Love and Jell-O Shots: Millie & Al’s Turns 50
The story of Adams Morgan’s oldest bar, which celebrates its 50th birthday next week, is a love story. It starts in 1963, when a Bronx-born 43-year-old salesman named Al Shapiro buys Balance’s Columbian Restaurant on 18th Street NW and renames it Millie & Al’s, after the woman he’s smitten with. Millie dies of cancer in the early 1970s, but Al keeps the name; it’s still their place.
People love this bar. When businesses close for inclement weather, patrons hike to the dark wooden counter and the roomy red booths, where they drink all the beer Al has. When Al has to physically throw some of his patrons out, their love keeps them from fighting back. In 1996, as Al is dying of cancer at the age of 76, he is cared for by an oncologist who drank at Millie & Al’s during medical school and by nurses who go there still. Once Al is gone, love keeps his children from selling the place.
“Originally, we weren’t sure we were going to keep it,” says 60-year-old Barbra Shapiro, Al’s daughter. “I just felt I couldn’t let go of it. I wasn’t sure I enjoyed [running] it so much as it felt like giving up a piece of the family.”
Shapiro, who worked at an engineering firm and in real estate before joining her dad’s business in the early ’90s, is a big believer in Millie & Al’s love story, even though Millie was not her mother. “I met her when I was 12 or 13,” she says of the woman her father took up with after settling in D.C. “She was kind of tough.” And that’s about all Shapiro knows not just of her bar’s namesake but of her father’s old flame. In honor of the mystery—which people ask about often—Millie & Al’s will serve “Who Was Millie?” shots during next week’s birthday bash.
Shapiro exudes her own toughness. Underneath a head of dirty blonde hair and puffy painted lips is a bar owner who stays until last call on Friday and Saturday nights and prefers to take the lead on handling customers who are unhappy with their tab or shit-faced and unruly.
But she’s a softy at heart and prefers to extoll the power of Millie & Al’s to bring people together. At the drop of a hat, she’ll tell you about a girlfriend of hers who once got a flat tire driving through Minnesota and was helped by a strange couple on a motorcycle. When she gets to the story’s twist, Shapiro leans forward and her eyes go wide: The couple on the motorcycle met at Millie & Al’s, and they were heading home to announce their engagement. This story sums up everything Shapiro loves about her father’s bar and why she sells T-shirts that read, “I met your mother at Millie & Al’s.”
For people who’ve never found love in Millie & Al’s, the bar’s appeal is far more simple. In a city obsessed with earning worthless kudos from gourmands, beer nerds, and cocktail snobs, Millie and Al’s is a fantastic dive. Forget $12 craft beers; how about a Natty Bo or a Bud Light for $1.50? The jukebox is the best of FM radio from yesterday and the day before (though seldom today and never tomorrow). As for the decor: Yelpers use words like “seedy,” “divey,” and “crackhouse chic.” I prefer “unpretentious.” On weeknights, there’s always a place to sit.
During the four years I’ve been a Millie & Al’s regular, I’ve had only one bone to pick: The men’s room is terrifyingly small. It contains a stall and a urinal that is built like a coffin. The latter receptacle is tucked into a corner so tight that if your shoulders are wider than those of, say, an 8-year-old boy, you have to literally wedge yourself between two tiled walls in order to get within striking distance of porcelain. The first time I used the urinal, I imagined what it would be like to die there.
Getting in and out of either bathroom is a production—especially on Friday and Saturday nights. This, Shapiro says, is not actually a bad thing. “People bitch and bitch and bitch about the bathroom, but when the line is going strong for both the men’s and the women’s room, there’s more conversation going on there than anywhere else,” she says. “People meet there, and then you see them come downstairs and join each other. Otherwise, they would never talk to each other. It’s hard to hold it that long. But they’re laughing and they’ve met.”
And once you’ve met someone in the line for the bathroom, what then? Two words: Jell-O shots. It was Shapiro’s brother’s idea to start serving them in the early ’90s. They became a popular item later that decade when Shapiro began promoting them with a flashing red light and dancing skeleton. Now, they’re pretty much what Millie & Al’s is known for. “People literally scream when the light comes on,” she says.
She is not lying. I myself have lost it over that dancing skeleton (which does its animatronic jig every 30 minutes) and pumped the air while reassuring whoever I’m with that it’s not at all uncool or inappropriate or sad to slurp down $1 boozy, jiggly, neon-colored shooters before dark on a Wednesday.
Jell-O aside, Shapiro doesn’t deny that her bar is categorically a dive, but she doesn’t particularly like the phrase. “We don’t sling drinks to get you drunk,” she says. “We’re not trashy.”
To make her case, she argues that just as you won’t see any $15 martinis on the menu, you also won’t find any all-you-can-drink deals. Blind drunkenness is bad for the mood Shapiro is trying to create (the one captured by a Nightline camera crew when it shot a segment titled “Searching for Mr. Right Now” at Millie & Al’s in 2007). Though she won’t tolerate it, it’s not personal. “It’s not a sport to see how drunk people can get,” she says. “Even when we throw people out, I never throw them out permanently. I tell them, ‘Come back another day.’”
Alas, binge drinkers aren’t the only thing threatening the mood at Millie & Al’s these days. Patrons are showing up later and later in the evening, and it’s not unusual to see regulars who prefer to scan their phones while they drink instead of making new friends. “The Internet has influenced people going out,” Shapiro says. “You can stay in forever, really. You can get your groceries delivered. People don’t have the sense that they have to come out to meet new people. You can be home alone, but you’re never really home alone anymore.”
Luckily, there are things a bar can do when the romance begins to fade. Just last year, Millie & Al’s got its first website. It set up Facebook and Twitter accounts (don’t worry that the joint is succumbing to the Internet’s power; the Twitter feed has a mere seven posts, six of them from a one-week span in 2011). A freshly painted black railing around the entrance will soon contain outdoor seating, courtesy of 18th Street’s newly widened sidewalks. And already there’s a big sign out front advertising the 50th birthday bash, during which drinks will be priced by decade—from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., drinks will cost what they did during the 1960s, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., the 1970s, etc.—and patrons will get to try new shots: the “Big Al” and the “Who Was Millie?” Maybe these things will entice people to talk a little more at the bar and take advantage of the bathroom wait. Even if they don’t, Millie & Al’s doesn’t intend on going anywhere.
“I remember yelling at my father when he said, ‘I’m gonna get rid of [the bar] and travel,’” Shapiro says. “And I said, ‘Dad, what are you gonna do? If you give it up, you’ll die.’ Because, you know, people have to have something.”
It’s her something, too.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery