Jackie Greenbaum can’t take it any longer. The new owner of the Quarry House has heard enough bitching about the changes she and partner Patrick Higgins have made at the venerable, post-Prohibition pub in Silver Spring. Old-timers love to tick off the affronts: The unwelcome intruders killed off the Quarry House’s famous landmass of a burger; they axed some of the wait staff; they added precious, self-conscious comfort foods such as homemade tater tots and potato chips. They have, the critics say, substituted retro-chic for blue-collar grit.
For months, Greenbaum, 47, has suffered these assaults through mostly clenched teeth. Her tipping point, though, comes when I pass along a remark that former owner Jim Brown made to me: that he hasn’t set foot in the prissy new pub because “it’s not my kind of thing” anymore. Clearly stung, Greenbaum says she wishes Brown would “come in to judge for himself” instead of relying on secondhand reports. And with that, she ends our phone conversation.
Less than five minutes later, Greenbaum calls back, ready to strafe the landscape. She accuses Brown of misrepresenting an underground property in dire need of repairs, from a grill that wouldn’t stay hot to a faulty air-conditioning system (a charge that Brown denies). She then lays into critics who think the new owners have uprooted 72 years of tradition. “It’s easy for old-timers to be critical, but walk a mile in my shoes,” says Greenbaum, who also co-owns the successful Jackie’s in Silver Spring. “This was our attempt to save something that we loved.”
You can’t blame Greenbaum for finally baring her teeth. The Wheaton native says she was just trying to save a local institution. When she bought it, the Quarry House, after years of success, was converting to a diet of red ink. “We were able to pay the bills,” says Esther Brown, Jim’s wife. “But we were working for nothing.”
Three developments sealed the Browns’ fate. The Montgomery County smoking ban decreased sales by 30 percent when it went into effect in October 2003, says Jim Brown, who had owned the place for nearly 30 years; many of the aging boomers who sucked on Marlboros while they sucked down cheap suds took their business elsewhere. The second development was just that: the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring, which brought with it more than 4,500 new dining seats (and counting) and a demographic with less appreciation for the dark, dank, and subterranean. The final blow, the Browns say, was a pending rent increase. “Jim was way, way eager to sell it to us,” Greenbaum says. “The place was on its last legs.”
Without the right deal, Brown admits, “I could have just closed” the place—an option that may have appealed to some nostalgists. “I hope the Banana Republic likes their miniburgers and faux-retro flavor,” one commentator writes on DonRockwell.com. “I’ll pass. Thanks for screwing up one of the few reasons to go out to Silver Sprung. I need a drink.”
Such folks hold tight to the old Quarry House for good reason. They created a community there. Esther Brown used to home-cook employees their favorite meals and personally deliver the dishes to the tavern. Sarah King, a longtime patron, met two future husbands there. Former waitress Mara Wasilik hosted her parents’ 50th anniversary at the Quarry House, a feast catered by the Browns. “It became the center of where you met all your friends,” Wasilik remembers. “It was home as well as a place to work.”
You don’t just let go of such a place. You first have to stomp your feet, curse the agents of change, and take your business elsewhere (like the Royal Mile Pub in Wheaton, where some former QH regulars can be found quaffing). Jim Brown and his loyal customers have forever lost a point on their compass.
With or without them, though, the Quarry House will carry on just fine. In a sanitized Silver Spring that desperately needs a hip watering hole, the new owners have created an inviting neo-pub, thanks to an investment in the “tens of thousands of dollars,” not including an estimated $30,000 to fix the A/C. Yes, the proprietors deep-sixed the Keno and booted the slick, big-hat country CDs on the jukebox. But they also installed flat-screen TVs, opened a full bar with an excellent selection of single malts, and began hosting the occasional music night. They hired a chef, pared down Brown’s deep-fat-fryer-intensive menu, and expanded the microbrew selection to include such powerhouses as Hennepin Farmhouse Saison and Rogue Hazelnut Brown. These changes would be considered an improvement at any other pub.
And they have only enhanced the cavernous charms of the Quarry House. The heavy, pine-paneled walls and the battered brown pub chairs still speak of backroom deals by men in trench coats and fedoras. This bygone era has merely been dragged into a century of fresh ingredients, digital TV, and handcrafted brews. The old Quarry House’s biggest boast was its ground-chuck burger, which truly was great. The new Quarry House serves not only a terrific, well-seasoned burger but also meaty Usinger’s hot dogs, fiery habañero-laced chicken wings, and a basket of thin and greasy homemade potato chips with a sour-cream-and-dill dip. Wash down any of these with a cold microbrew, and you have a neighborhood pub that deserves a pat on the back, not a kick in the groin.
Looking for references? Just ask one of Greenbaum’s early critics. Donald Ramsey, by his own recollection, had been eating at the Quarry House for more than 10 years when the place changed hands. The 70-year-old bookseller always ordered the same thing: onion soup with no cheese, a cheeseburger well-done with lettuce, and a Diet Coke. When Ramsey first heard that Greenbaum was taking over, his initial thought was “It’s over.” But in early April, Ramsey is back, poring over a manuscript and nibbling on his traditional dinner. “You have to allow for a certain amount of change,” he says.
Quarry House, 8401 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, (301) 587-9406.—Tim Carman
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