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Bringing Back the Lounge

Capitol Lounge’s Owner Optimistic He'll Reopen Soon

[IMGCAP(1)]It’s unusually quiet for lunchtime on a Friday afternoon at the popular and infamous political haunt Capitol Lounge.

Inside it’s dark save for a few makeshift lamps propped up against a chair or the pool table, now covered in soot. The ceiling isn’t there anymore, and burnt-out insulation and wires hang from the open spaces where the wood once was. The cinnamon-colored bar that stretches out from the door on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast seems to have survived somewhat unscathed, but the half-used liquor bottles scattered on top and behind are strangely opaque, like blackened bowling pins. Political posters and campaign buttons from a bygone era still hang on the brick walls, peeking out from behind fire-melted glass frames, some more damaged than others. The place smells like a used charcoal grill.

Yet Lounge owner Joe Englert somehow doesn’t seem at all phased by any of this.

“It’s annoying, but what’s done is done. I’ve already been on eBay and found a lot of the paraphernalia we had collected over the years so we can replace those favorites we lost in the fire,” Englert said. “You can’t replace everything, but you can certainly try.”

Nearly three weeks ago a fire broke out on one side of the Capitol Lounge, a watering hole long popular with Hill staffers, and although it was put out quickly by firefighters, the fire still doled out significant damage to the interior. The official word on the cause of the blaze is an errant still-lit cigarette thrown into a wastebasket, according to Allan Etter, D.C. Fire Department public information officer.

For Englert, though, all is not lost. At the Lounge, he is multitasking, alternating between the air-conditioning guy, the insurance people, the builder who has come to inspect the first floor, and his kids on the phone, waiting to be picked up at school. Despite being slightly out of breath and disheveled, Englert is all business. And he’s confident that his bar will reopen soon. “As soon as the insurance people give us the nod, we’re on it,” he said. “We should be open in three to four months. We may even have the less damaged side opened sooner.”

Home Away From Home

Englert, who owns several other Washington, D.C. area bars and clubs dating back to the 1980s, acquired the property that now houses Capitol Lounge 10 years ago when a developer bought out the lease for another one of Englert’s bars, the Insect Club, on E Street Northwest. At that time, the Capitol Hill area was just starting to attract a new wave of residents, and so the opening of Capitol Lounge coincided with the need for a good area bar or neighborhood hangout.

Though it wasn’t a hit right away — August recesses being particularly difficult and slow — the Lounge eventually became known, for better or worse, for its quirkiness, its personality, its people, but most of all for its familiarity.

There were the sports-watching events, the inauguration and debate parties, the wing nights and brunches, and the jukebox with the collection of seminal local music. There were the infamous smells of the bathrooms, the bartenders who all knew your name by heart, and the three semi-mandatory rules, handwritten on a blackboard: 1) No politics, 2) No Miller Lite, and 3) Be polite or you will be asked to leave. Miller Lite had apparently missed a scheduled delivery, and despite the no-politics rule, the poster-filled walls told much of U.S. political history of the last half-century. Plus, the place crawled with Capitol Hill staffers and interns who couldn’t seem to leave their offices behind.

What is clear is that over the years, a large number of people began to swear by and even depend on the Lounge for its mix of local charm, dive-bar atmosphere and proximity to the Capitol. And while likely an even greater number came to despise it for many of those same reasons, including its renowned grubbiness and inevitable throng of interns, Capitol Lounge eventually came to take on legendary status on Capitol Hill.

The Lounge was always the first stop for news organizations looking for local reaction on current Capitol Hill gossip, such as the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It became a favorite pre-game pit stop for D.C. United fans on their way to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and unofficial venues for numerous Fire Department events. Ari Fleischer was even known to frequent the bar, which may have led to rumors for a period of time that it was a “Republican hangout.” The Lounge, according to bartender Tony Tomelden, who has been there from the beginning, provided a touch of familiarity for many of those transplanted from all over the country.

“The Lounge is like a lot of people’s living rooms,” Tomelden said. “In a big city like D.C., with small rooms and little efficiency, this became a lot of peoples’ place to hang out and stretch, watch some TV, talk to some interesting characters. It is just a little place that had a big impact on a lot of peoples’ lives.”

Tomelden was away on vacation with his wife, whom he met years ago at the Lounge where she also worked, when he heard about the fire. When he woke up, he already had 12 messages from various firefighters who frequented the Lounge telling him the bad news.

“It’s kind of weird for your job to burn up like that,” he said. “But I try to look on the bright side and just view it as one big 10-year spring cleaning.”

Capitol Lounge manager Simon O’Hare arrived shortly after the blaze had been put out, the street still cordoned off by the fire department. He had been working there just the night before. “It was the largest crowd we had in month,” O’Hare remembered. “It was totally unusual for a Tuesday, especially during recess. It was a good night.”

Five years ago, O’Hare passed by Capitol Lounge for the first time after recently arriving from Newry, Ireland, and still awaiting his green card. He was looking for a job and when he saw the soccer scarves from around the world, which came to define the décor there as much as the political paraphernalia, he knew he had found a place that was close to home.

“I walked in and was working soon after,” O’Hare said. “It’s just a comfortable place where everybody knows everybody. It means a lot to me.”

Rebuilding, and Redecorating

Following the blaze, the sadness and concern over the fire at 231 Pennsylvania Ave. SE was palpable around Capitol Hill, and even on the Internet.

“I feel like I’ve lost my best friend, I’ve lost a place that feels like home,” Kristin Stadum wrote the day of the fire on her shared Web log, “Girls With Drinks,” a collection of writings by professional 30-somethings living in and around D.C. “Even I am embarrassed by the degree to which this is affecting me,” she wrote.

Outside, people walk past the façade of the building, still in perfect condition, and seem to acknowledge it like an old friend. They try to peek in through the boarded windows and maybe try to recall something that happened there years before or just the other day.

A man walks by and tells his wife, “That’s where I used to smoke cigars.”

On the sidewalk, there is a box asking people to “help redecorate Capitol Lounge” with an already-donated soccer pennant and a scarf inside, waiting to join the survivors when the bar reopens. On top of the box sits a “memory book” filled with hundreds of peoples’ names, e-mail addresses and recollections of the bar. A few say, “I met my wife/husband here,” while others thank the staff for the good times and express their hope that the doors will reopen soon.

But for now, it’s back to business as not-so-usual for Englert and the Lounge’s staff, who will work for the next few months to get the place up and running once more. Despite a new string of bars and clubs Englert plans to open in the near future on H Street Northeast, he will spend most of his time here until the job is done.

The biggest challenge now, of course, is to make the Capitol Lounge feel like the Capitol Lounge again, to make it seem like it just went on an extended vacation.

“There’s an emotional value here that can’t die, that won’t go away,” Englert reasons. “Even if the bricks are different, this place will never change.”