“The Official Preppy Handbook” wasn’t the bible for me that it was for many. But at least part of the fun of reading it was recognizing the places and things that may have already been in our lives. In particular, I have been lucky enough to enjoy many of the “trad” restaurants mentioned in the book first-hand, and recent events have given me reason to think about why they were important to us in the first place. (By accidents of birth and otherwise, I’ve never lived in a town that didn’t appear on the Sampling of Suburbs list in Birnbach’s book). I’m not sure what, if anything, to make of that, but I digress.
During my school summers, I rowed stroke seat in a club men’s 8 that was a mixed-bag of ages: myself and a classmate were teenagers, a couple of guys home from Wesleyan were in their early twenties and the rest were in their forties – including a local industrialist and former special forces officer. A highlight of each summer was the big regatta hosted by the venerable Potomac Club in Georgetown. The racing was exciting, and drinks on the club porch afterward in the shadow of the Key Bridge were abundant. But the indelible memory to a 17-year-old without a fake ID was of being planted firmly within a pack of older teammates and shuffled in and out of Clyde’s (“The definitive Prep bar. Maxwell’s Plum with a big dose of young attorney.”), The Tombs (“Very collegiate. Dark, downstairs, beer.”), and the dearly-departed J.Paul’s. Thirty years on, Clyde’s now has eight locations, and is part of a restaurant group whose brands include the Old Ebbitt Grill and The Tombs itself. At its gargantuan outpost attached to the Verizon Center, where the Capitals and Wizards play, you’re as likely to find yourself seated at the bar next to a fellow eating his chicken wings in an Alex Ovechkin jersey as someone in khakis and an OCBD. But I think both types are drawn there for the same reason. Those places made an impression on me during the Reagan administration: yes, the clubby dark wood, leather banquettes, and formidable bar are impressive; but even more so a feeling that you are in a place which is simultaneously familiar yet very special. You’re not in a dive bar with hipsters, or a sports bar with screaming maniacs. The Capitol Hill staffer in the Squeeze suit, the guy in the Duck Heads, and yes the guy in the Ovechkin jersey, can and do find common ground within five minutes of conversation. It happens every night in these places. I know: I’ve usually been the guy in the Duck Heads.
On the other hand, my college town of Baltimore has a proudly different vibe and not just because of its industrial history. Its residents are less transient than in DC, and families there are multi-generational, often within the same home, whether it’s a 1920s manor near Sherwood Gardens or a row house in Little Italy. Some of its trad hangouts are still going strong. The Mt. Washington Tavern (“lacrosse hangout, preps live here.”) recovered from a recent fire and its new incarnation remains a beautiful space in a boho neighborhood with an upstairs atrium, and is the place for Mother’s Day brunch and post-Preakness meetups. Although the horse race’s home at the Pimlico track is precarious, and it may end up moving. Alonso’s on Cold Spring Lane (“great pizza”) still draws a strong Loyola & Hopkins crowd, and can – happily – be said not to have gentrified much, although the beer case at the front is now full of craft beers, and the one-pound hamburger appears to be gone. Currently residing in the Where Are They Now? file, unfortunately, is the Crease in Towson (“An abundance of rugby shirts and Top-Siders. Crowded, collegiate and post-collegiate.”), which appears to have moved from directly in front of the lacrosse goal to a bit further out and is now under new ownership and called The Point. And the Harborplace itself (“Baltimore’s Quincy Market … one pavilion is food, the other Prep clothing”) is currently in receivership – another casualty of 21st-century retail trends.
Here in Annapolis, I’m happy to report that the old spots endure as they always have: McGarvey’s (“sailors seen downing burgers”) remains the place both for Friday afternoon dark-and-stormies at the bar with weary fellow dads, as well as post-church bloodies at brunch with the fam-damily 36 hours later on Sunday.
Why are we drawn to these familiar places, now as much as ever? Is it because the patrons wear their khaki pants and rumpled oxford shirts just so? Of course not (although they do still wear them). Is it because the oysters Rockefeller or the crab bisque tastes like it always did? With any luck, each still does, although will nostalgia ever really allow things to be as good as they were? The sad irony is that, right now none of us are enjoying these places that bring so much comfort. We’re cooking for ourselves and our families, and mixing cocktails at our home bars or kitchen counters, waiting for the plague to pass. The other night, I felt as patriotic as I ever have (in a municipal sort of way), when I went to pick up takeout from my local café. As we came and went, other patrons and I nodded to each other, happy to support a place that we all enjoy so much. And once home, the food was delicious. What was missing, of course, was Frank asking about my day as he poured a glass of wine while I ate at the bar. Or the neighboring table sharing their expectations for the show they were going to see at Maryland Hall after dinner.
The best places make us feel at home, even with strangers, and regardless of whether they ever appeared in TOPH. (Although would the new Polo Bar in Manhattan have made the cut, or is Kanye there too much?) I’ve never studied it, but am aware of the particularly English concept of “third place” – you have your home, your workplace, and your pub. This third place fills a different need than the other two. We can’t go to the places that make us feel that way right now. But, for the ones that survive this trial, we ought to go back to them as soon as we’re able. Indulge a little. Buy a round for the bar. And talk to your neighbor. — PAUL DOUGHERTY