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As his long-cherished Redskins were storming past Dallas on the Malt Shop’s TV sets, bartender Dirty Carl reminisced out loud about another, far more infamous, first Sunday in December. “On Dec. 7, 1941, I was watching the Redskins at Griffith Stadium. We knew something was up. We just didn’t know what,” he remembers. Dirty Carl is a profane, chain-smoking, and much-beloved octogenarian, who doles out drinks and abuse (but not his last name) to weekend patrons of the Malt Shop, a spare, Skins-centric watering hole on upper Wisconsin Avenue.
Dirty Carl’s WWII recollections—he also spoke of being shot down over Germany while serving in a fighter squadron with “that cocksucker” Clark Gable—induced a full-blown round of “Where were you?” even as the Skins taught the Boys a lesson.
“Yeah, I was at the stadium for the Pearl Harbor game. We beat the Eagles,” chimes in George Neumann, a former president of the Touchdown Club and a Redskins season ticket holder since D.C. Stadium opened.
“I was at ‘The War Game,’ too,” adds Bill Biggins, a Glover Park native who bought his first Skins passes in 1937, when he was but seven years old. “All game long, I remember the P.A. announcer was paging Admiral So-and-So or General So-and-So or Senator So-and-So. That was strange day.”
Redskins fans can be found in abundance inside the Beltway, but having three such patriarchal indigens together in the same pub counts as newsworthy in hypertransient D.C. Conventional wisdom holds that it’s easier to locate an honest politician than a stereotypical “local bar” in this town. Yet an astonishing and darn near touching percentage of the Malt Shop’s game-day clientele was born—and had their first drink—in northwest D.C.
The local color is more prominent than ever this year. A protracted Redskins slump separated the wheat from the chaff in the team’s fandom and what remains is the cream of local hard-cores. A crowd of a couple dozen gathered in the comfortably underadorned chamber atop the Dancing Crab to view the game against the heavily favored and just as heavily reviled Cowboys. “The people who still come here to watch the Redskins on Sundays aren’t fair-weather fans,” says Neumann. “They’re people who’ve been following the team so long that they know how to deal with the losing, because we’ve been through it before.”
In a more prosperous era, a Redskins/Cowboys matchup would have filled the room. Then again, years ago, the Malt Shop used to be more than a place where fans could talk about their favorite players or watch them on television; they could get drunk with ‘em here. The bar’s very name, in fact, came from Skins players.
According to legend, back when the studios of the local TV network affiliates were all within stumbling distance of the bar, “Going to the Malt Shop” was the code phrase the players came up with to use during news broadcasts or while serving as a guest on any of the Redskins shows (the first of which was “Redskins Sidelines” on WTOP-Channel 9). The innocuous words were intended to let friends and family know that as soon as the interview session was over, they’d be getting shitfaced at what was then known just as the Dancing Crab.
The players’ veiled endorsements of the little spot on the top floor led to the creation of a stand-alone bar, though it shares management and ownership with the Crab. Photographic evidence of the team’s happier times hangs all over the Malt Shop’s wood-paneled walls. The shots include some of the greatest names in Redskin history getting blotto: Cowboy Hater No. 1, Diron Talbert, looking nasty despite the big smile; Billy Kilmer, whose gin blossom shines through even in black-and-white; a beefy and boyish Sonny Jurgensen, hugging myriad strangers; John Riggins, bedecked in combat fatigues and cowboy (lower case!) boots; and all the Hogs, looking big, thirsty, and not too bright. Riggins is the only one who still drops by for a taste, and only very occasionally at that.
The Malt Shop, however, still counts as regulars Eddie Gallaher, the eightysomething radio legend who was a play-by-play man on Redskins broadcasts in the 1950s, and former tackle Fran O’Brien, whose eponymous steak house recently took over as headquarters of the Touchdown Club. Not to mention a host of hard-drinking average Joes and plain Janes who would rather stay dry than share a cocktail with strangers, out-of-towners, and suburbanites in some fern bar. D.C. schoolteachers Robbin Morton and Elizabeth Malia fit into that class. So do the two guys named Paul who both live in Tenleytown and are currently lobbying other Malt Shoppers for the title of “The Real Paul of Tenleytown.” (Paul No. 1 gains an edge by boasting that he has been a customer at the Malt Shop “since the last time they cleaned the bathrooms.”)
Most Sunday drinkers say that it was the Redskins that first brought them to the Malt Shop on game days. But with the team in the toidy, there must be more, musn’t there?
“I guess most of us show up to be abused by Dirty Carl,” says Morton, an alumna of Wilson High School, which is located across the street from The Malt Shop. “There’s nobody here who hasn’t been cussed out by him.”
Indeed, Dirty Carl’s demeanor in his dealings with customers will drop the jaw of the uninitiated. Requests for drinks, especially while Redskins games are on, are just as likely to be met with obscenities and derision as they are to be filled. And if you can’t take the heat, Dirty Carl would be much obliged if you’d get out—better yet, get the fuck out—of his bar.
“A guy came in here last week and asked Carl for a beer,” says Biggins. “Carl told him right away to fuck off and didn’t get him his beer. The guy got all indignant about it, and started wandering around the bar asking everybody, ‘How the hell does this man keep his job?’ We all just laughed. We’d seen it all before. He won’t be back.”
Just in case the guy with the notebook doesn’t get the picture, Biggins yells a drink order across the room. “Carl, could I get a beer?” he implores with ample civility.
“Get it yourself, asshole!” retorts Dirty Carl, pointing to the Redskins game on TV.
“What did I tell you? That’s our Dirty Carl!” laughs Biggins, who then leaves his seat and follows the bartender’s orders.
Dirty Carl, perhaps uplifted by the Redskins’ unexpectedly positive performance, loosens up a bit by game’s end. It seemed like a safe time to ask him about his unique barside manner.
“Hell, I know everybody that comes in here like they’re my family,” he says. “I know what they’re going to drink before they order it. So I’m never going to act like all those other big shit bartenders at all those other shit bars in the District. This place is different. This is a local bar.” —Dave McKenna