Millie & Al's on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Founded in 1963, this dive is celebrating 50 years in business.
It's a Thursday night and I'm at Millie and Al's on 18th Street Northwest in the heart of Adams Morgan. Here, I meet owner Barbara Shaprio whose father, Al, founded the business back in 1963 in what was then called Ballance's Columbian Restaurant.
"My dad was a regular. It was his favorite hangout. He learned of it being for sale and quickly grabbed it," recalls Shapiro.
Al Shapiro was dating a woman named Millie at the time. So he did what any self-respecting star-crossed lover would do and named his new business Millie and Al's. At the time, 18th Street was home to a vibrant commercial district that included the very first Toys "R" Us in America and the famous jazz club The Showboat Lounge. But the area quickly changed in the turbulence of the late 1960s and '70s.
"He made it through the riots and some pretty, pretty tough times," says Shapiro. "It was called Little Harlem and Little Havana for a while. It was a rough gang street. I remember coming to see my dad, and I was pretty young. He'd walk me out to the car with a weapon. You just didn't want to be out in the street by yourself. How he survived the really rough times, I'm not sure."
But he did survive and so did Millie and Al's. In the process, it became a fixture of the neighborhood with a loyal clientele. Along the way, the Shapiros developed a simple and successful business identity.
"It hasn't changed much," says Shapiro. "If you saw it 50 years ago, you would recognize it as being the same place. If it's not broke, we don't fix it."
"It's basically a four-star dive," says Ted Lull, a bartender at Millie and Al's for 13 years. "Everything pretty much stays the same. It's stuck in time."
Bar regular Matt Roberts says that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"I think it's very grounding," Roberts explains. "I think for a community or a neighborhood to continue to be appealing and to succeed just overall, it's good to have businesses or people who have been here for a while and aren't just going to be subject to fleeting change of interest."
There is one aspect of the bar that is constantly changing. The walls are lined with a growing collection of artifacts, art, and knickknacks that would make a TGI Friday's blush.
"It's kind of fun," says Roberts. "It's kind of an afterthought. I don't think that they planned out the 50 years they were going to be here — they just sort of [said] 'Well that looks good. We'll throw that up on the ceiling." And now they have a complete mélange of stuff."
And his favorite piece of art?
"I like that skeleton that makes noises and lights up with light bulbs when you're having your shots," he says. "I don't do shots, I just think it's really amusing that it has that."
Just then, I run into to one of the bar's security and doormen Joshua Duckett. I ask him why he loves working at working at Millie and Al's.
"I like getting fake IDs," he says. "I love that man, because you let them come up. You get the card, you look at it, you know it's fake. And you say like, 'Really? You really think you're going to get this back?'"
He says the worst fake ID he's seen is North Carolina.
"It was terrible. Everything was off on it. The fonts were off. The picture was in the wrong spot. It was just terrible. Whoever did it, I even told him he needed to get his money back," says Duckett in a fit of laughter.
Duckett's reaction epitomizes the bar's good-natured, but no nonsense attitude that keeps folks like Matt Roberts coming back again and again.
"I think for one it's unpretentious, and I think this place draws out the honest answer," says Roberts. "It doesn't try to put on airs."
At Millie and Al's, everyone's a king, as long as they're legal.
[Music:"You Can Call Me Al" by Herbie Mann from Africa Mann]
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