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Walking down the steps into the Brickskeller‘s rathskeller-like lower-level warren on Saturday night, I was confronted by a spectacled goon who curtly asked if he could help me, only to let me know he wouldn’t.
“The bar’s full,” he grunted, ushering me toward the upstairs section of the bar. The doorman upstairs was almost as coarse. Grabbing my ID, he let me know there was one stool left. It was the last night of the old Brickskeller and I never felt so lucky.
I watched a trio of fruit flies hover over a tray of beers waiting to go out to a table while I wait to order. Beneath my stool, the Brick’s red carpet was worn through to the backing, mimicking black vinyl. I was afraid to set down my bag.
The Brickskeller has been busier since news of the bar’s new ownership began to set in—a prolonged surge of nostalgic patrons instead of the big, final-night blowout I expected. It’s reminded me of a vegetative patient kept on life support too long while looking at a haggard staff prepared to pull the plug. The Brick has been ready for change.
Yet, as bad as it the place has been, there’s no shortage of press lauding the Brickskeller as an icon. Most eulogies read positively, extolling great virtues while glossing over sordid flaws—the pointlessly large and inaccurate menu and, more generally, a decade of irrelevance. I’d rather call a spade a spade. The Brickskeller needed to close. As has been noted regularly, newer beer-focused bars, like ChurchKey and Rustico, have been kicking the Brick’s ass.
And yet, when I read historic coverage of a beer emporium in its heyday complete with pictures of vintage pull top cans, lamb-chop side burns, and tube socks, I can’t help but miss what the Brickskeller could have been. I guess that’s what upsets me most about the new ownership’s plans to have the space back open for business just a week after closing.
It’s going to take a lot more than updated floors and shiny new bathroom tile to even bring this bar to dive standards. I shudder to think about what new owner Megan Merrifield is going to find under that carpet when it comes up, or discover behind bathroom walls. A plastic hose extending from a hole in the bathroom ceiling and draining into a urinal is evidence that many problems lurk behind the dingy façade. Anyone who’s renovated anything knows that tearing open a wall can be akin to opening Pandora’s Box.
Earlier in the day, I drank cider at the Tabard Inn, and a bartender gossiped about the new ownership plans to renovate the Brick in stages, using separate up and downstairs sections to keep the business open while giving the bar a face lift. I can almost see it working if the budget is large enough. In a previous Washington City Paper article, Dave Coleman, the beer director for Big Hunt, said it would likely take half a million dollars to do proper renovations. I hope they don’t go that far.
A Brickskeller revival that stays true to its roots could appeal to the same nostalgic people that filled the bar in the weeks before it closed. There’s a market for beer lovers who don’t like the pomp and circumstance that surrounds D.C.’s more modern and savvy beer shrines.
I secretly hope the Brick’s new owners attempt a vintage 1970s theme complete with a riff on shag carpet. A vinyl jukebox would seal the deal. If they pull it off, I’ve got a vintage New York marathon ringer tee and a roll of quarters waiting for the occasion.
Photo by Scott Reitz