiny to nuisance complaints. There were hearings with Virginia’s alcohol-control authorities through the years for infractions such as disorderly conduct, sale of alcohol to minors, excessive noise…
“Let’s just say I was in and out of court a lot,” Payne says. “There were lots of different ways they worked to let me know that it wasn’t the type of place that they wanted.”
The outlaw status was crystallized in the old Payne’s motto “Better Off Here Than Across the Street”a thumb-your-nose reference to the nearby halls of justice and the neighboring county jail. The image was jacked up even further by the local scuttlebutt. Tales about wild, unruly times in the beer-soaked room at 5 North King St. begat legends.
“It got a bad rap,” gripes Payne. “Years ago, the secretaries would walk across the street from us so they wouldn’t have to walk in front of the place.”
They were not alone. “I think the common perception was that people would see bikes lined up outside and guys walking in wearing leather chaps, and they would say, ‘Oh my goshit’s a rough crowd,’” says Sgt. Clagett Moxley, a Leesburg police-force veteran since 1980. “I grew up in Leesburg, and that was the impression I had as a kid.”
Moxley says that, in retrospect, the townspeople had let their imaginations get away from them. “That place’s reputation by far exceeded what actually took place there,” he says. “Now, we’ve gone in there, of course. They’ve had their share of fights. But if there was a totem pole comparing it to [fighting in] other places, it would be near the bottom.”
A funny thing happened on the way to infamyPayne’s stuck around. Despite the bad reputation, the efforts to drive an eyesore out of town, the small bar with all the big-wheeled Harleys parked outside hung in there.
People began to notice that the trouble at Payne’s was mostly talk. They noticed the charity rides organized by its proprietor that raised tens of thousands of dollars for the local fire company, for community groups, for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Town elders will even tell you today that they don’t recall past troublespreferring to talk about Banger Payne’s contributions. In their words, Payne’s sounds less like the wayward roadhouse, and more like the prodigal bar.
“He suffered from an image of the bar being a rough place,” says Frank Raflo, a native who has held just about every local position of notemayor, county supervisor, business owner, radio host, columnist. “But every time he’d have a fund drive that would raise $10,000 or $15,000 it would make a little piece in the paper, and I’d hear people say, ‘Gee. Mr. Payne did that?’ ‘Yeah, Mr. Payne did that.’ ‘Well how about that…,’ as much as to say, ‘He’s not as bad as they think he is.’”
Payne remembers when the winds began to change. “I guess it started, like, 10 years ago, when the people saw what Payne’s was really doing. Damn if he didn’t have a fun place. Damn if he don’t have good food. Damn if he don’t have the coldest beer in town. Damn, they’re good people.”
As the old image began to fade, it was not so shocking for the joint to quietly close for renovations, pick up a license to allow the sale of booze other than beer, andafter 27 yearshold a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring the mayor to christen a shiny, bright cafe. The place that had been rough all over became just rough around the edgesand sort of fuzzy in the middle.
In 1993, the new Payne’s began selling nostalgia in addition to Budweiser. But the thrill of hanging in a place where those gruff, tattooed, hairy-faced bikers once thrivedwith their memorabilia plastered on the wallsis a lot different from actually hanging with those gruff, tattooed, leather-clad roughnecks. It was as if Payne had taken a perfectly nice Harley and tricked it up to the point where it looked snazzy, but didn’t ride worth a shit.
“I understood what he was trying to doI thought he was making a mistake,” Castelhano says, his hands doing some of the explaining for him. “I can understand what he was trying to do because of that reputation. Society was changing. People have started accepting people for being themselves. So what happened was, he figured, ‘I’ll change, and I’ll get a whole bunch of people in here, and my business will pick up.’”
It generated interest for a while. Castelhano remembers the first thrill-seekers. “It was like they came inthey would buy a T-shirt,” he says, “and then they would leave. They weren’t enthused about being here. They came in here to say, ‘Hey, I went to Payne’s.’ It’s like he made the change, and suddenly people said, ‘Hey, it’s safe to go in there.’”
But Payne also underestimated the reaction of his longtime regularsthe bikers who had long counted on him as the keeper of their safe house. Many came to check the new digs outand did not return.
“I think it kinda happened pretty quick,” Castelhano says. “I think [Payne’s] customers knew what he had, but he didn’t know what he had, in a way. I mean the customers knew why they were walking in the door, but he wasn’t really sure why the customers were. And the minute it changed, they kinda stopped walking through the door.”
Bar manager Young is diplomatic. She says the cafe opening helped spread Payne’s reputation for good chow, drumming up food business where before there was none. It also forced the place to expand next door, giving the patrons about six times as much play room. But by losing most of the bar customers, who had made Payne’s what it was, and not picking up the new ones it needed, Young says Payne’s found out that the middle ground was pretty empty.
“It doesn’t work,” she says. “So why not just let it be Payne’s? The way it used to be.”
Payne’s at this juncture is a strange place. It’s caught in a warpa new image of an old image wrapped around another image. The other image is Payne’s as respectable institutionthe second-oldest business in downtown Leesburg. It pulled through the ’90s recession that closed many a shop, and is still plugging away.
“Most people feel as I do,” says Mayor James Clem. “It’s a key landmark here in Leesburg.”
But Young is taking Payne’s off the road to respectability. She wants the old biker dive back, and has enlisted the support of her boss, Banger, who now spends a good part of his time relaxing in Florida and letting Young run the show.
The renovation-cum-demolition has taken crude but effective turns. The giant Harley Davidson logo on the wall past the bar, featuring the words “Payne’s Biker Cafe,” now has “Cafe” crossed out in favor of “Bar.”
Young says she’s making the change “for the customers,” but she’s talking about the bikers. She wants to give back what she thinks they’re missing.
“Somewhere they could come and just be themselves, and, I mean, so what if they spill a drink? You know what I mean? No biggie. Get the mopor leave it there, I’ll clean it up at the end of the night.”
It looks like it’s working. A recent Saturday night found Payne’s cruising right along: Two dozen patrons mingling, smooching, or swaying, a tight roadhouse blues outfit roaring in its groove, the loud and raw scene punctuated here and there by the crash of empties into the barrel. It’s a tangle of leather, tattoos, and beer that’s not for everyone anymore.
Lenny drops the hint in his easy voice. “You either feel comfortable here or you don’t.”
Behind him is another hint. Streaked across a mirror that takes up the entire wall, someone has written it out: “If you have to ask…it means you’re one of them!”
But there’s no need to ask. As the smoke curls, the beers are cracked, and Saturday night rumbles on, it’s clear that the old bar on North King Street is finally back on the wrong side of the tracks. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.