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D.C. Dives: Jay's Saloon Recalls Different Era In Clarendon

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Jay's Saloon and Grille in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Va.
Jay's Saloon and Grille in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Va.

It's Friday night at Jay's Saloon and Grille on North 10th Street in Clarendon. With its screened-in porch, this dive bar looks like any of the homes just down the street. Owners Kathi and James Moore say there's a simple reason why.

"We've been around since 1993. It was a heating and air conditioning place before that," says Kathi. "And before that, it obviously was a house."

"I have one customer whose mother lived in this house in the 1920s," adds James.

Although this building is now the neighborhood bar, customers are still encouraged to make themselves right at home.

"It's nothing fancy," says James. "You don't get white table cloths. We don't have a wine list. Our wine list is red or white. It's just very laid back. You can come in and be yourself."

This lack of formality stands out on the rapidly changing block.

"Compared to a lot of places in this area, in the Clarendon area, and the whole northern Virginia area, we're very unpretentious," says James.

To hammer home that point, bar regular Tom, who doesn't want us to use his last name, gives a gives a tour.

"We've got bricks down here," he says. "We've got plaster over here with holes in it. [The bar] usually only has two bathrooms — one for the girls and one for the boys. But it doesn't matter, you go in either one. Missing paint off the walls. Leaks from the roof. If you notice, that's a leak onto the pool table, and onto the world's smallest pool table."

With a special sense of pride, Tom boasts, "We still have a 13-inch color Sony television set from, probably I would say, 1982, and it works! That's a dive bar."

And just when I think the place couldn't get any quirkier, Tom shows me the bar's book exchange, which is well stocked with cheap paperback suspense and romance novels of the Fabio variety.

"This is even a reading room — a romance reading room," he says. "The best part is, I don't know who's doing it. But somebody's coming in, and they're reading them, taking them out and trading them. Hey, more power to her... or him."

Despite the patronage of a horde of loyal regulars like Tom and the unknown librarian, owner James Moore says that Jay's Saloon may soon shutter its doors.

"Honestly, it's out of my hands," explains James. "I don't own the property. I've been told that they're going to tear everything down and put up more condos. We'll just have to wait and see."

Even if the worst happens, James is at peace with his life's work.

"It's been my baby. I never had kids. This was my kid," he says. "I think 20 years is a pretty good run. We should make it through September, which will be 20 years — the longest I ever held a job in my life."

"And who knows?" James adds with a hopeful sound in his voice. "Knock on wood; maybe we'll be around 20 more years."

Bartender Dan Gallagher says the bar will be missed greatly, whenever it finally closes its doors.

"It's going to be sad," says Gallagher. "I've heard Jay's referred to as the last bastion of hope in Arlington. It's also been described as the only non-pretentious place left in Arlington. And when that time comes, there are going to be a lot of people looking for the next Jay's."

But there's only one Jay's Saloon.

[Music: "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen from Lost in the Ozone / "Tea for Two Cha Cha" by Tommy Dorsey from Billboard Top 100 of 1958]

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