A half-dozen people lined up early in front of U Street bar Stetson’s on Halloween over the weekend. But the crowd — dressed in a mix of knit beanies, Carhartt jackets and acid wash jeans — wasn’t there to celebrate the holiday. They were there to say goodbye.
“We just want to know if there’s any beer left,” longtime regular Sarah Bieber said while waiting.
Sarah Bieber, her husband Bruce and two of her oldest friends were regulars during Stetson’s first years as one of U Street’s only neighborhood bars in the ’80s.
For 35 years, the hangout was a melting pot for the neighborhood and served as a haven for some of the area’s well-known characters.
“There was a bartender named Chilly who was anything but,” Bruce Bieber said before uncorking anecdotes about Chilly’s fondness for giving his pals leftover margaritas.
Bruce Bieber said the bar, which once got in hot water for serving the underage Bush twins and purportedly still has bullets in the ceiling, has not changed one bit since it opened in 1980.
That unwillingness to change may have given the bar its character, but it may have also contributed to its demise. The bar was sold to developer Douglas Development over summer after losing money for years, said assistant general manager Tommy Osborne in September.
“Tell you what, they didn’t put a dime in it since then,” Bruce Bieber said.
At 5:30 p.m., the bar’s big oak door under the Stetson’s Alehouse awning swung open, and a man in a Superman costume beckoned everyone inside.
Superman, whose secret identity is Stetson’s employee Jelani Wills, said he’s done almost everything under the sun at the bar. Four years ago, he worked the bar’s doors, then as a bartender, manager and even started Stetson’s comedy shows. Wills said U Street won’t have dive bar like Stetson’s, at least not for a while.
“Dive bars aren’t really popular like they once were,” Wills said. “People do appreciate neighborhood bars, but there’s a shift in the neighborhood. Right now, people want wine bars.”
While Wills refrained from saying the G word, Bruce Bieber was quick to lament the increase of trendy bars and restaurants he thinks are pushing places like Stetson’s out.
For Bruce Bieber and his friends, nostalgia and authenticity was always Stetson’s main draw. He added that’s what prompted the group of friends to revisit their old stomping ground one for one final round of beers.
“We wanted to be the first to be last,” Bruce Bieber said.