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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Players Lounge at 50

I missed the entrance to Players Lounge and drove on past the cherished southern cooking restaurant and bar in Southeast that had just started celebrating the Golden Jubilee of its September 1972 opening. The sign on the front of the tan, two-story building at 2737 Martin Luther King Avenue SE has become so faded that it is barely noticeable to passersby.

I had been back here infrequently since Jan. 8, 1999, when City Paper and I celebrated the passing of the Loose Lips mantle, after 15-and-a-half years, on to Loose Lips Two (Erik Wemple) to keep the column of local politics and humor alive and relevant.

The Lounge’s simple exterior is a modest front for an establishment with such rich history.

Players Lounge was the perfect spot for that transfer ceremony. The former strip club during 1970s and “80s had been transformed into the political gathering spot where east of the river met Georgetown and Kalorama; Blacks and Whites talked local politics and sang karaoke together; where DC First Ladies Cora Masters Barry and Diane Williams, whose husbands had sparred bitterly at times, stood on the backroom stage where naked ladies had once gyrated and sang a soulful karaoke duet of “Stand By Your Man.’’

Plus, Players served the best, authentic southern cooking in DC.

Warm, Cozy and Welcoming
This may have been the perfect spot for that party nearly 23 years ago, but it turned out to be the worst night.  The afternoon rain had turned to sleet, and by nightfall, streets were glassy and treacherous.  Driving across the District, and traversing river-spanning bridges, did not seem like the wisest way to spend that icy, cold Friday evening.

But when I arrived, expecting to be early, the small, two-room restaurant was already nearing capacity.  Once the entrance door closed behind me, the miserable sleet-filled night outside disappeared immediately, as though it had ceased to exist – and did for at least the next four hours. The world now was filled with that dank smell of a uniquely neighborhood bar combined with the sweet, soothing odors of the frying and baking going on in the kitchen behind the small bar counter.  The atmosphere was warm and cozy; full of chatter and laughter and the sounds of eating and drinking.

The Players Lounge Menu is a soulful delight.

“People who come here want to feel like they are a part of it, like it belongs to them,’’ says soft-spoken, owner and founder Steve Thompson, 78. “We try to make it feel like that, like a neighborhood place.”

When I returned there this past September, the bar counter just inside the door was the busiest spot in the small restaurant.  Customers continuously scurried in, picked up bags of carryout lunches and headed out the door again, to work or wherever they needed to be.  Two on-duty police officers chatted amiably with customers and employees while awaiting their pickup lunch orders.

Four brightly colored wooden booths line the short wall left of the entrance.  Georgena, the dim unitive, effervescent owner’s wife, bantered gaily with customers as she took their orders.  Her popularity with the neighborhood crowd reached the point where locals began referring to the place as Georgena’s and some still insist the name had been changed in the 1990s.

Not so, says Steven Thompson. “The community tried to change the name. They started calling it Georgena’s becaue they didn’t like the name Players. But I never changed it.”

“Sneak and Peek” Missions

In the back is a much more spacious room where the strippers used to dance, and which still seems to be the domain for the men, at least at lunch time.  On my last visit, two small groups of men were gathered around adjacent tables, eating fried foods and sharing conversations.  One group included Richard Proctor, who said he was only four years older than Players but has been coming there most of his life.

“The kids in the neighborhood used to have ‘sneak-and-peek’ missions,” Proctor recalled fondly. “We would sneak in, get a peek at the women and then run out before we got caught.”

The wall of the Lounge is decorated with the photos of patrons.

Fifty years ago, Thompson bought Massey’s Tavern, which occupied only the cramped first room of Players today. After watching his young bartenders routinely hit on women coming in, he soon changed the name to Players Lounge, acquired the adjacent space and introduced nude dancing.

When Congress granted DC residents Home Rule on Christmas Eve 1973, the implementing Home Rule Charter required the creation of elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) all across DC to give communities a greater voice in their new self-governance.

Soon after, Players Lounge became the target for the newly elected neighborhood ANC, which wanted to shut the place down. The District’s 37 ANCs had been granted powers to block liquor licenses. To survive, Thompson had to agree to get rid of the dancers and operate as a neighborhood bar and restaurant.

The Place that Barry Built
Players Lounge could be tagged as the gathering place that Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. built. The small eatery has grown its loyal following on favorable fried fish and fried chicken, rich mac’n’cheese and perhaps the best collard greens around.  And Barry was Players biggest devotee, continually proclaiming the collard greens at Players “the best collard greens I’ve ever eaten.”

Political consultant and Vince Gray ally Chuck Thies observed that when Barry would walk through the lounge’s narrow entranceway “it was like Elvis had walked into the building.”

There would be a momentary hush, then a rush to greet the beaming Barry and engage in friendly banter.

Barry was not the only local pol who helped popularize Players as the place for pols and activists to gather after momentous elections such as Barry’s stunning 1994 comeback following prison, and Tony Williams’s dramatic 1998 ascension to the top office.  When asked at a 2014 mayoral candidates’ forum to name her favorite Ward 8 spot, At-Large Republican Councilmember Carol Schwartz promptly replied “Players Lounge.” Many in the audience chuckled and nodded approvingly.  “She goes there, too,’’ one woman confirmed.  “I’ve seen here there many times.’’

Two patrons enjoy a leisurely lunch.

Maybe it’s the southern hospitality and small-town attitude that makes the place feel so welcoming.  Or maybe it’s the Chocolate City pride and the comfortable authenticity of the inhabitants that keeps’em coming back. Or maybe it’s just a needed escape from the oppressive federal fumes that engulf much of the downtown and Capitol Hill areas to a calmer, friendlier, more inviting atmosphere.

Or maybe it’s just the food.

Whatever it is, let’s hope Players remains – and the fish, chicken and greens keep cooking — for another 50 years.

Player’s Lounge (2737 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE) is open 11 a.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, noon to 2 a.m. Saturdays and 1-6 p.m. Sundays. But you knew that.

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