Last week the Clarendon Grill in Arlington, VA closed after 22 years. Even locally, this was not major news—bars close all the time. For many of us who were a part of the Grill, however, it was a significant event. For me, it has opened a floodgate of memory.
I first walked into the Grill off the street in the summer of 1998. Fresh out of college with a Creative Writing degree and consequently no viable job prospects, my only goal of the summer was to get a job that would allow me to move out of my mom’s basement.
I knew I loved the restaurant business, but I had barely any experience. Naturally, I thought I should be a bartender. I spent the day in the city getting turned down left and right, and after getting off the Metro in Clarendon to head home, I made one last stop.
I thought it was cool that this bar had things on the menu like a lamb shank and local art on the walls. What the Hell, I thought. Maybe they will hire me.
I immediately sat for the interview with Dave Pressley, a culinary school grad who was running the front of the house. Dave promptly told me that I could never get hired as a bartender, but they needed a server. The honesty was refreshing, and I took the job. In many ways, that interview with Dave started my career. I remain grateful that he gave me the time after so many that day had not.
And I was in.
I quickly took on whatever work I could get other than serving. Bar back, host, the occasional bar shift, and even security. Yes, I was a bouncer. They key to that job was to stay (hide?) behind head of security, Jeff Mozingo, and just do whatever he said. I managed to remain largely unscathed.
Months later, I was a manager—number two in charge with absolutely no qualifications to be there. I had the keys to the bar and the trust of General Manager Danny Garcia. It is safe to say that Danny took a big chance giving a 22-year-old kid the job, and I tried as hard as I could to not screw it up.
The job was intoxicating. Weekends were loud and crazy with a line around the block every single night (there were VERY few bars in the neighborhood at the time). The bar was hot and buzzing with the electricity of twenty-somethings. The noise was at times deafening from the bands, and the whole scene was clouded in a haze of smoke (yes, like actual cigarette smoke. Different time).
People laughed and cried, sang and danced, drank and fought. Something always broke, someone always quit and whatever could go wrong would go wrong. Every night was crazy but different, and I had to try to figure out how to hold it together. I absolutely loved it.
The job made me realize that I needed some chaos and uncertainty to work at my best. It didn’t lay out a career path, but it helped push me towards one. And some of the contacts that I made there continue to be some of the most important in my life. One of them I lost, but others have stayed with me.
Like my wife.
Meredith and I grew up together, but we were apart for high school and college. We both moved back to our hometown around the same time, and back then there was only one real spot for recent grads in Arlington to come together.
And I was working there.
So when there was a line—and there was always a line–I would get a call. I tried to play it cool as I let this beautiful woman slip in the back and take my breath away.
Time went on and things worked out for us.
Meredith and I just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary—we have a middle schooler and a mortgage, we go to bed early at night and every morning there seems to be more gray hairs. We are at a different point in our lives, but in many ways, our story started at the corner of Highland and 11th St.
My story was not the only one that started there to be sure, and that is what a great place can do—spider webs of interactions and connections spiral out and create moments and memories that exist far beyond the four walls and can last far longer than the place itself.
The Clarendon Grill was that kind of place.
For all of this, I am grateful to Pete Pflug for coming up with a crazy idea to build a construction-site themed bar on that corner all those years ago.
Thanks, Pete—it was a great run.