Young and Hungry

Brickskeller Finally Pulls the Plug

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

  • Bill

    Scott is apparently unacquainted with the concept of the eulogy. Perhaps he's used to reading eulogies that say, "Boy, Uncle Dan died. He had a great sense of humor. But what an awful drunk, and he was ugly to boot." Doesn't usually work that way.

    We (speaking as a DC beer blogger) all know about the Brick's shortcomings, but there's little need to kick the place on its way out. The place IS an institution. It IS a landmark. It IS an important part of DC beer history. You're right, it hasn't been relevant for a few years, but it is an important part of the beer culture that we enjoy in DC now. It was the forerunner of all of the places that have made it obsolete. I'm not sorry to see it go in its current form, and I'm hopeful for what the Merrifields will do with it.

    I agree with much of what you wrote here, but to feign surprise that there has been some lauding of the Brick, and to knock its staff (which has been harried since the news of the sale) on the place's crazy last night is a bit much.

  • DE

    Kudos to Bill.

    I don't know if places like ChurchKey or Rustico would have existed without the Brickskeller. In my six years in DC, I can say that, despite its decline, the Brickskeller taught me about beer (and, yes, how to hold my breath and be patient with a wait staff and selection). But I don't know many people who appreciate beer who didn't represent what the Brickskeller was and tried to be.

    It's hard for me to believe that the investors who made the new generation of beer bars possible would have put the money they did without knowing the respect and devotion that many had toward the Brick, regardless of its carpets.

    It was never about the carpets or the urinals. It was about those few all-start staff (I'm looking at you, Rachel) who taught you more than you'd ever hope to know as a dumb undergrad who thought that Yuengling was the ultimate in "good" beers.

    It was time for the Brick to go, and I'm disappointed that RFD clearly became the only priority, but I'll remember that bar more fondly than most of the better-smelling, better-run places in the District.

  • MN

    Bill - Brickskeller is kind of like John McCain. You try to show some respect for the great stuff he did, but then he just keeps shouting at you and you realize that in the end he's a senile man who really really dislikes gay people.

    In this case Brickskeller just kept treating patrons like crap until we all said, "screw the legacy."

  • esquire

    Amen to MN. My last few trips in there over last summer resulted in poor service each time I went in...legacy be damned, that place was a pit.

  • DAB

    I liked the old Brickskeller but I'm excited to see what the future holds for the space. As for the article itself, my only complaint is about the grammar: "I shudder to think about what new owner Megan Merrifield are going to find under that carpet when it comes up, or discover behind bathroom walls." Last I heard, Megan Merrifield was one person, not a group.

  • Enos

    I went to the Brickskeller one time about 2 years ago. The staff was really unpleasant. I assumed I caught them on a bad day, but still never went back. Icon or not, bad places go out of business. This eulogy seems appropriate to me.

  • Bill

    Enos, I find it amusing that you went there one time and feel fit to judge this eulogy as appropriate (or inappropriate). I'm sure to do the same when I meet people for the first time as well.

  • Alexander D. Mitchell IV

    The Brickskeller = Bob Dylan.

    Legendary. On a good night, terrific; on a bad night, cringe-worthy.

  • Mike

    You're right, a lot of the new beer temples have this very glossy feel. That's great at times but not always what you're looking for.

  • Chris D

    Bill, the problem is that there probably wouldn't be a nice eulogy if "Uncle Dan" really was an awful drunk, and ugly to boot (by ugly I assume you mean unattractive but I'll go with condescending, rude, and abrasive). The Brickskeller was Uncle Dan. Dan may have helped birth Cousin Rusty, Brasserie, Churchy along with inspiring others to open a great Pizzeria, but all those places are better, kinder, and helpful than Dan was in his last 15 years of life.

    I understand it's considered a Washington "institution" but I personally don't want the people waiting on me at a table or bar to treat me poorer then my Congressman does. The place was past its prime years before I even set foot in the place a few years ago, which perhaps was due to general neglect and perhaps was due to mismanagement by the owners. A beer menu as useless as the Brickskeller's was simply a slap in the face of every patron that set foot in the bar.

    I happened to be there two nights in a row the week before they closed. One night I'm treated to the typical Brickeller bounder at the door (or as the article put it, "spectacled goon"), with looks that obviously say that "we're not really welcome, but I guess we'll serve you." The next night, we were greeted by a nice man in a suit who was personable, friendly and *gasp,* talkative. While I didn't get his name, based on what we talked about, he had to have been Mr. Merrifield. One can only hope that this translates over to the staff come opening time.

    I'm looking forward to seeing if new bathrooms and a **REAL** beer list will make this location shine brighter than The Brickseller has since the early 90s.

  • monkeyrotica

    The Brickskellar HAD a vinyl jukebox. I pretty much stopped going after they took it out. I can still hear those scratchy sax strains of "Harlem Nocturne" being belted out by Earl Bostic.

  • MN

    Another comparison - Brickskeller was like HFS. Everyone lamented it's passing, but very few people still listened by the time it bit the dust.

  • Bill

    Again, I'm not a Brickskeller apologist. The place had its faults. If you drink craft beer in this town, those faults are common knowledge. I've bitched up a storm about them. All I'm saying is, as the place closes, in large (and obvious) part due to those faults, I don't see the need to spit on the Brick's memory and hit it with the door on its way out.

    I hope the Merrifields change all of the things we all know are terrible about the Brick but try to keep some of what made it great, which was specifically the spirit of enjoying and trying new craft beer.

  • Pete

    I'll agree with Bill. Far from perfect, but even in its final days the place had some awesome brews available. Mad Fox holiday ale on cask, a 2004 Anchor Christmas Ale aged in house. Most of the flashier beer bars were not even around in 2004.

  • American Rogue

    Loved the old Brickskeller and hope the new is at least as good!

  • Ron

    Bill, you need to get over it. It's a restaurant, not Uncle Dan. There is a difference.

    I loved the place and have many great memories attached to it, but I haven't been there in years because the place had been so badly neglected.

    I'm hoping the new owners can retain some of the patina and atmosphere, while offering clean restrooms, decent food from a kitchen that isn't dangerously filthy, and a respectable beer list that holds lots of treasures without being overly fussy with those "pinky finger" beers.