Thanks, Iota

My favorite bar in the D.C. area is pouring its last pint this weekend. That makes me sad.

When Iota Club and Cafe opened in the summer of 1994, Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood was nobody’s idea of a nightlife destination. You had some good and cheap Vietnamese restaurants, a few dive bars (though not enough to string together a proper bar crawl), and a surplus of used-car lots.

Iota helped change that. The place had great beer on tap, the owners booked good musicians–although the tiny stage in its initial cozy confines couldn’t accommodate more than a quartet of skinny people–and they didn’t slack off when it came to food. It worked for an indie-rock Saturday night and a recuperative brunch Sunday morning.

A search of my calendar shows a long list of both local musicians (Jenny Toomey, The Kennedys, Alice Despard) and better-known out-of-towners (Kristin Hersh, Mike Doughty) that I saw there. But the Iota act I caught most often was my former Post colleague Eric Brace’s band Last Train Home.

That roots-rock group provided the soundtrack for a lot of evenings out with friends, and then for many of my first dates with my wife.

As other bars and restaurants opened up, Iota expanded into two adjacent spaces. The larger stage made bringing an upright bass or a piano an option, while the kitchen raised its sights and started doing new-American dishes good enough for me to take my mom there.

(I wrote the non-bylined ode to Iota’s catfish wrap that ran in the Food section in 2006. I already miss that, along with the fries that came with it.)

Iota even got a prime-time shout-out when an episode of The West Wing had a few of its White House staffers head across the Potomac for an evening out. For years later, a framed copy of that script hung on one of Iota’s brick walls.

The past several years saw the place retrench a bit. Management took away the good tables and the nice tablecloths and pared back the menu to sandwiches–really good ones.

Parenthood put a major dent in my own attendance, and my less-frequent visits found fewer people in the place. When I stopped in before 5 a few Saturdays ago, I was the only customer in sight.

But what finally did in Iota was something too predictable in its changing neighborhood: a redevelopment proposal that would have forced the place to relocate for a couple of years, then most likely pay a higher rent.

The developer’s renderings of the expanded building included Iota’s black-and-white facade, but I wasn’t shocked, just sad to see Iota’s owners announce three weeks ago that it would close at the end of September.

Of course, Last Train Home returned to play two final nights at Iota; I caught the last two-thirds of Thursday’s set and was glad to see a few Post pals there.

Now I have to put Iota’s absence on my list of neighborhood sorrows, along with the demise of most of the Vietnamese places, all the dive bars, and some of the newer, fancier restaurants that couldn’t cover escalating rents.

I still prefer the Clarendon of 2017 to its identity of 20 years earlier–I can do almost all of my shopping on foot, and we couldn’t have bought our home without the condo I’d bought nearby in 2000 doubling in value over four years. But this progress hasn’t happened in a straight line or without costs.

Some of you reading this have probably never heard of Iota until now, and my words may not adequately express what made it special.

But you probably do have some quirky bar or restaurant nearby that’s been around a while, doesn’t attract all the beautiful people, doesn’t have much of a social-media game and can’t be found anywhere else. Why not stop in for a drink tonight or brunch tomorrow?

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