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Longtime Mr. Smith's Managers Talk About the Bar's History, as Well As Its Future

Photos: R. Lopez

When news broke yesterday that Mr. Smith's of Georgetown was closing, many regulars and people who used to work at the bar came back for a visit the next day. Today, those regulars got a happy ending (with a bittersweet footnote): the bar will relocate to where Chadwicks is located (while Chadwicks, itself an institution, will close its doors at month's end).

While the bar will live on, the M Street location holds a special iconic status, says manager Juan Andino, and it's a place where the owner has been considered more of a father-figure than a business man. If you add it all up, the three managers: Ernesto Carrasco, Juan Andino and Kelly Batie, have 87 years of experience at the restaurant.

Mr. Smith's is well-known as a piano bar with nightly sing-alongs, an outdoor garden adorned with Tiffany lamps, statues and water fountains, and drink specials popular with Georgetown students, out-of-town visitors and even a few celebrities — Robin Williams secretly dined here two years ago, Mick Jagger has posted up at the bar and the singer-songwriter Tori Amos had one of her first performances at Mr. Smith's.

The bar closes on September 1st but will reopen at its new location hopefully in the next few months, says Andino. The closing date will coincide soon with an auction, Andino says. The bar is selling pretty much everything: an antique mirror that predates the management, framed pictures that have hung on the walls for decades, and those Tiffany lamps. But, fair warning: some are real and some are fake, Andino says.

When "the friendliest saloon in town" shuts its doors it will mark almost 50 years on M Street. The bar's namesake is its first owner Robert R. Smith. Current owner James Haight is 84 years old, but no longer plays a direct role in the day-to-day management due to health reasons.

Eater sat down to talk with the three managers who have been there there longest. In this edition of Lifers, learn about the restaurant's history, its place in Georgetown and what the future looks like for Mr. Smith's.

Kelly Batie, Manager for 37 Years

Tell me about the owner, James Haight. What is he like? I know he doesn't like to be in the spotlight much and is pretty old. What else?
He's a great boss. He's great with people. He looks out for his employees. And, all-around he's a great person. You see the employees here are like family. Our cook Arturo has been here for about 25-30 years. And, we have about 25 people on staff right now.

What are one or two words to describe him?
He's a father-figure. At one point or another, he's pretty much been a father-figure to each and every one of us.

What are some of the memorable moments here?
Well, we get to meet a lot of celebrities in here. That was fun. One of the last celebrities that I know of that was here was Robin Williams. I guess that was about two years ago, and he just walked in. I didn't even know he was really here until one of the waiters whispered in my ear: "Hey, Robin Williams is here." Actually, our boss tells us not to bother celebrities too. He tell us to just treat them good. But, after the meal Robin Williams went upstairs to chat with our owner in the office. Too many people probably don't know that he came by here. But, he really had a great time when he visited us.

When did you start working at Mr. Smith's?
This has been my only job. I was 17 years-old when I first started working here. My boss saw me riding my bike near Georgetown and said, "I've never seen a person ride a bike with such enthusiasm," and he said, "You've got a lot of enthusiasm. Why don't you come work for me?" So I came in and talked to the manager then and told him I was looking for a job during summers in high school. I started part-time working during school. I was a dishwasher starting out, then server. From there I worked upstairs in the office, and then manager, to where I am now. A lot of the pictures on the walls show the people and the history's past. You can literally see it.

So you've been here a while; how does it feel that this place is closing?
We've seen some employees start to feel it. I actually today felt it. This is coming fast now. There's going to be a lot of emotions built up. Especially for the staff here now.

Are there items in the bar that are going to be really special to you?
I guess the piano bar.

Are they going to auction that?
No, that will come with us. It's been in this bar forever. It was here when I was here, so more than 37 years ago. Back in the 70s and 80s we were well known for the karaoke, the back garden and the strawberry daiquiris. The daiquiris bar in the back was very popular. We had all kinds of fruit and we would serve up the frozen drinks so people could see it as they were made. Everyone was drinking daiquiris back then.

ernesto.jpgErnesto Carrasco, Manager for 16 Years

Did you start as a manager here?
I found it in a newspaper ad and I had been working in the food business for a while. I've been in the industry for 30 years now. And, I've been here for 16 1/2 years almost exactly.

Why did you stay?
To be honest, they treat me like family. This is the longest that I've worked somewhere. I thought I was going to be here for two years, but the jokes on me. The owner [James Haight] is almost like my father. He treats me like a son. If we were short on cash or needed help, he would be the person to turn to.

What's been the larger vision here?
To stay in Georgetown as long as possible. Pretty much keep up a tradition of what this company is. We've opened up multiple locations before, but our main focus has always been on Georgetown. That's why Juan and I and Kelly are partnered altogether with Mr. Haight's help. He is our father figure. Without him we can't keep this thing going.

When this places closes on September 1, what are you going to miss most?
We're going to miss the customers. We hope they will come find us at our new location. They've been with us throughout. And, it's people from all over.

juan.jpgJuan Andino, Manager for 13 Years

What was it like on your first day at the job here?
I came here at night time and the piano player came in and started playing the Cheers theme song and everybody started singing along and pumping their fists. That was an unreal moment. And, I knew immediately that I wanted to be here. It was a fun crowd. It draws you in. It's where I wanted to be.

When did you start and how did you find the job?
My first day was July 20, 2001. I saw an ad and came into interview and the owner immediately brought me in. He liked me a lot and offered me the job and I started a week later.

What's the most fun part about working here?
Working nights is the most fun part of the job. You get to see the piano players and interact with the customers. I love the customers. This is a mix of regulars, students, grad students and people from all around the world. You can have someone from Germany sitting right next to someone from Senegal.

Do you think the old-time bars of Georgetown are dying out?
Yeah, you get a sense that the old Georgetown is dying a slow death. There's new owners, new landlords and rents are going up here, but hopefully we're trying to keep a tradition alive and find a new place. This space is very unique, and it will be hard to replicate what we have now. We want a space that still has a piano bar and dining area. But, Mr. Smith's has to stay in Georgetown. It's an icon, so we're going to keep it here, and we hope to reopen in just a few months.
· All Previous Coverage of Mr. Smith's [-EDC-]
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[Photos: R. Lopez]