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It's oldies R&B and soul music night at Player's Lounge, a restaurant and bar so ingrained in the Congress Heights neighborhood of southeast D.C. that Washington City Paper once described it as "Ward 8's living room."
And while Players is now the go-to meeting place for residents in this corner of the city, tonight's DJ Wayne Hartridge AKA DJ Ultra Mix says it wasn't always so friendly.
"I was actually the DJ when it was a strip club," explains Hartridge. "I've seen it change," he continues. "The clientele, everything. It was a complete turnaround. Imagine a strip club environment in the '80s at the start of the crack epidemic and the whole nine yards. It just made a complete turnaround and that's why it's still here."
The architects of that turnaround were owners Steve and Georgene Thompson. The Thompsons got rid of the dancers and put the focus on the soul food and drinks. After a brief drop in business, the customers began flocking to Players and haven't stopped coming since. Georgene thinks the laid back nature of the place is a big draw for folks.
"We don't ask [customers] to dress up or nothing like that," says Thompson. You just come the way you feel. Just as long as you've got clothes on. That's it. And they really like that."
Georgene's daughter and bar manager Angie Thompson-Hines agrees, but goes a step further.
"We treat them right. We treat them as if they are all family," Angie says. "That's why they keep coming and coming and coming."
And the bar really is a family affair.
"Most of us are all family that work behind the bar," explains Angie. "It's me, Josephine, my husband, Michael who's in the kitchen, my mother, my father helps out every now and then, my son who's 22 years old and he runs it at night."
DJ Wayne Hartridge says Players is more than just a place to grab a beer.
"The owners really take care of the community, and Steve and Georgene emphasize that," explains Wayne.
That pride and respect for the community has rubbed off on those around them. Wayne's a member of The Fat Boys, a social club and a sort of service fraternity associated with the bar.
"[The Fat Boys] started out as a club that was about having fun, and then it just got to be community-oriented," recalls Wayne. "We just fed 150 people for Thanksgiving. As you can see, we've got a toy drive going on this Saturday. We're a community-based club." Beyond the good deeds, this place means a lot to regulars like Nick Johnson, a radio DJ at local station WPFW. He remembers the dark days when Players Lounge was a refuge and the only sit-down restaurant in Ward 8.
"I grew up in this part of the city," says Johnson. "I saw this part of the city go through the riots of 1968. I saw this part of the city become desolate."
Although Nick says he's seen progress in the past decade with the arrival of new restaurants and bars, he remains loyal to Players for one simple reason.
"They have not let this establishment become part of the blight of the city," Nick explains. "Through all those years of strife elsewhere, it has never lost the friendliness. It has never lost the appeal of being a friendly neighborhood bar."
Tonight, as I sit in the corner listening to R&B classics, folks are talking, laughing, and watching football as the smell of fried food floats through the air.
This really could be anyone's living room in America.
[Music: "I Will Follow Him" by Guitar Instrumental from Hawaii Romantic Guitar Vol. 3]
Photos: D.C. Dives: Player's Lounge