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It's happy hour on a Friday night and I'm at Lil Pub, a modest 18-seat drinking establishment with two pool tables, just across the street from Eastern Market Metro station. Customers are slowly trickling in, and a small group has camped out to watch Jeopardy on a tiny television screen perched behind the bar. And that's where I meet patron Philip Watson who explains the building's unique fast food history.
"Initially this bar, back a hundred years ago, or 20 or 30 years ago, was a Little Tavern, which I think was local to the Maryland area," says Watson. "Their motto used to be 'Buy 'em by the bag' and I remember buying a bag of Little Tavern burgers — precut, pickles, relish, a nickel a piece."
The building still has the now-extinct burger chain's signature green English Tudor façade. But inside, beers replaced burgers a little over 30 years ago.
"It was opened as Lil Pub by a guy named J.J. and his wife Gay Elliott," says Watson. "They were the original owners at the conversion of the place into what is now Lil Pub."
According to Philip, the young bar thrived and the Elliotts quickly built up a great following in the neighborhood. But tragedy soon struck for J.J. and Gay.
"Three months in to their opening this place, he was killed right in that pathway — the middle between here and there," recalls Watson, pointing to a narrow walkway that leads to the pool tables at the back of the bar. "A guy broke in during the middle of the night after closing and stabbed him to pieces. He was a retired cop, so it was national news."
The Elliott family sold the business years ago, but current bartender Sue Karslow says many of those early customers continue to visit Lil Pub.
"It's a meeting place for all the old Capitol Hill regulars," says Karslow. "They've all known each other forever and they've been coming to this bar for over 20 years."
So who are the regulars at Lil Pub? Bar regular Phillip Watson gives me the rundown.
"Attorneys, firefighters, a lot of teachers, the unemployed. We've got some crackheads."
And with a chuckle in his voice, Watson adds "Professionals — I work for a major trade association."
As Watson explains, the bar's ethos is the key to keeping this interesting balance. "The only thing that's not tolerated here is and always has been intolerance."
Former bartender and long-time regular Michael Phares couldn't agree more.
"We've got everything," says Phares. "Black, white, green, purple, polka dot, straight, gay, bi, confused. It's a local pub where everyone gets along with everyone else."
Well, almost everyone. I ask bartender Bill Greaves if the bar has had to adapt to cater to the largely-gentrified neighborhood.
"We don't adapt to anything!" says Greaves while spiraling into gut-busting laughter. "It's our way or the highway!"
And just then I look up at the grainy TV screen across from me and notice that host Alex Trebek is about to wrap things up on today's edition of Jeopardy. All of a sudden, bartender Sue Karslow leans over the bar and invites me to participate in one of Lil Pub's age-old traditions.
"At 8 o'clock we do final Jeopardy, and if you get it right, you get a free drink," says Karslow.
Excited but a little suspect, I ask what happens if you get the question wrong.
"You get a free drink," she replies with a smile.
Now who would want to change that?
[Music: "Talking In Your Sleep (In the style of The Romantics)" by The Karaoke Channel from The Karaoke Channel Sings Songs About Sleep]
D.C. Dives: Lil Pub