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Jennifer Lindsay prefers her gin and tonic on the rocks with a twist. So when her cocktail came sans lime at Bedrock Billiards on Sept. 8, she asked the bartender why. As it turns out, she says, the citrus snafu wasn’t a mistake. It was the poolroom’s attempt to comply with health-department regulations.
When Bedrock Billiards arrived at 1841 Columbia Rd. NW in 1992, it wasn’t the subterranean dive bar that exists today. “We used to operate as a deli,” co-owner Curt Large says. “When we first opened, it was just pool, sandwiches, and cappuccinos.”
Bedrock doesn’t serve sandwiches anymore, and the owners have replaced cappuccinos with Coronas. These days, the closest Bedrock’s barflies get to a nutritious meal is a bag of potato chips and a slice of lemon or lime in their drinks. But like all tavern-licensed establishments, Bedrock still must meet D.C. Department of Health standards for food service. “There is a requirement that all taverns have a licensed food handler on the premises,” department spokesperson Leila Abrar says. Earlier this month, Bedrock didn’t.
An inspector visited the bar on Sept. 5 for a routine compliance check and witnessed “food”—lemons, limes, soda from soda guns, and coffee—being served without a licensed food handler on duty. The health department slapped Bedrock with an eight-day suspension and a $600 fine.
Large says the suspension came as a surprise. Bedrock Companies owns 12 watering holes, seven of them in D.C. All the D.C. establishments are licensed as taverns, he says, which means they don’t have food-sale requirements, and four of those—Bedrock Billiards, Atomic Billiards, Aroma, and Rocket Bar—don’t even have kitchens. They only offer “salty snacks,” he says.
Because food prep at Bedrock Billiards involves nothing more labor-intensive than pouring pretzels into a bowl, it never occurred to Large that he had to have a licensed food handler on the premises at all times. “Don’t get me wrong. We should have [food handlers] at Buffalo [and] Mackey’s, where we have grilled chicken,” he says. “But if you’re going to have these licenses where you don’t need to serve food prepared on premises, you shouldn’t have food handlers.” Large also co-owns bars in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Texas, he says, and, from what he can tell, D.C.’s food-handling rules are fairly exceptional. “I’m not aware of any other place where that’s the case,” he says.
Still, he says, it’s par for the course in a city that requires a background check to renew a billiards license. So, as soon as Large, his co-owners, and his staff heard about the violation, they swung into action. For about a week, he says, the bartenders stopped slicing citrus. Instead of pouring soda from soda guns, they used cans. Patrons who wanted lemon in their drinks were told to tough it out.
Lindsay found the situation “strange,” she writes in an e-mail, but “once I heard the explanation, I didn’t think ill of Bedrock, I just chalked it up to the ridiculousness that is oftentimes local government bureaucracy.”
Ultimately, Bedrock Companies paid the fine, Large says, and pledged to enroll all the employees who work at kitchen-less taverns in a food handlers’ training course. “The health department worked with us,” he says. The agency lifted Bedrock’s suspension on Sept. 15 and on Sept. 22, a group of approximately 15 sleepy-eyed bartenders from Bedrock, Atomic Billiards, Aroma, and Rocket Bar filed into the booths at Nanny O’Briens in Cleveland Park for a midday cooking class.
Their teacher was “Brother” Norm Neverson, former chair of the D.C. Democratic State Committee and a general jack-of-all-trades (“Vox Populi,” 4/11/03). Large says a fellow restaurateur recommended Neverson, and the course cost $2,000 total.
Working up a sweat, Neverson addressed his students as brother, sister, or doctor, preaching his food-service sermon in slogans. “The FBI is looking for all of us,” he said. He was referring to food-borne illnesses. “With this thing called food management, [if] you fuck up somebody…their lawyer will come to see you. They want money, baby. All my friends who are lawyers, they’re wealthy dogs.”
Neverson asked his students to name the most dangerous nation in the world.
“The United States?” one offered.
“No. The nation that fucks up more people per hour is contamination. Contamination is the most dangerous damn nation in the world.”
Neverson began lecturing about bacteria. “Sal Monella. He’s so bad, if you mention Sal Monella’s name on Alabama Avenue, the place clears out. He killed 82,000 people last year. You can’t shoot Mr. Sal Monella, but give him some heat, he’ll leave you alone.”
Then he drummed safety tips into his students’ heads. “If it flies, 165,” he said of the required temperature to cook chicken. The bartenders laughed nervously and reluctantly offered their hands for Neverson to slap.
But one bar staffer, who declined to be named, said Neverson’s class left her with a lingering question. “I’m interested in what temperature to serve potato chips,” she says.
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