The Clarendon Grill

Melissa Stagnaro

On Monday I learned my favorite Arlington establishment, the Clarendon Grill, had closed its doors. Temporarily, so its owners claim. But whatever renovations they have in store will wipe the slate clean on a place where my fondest memories of living in Northern Virginia were created.

I don’t remember the first time I walked through the CGrill’s glass front door. But I can guarantee, if it was a weekend, I’d been queued up around the block for no inconsiderable amount of time. Because when I moved to Arlington in the late 90’s, the Clarendon – or CGrill as we called it – was the place to be and be seen on any given Friday or Saturday night. The line would stretch around the block, and once you made it inside, you still had to fight your way to the bar. The dance floor was sure to be packed, as well, hen on to the dance floor. If you were lucky, the Greek goddess of the hostess stand, Nicki, would grant you a table. As long as you were willing to wait for that, too.

The CGrill’s décor was not what you’d expect from such a nightspot. The theme was construction, a salute to the engineering past of the owner Pete Pflug’s family, if I remember correctly. But it worked.

The custom table tops displayed a mix of blueprints, paint chips, saw blades and other hardware store finds. The bar itself was a series of dioramas, featuring Tonka trucks pushing gravel and the like. Five-gallon buckets served as lighting fixtures. The brightly-painted ends of 2x4s contrasted against the remaining primer-painted walls, hung with the colorful work of local artists. The menus were done as architectural drawings.

Contrasting with the rough-hewn look of the place was the menu, created by Kevin Weeks, the chef Pete hired away from the Red Sage, one of DC’s premier restaurants. Sure, there was the requisite burger – the Jackhammer, or the Jack*@# as Kevin called it – but even it was topped with red pepper aioli, caramelized onions, apple-wood smoked bacon and the like. The salads were of the nicoise variety, topped with seared Ahi tuna. A jicama slaw was one of the offered sides. The trout was served, intact, shall we say. The lamb shanks were braised; the pork chops, seared. Brunch was a personal favorite of mine, with eggs forestiere and huevos ranchero being my top choices.

In those days – over a decade ago, now – I was applying my economics degree to somewhat good use working in market research for one trade association or another. I waited tables on the side, both for extra money and the social life. Quite frankly, my 20-something self considered it a blast.

This was a few years before developers moved in and turned Clarendon into a high-rent district. Before Mister Days even opened up across North Highland Street. Before the Clarendon Ballroom. Before Barnes & Noble and all the other big box retailers had moved in.

I worked first at Whitey’s, an Arlington institution known for its “broasted” chicken and half price burger night. Okay, it was a dive bar. But I made great tips.

It didn’t take long for me to tire of the place, though. And after a few I decided to hang up my apron there and look elsewhere.

Where I looked, was the Clarendon Grill.

My interview took place in a booth a few steps from the previously mentioned dance floor, where just that weekend I myself had spent some quality time listening to Gonzo’s Nose.

My interviewer was Nick Freshman, CGrill’s most junior manager at the time, who had only recently been elevated from server status himself. Tall and lanky, with an easy grin and thick golden blonde hair, he made all the ladies swoon.

Which probably accounted for the nervousness I felt as I slid into the sea-green banquette, trying hard not to get tangled in the ridiculously long legs already clogging the space.

Gradually, I started to open up as Nick peppered me with questions about my experience, and then about myself. We’d fallen into an easy camaraderie, chatting about our lives, when he finally broke it to me that there wasn’t a position open.

I thought he was just letting me down easy, so I was rather surprised when a couple of weeks later he called to offer me a job.

I had the somewhat dubious honor of being the first CGrill employee to be put to the test in the establishment’s new training program. It involved 5 shifts, 3 of which were on the floor, 1 in the kitchen and the last as a food runner on a busy Saturday night.

Being as I was accustomed to juggling 10 tables during Whitey’s famed Burger Night, when burger-hungry patrons flocked from far of wide to enjoy their specialty at half price, my first three shifts at CGrill were a breeze.

The fourth, however, nearly did me in.

I turned up as instructed on a Saturday to help prep for the evening’s dinner service. With my first assigned task – to clean a boatload (okay, exaggeration) of calamari – I knew the name of the game was going to be “how can we gross the new girl out.”

Much to their chagrin, I passed that first test with flying colors. (I did, after all, gut my first deer when I was 13. Give me some credit.) They’d thrown their worst at me already, and with each additional task – marinating chicken, cracking umpteen dozen eggs, cleaning crab meat – I could see their disappointment mounting. No fun would be had at this girl’s expense, I thought, as I chuckled to myself.

But alas, my celebrations proved premature. With their final challenge, they stumbled upon my greatest culinary Achilles heel: Olives.

Yeck. Just the briny smell of the things is enough to make me want to retch. And these people wanted me to pit them! Oh, the agony.

The all-male kitchen crew, most of whom hailed from Mexico or Central America, found this hysterical. Especially given my imperviousness to their previous efforts to gross me out.

I did get through it, of course. And managed to earn the respect of the kitchen staff in the process. Or at least I think it was respect. Because I never did learn how to speak Spanish.

From then on out, Clarendon Grill became my second home, and my co-workers my other family. Jeanette, Nick, the other Nick, Erin, Heather, Danny, Dave, Justin, Chuck, Jeff, Kevin, Penny, Jen, Thomas – and a dozen or so others whose faces are vivid in my memory, even if their names are not – all the rest played prominent roles in the next couple of years in my life.

I’ve lost touch with most if not all of them now, but I still trot out memories of those “good old days” on occasion. (Much to the chagrin of my current crop of friends, I might add. Poor darlings, they never had the pleasure of knowing Clarendon in its hey day.)

In a moment of nostalgia, I did a few Google searches a couple of years ago, to see what happened to some of my old Arlingtonian crew. My heart broke when I learned Kevin had been killed in a tragic car accident. The others I found, however, seem to be doing well. Pete has increased the size of his Clarendon restaurant empire, with the help of another former CGrill veteran, Dave Pressley. Nick Freshman, too, has his own place, called Spider Kelly’s.

And, until this week, Clarendon Grill has continued to occupy the same location at 1101 N. Highland Street. It really is an end of an era for me.

Farewell, CGrill. Thanks for the memories.

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