After more than 20 years in Adams Morgan, Chief Ike's Mambo Room will close on Saturday. As owner Al Jirikowic tells it, "This is an old funky bar that time has passed by." The longtime bar owner sat down with Y&H to talk about the "strollerfication" of Adams Morgan, D.C.'s dying funkiness, and that time the Rolling Stones stopped by.
What was Chief Ike's like in the first few years?
It had a lot of funk. It had a lot of... what's the Russian word for bearing the truth? We had a lot of Clintonites in here, and they were always talking about that. I had Stella Neptune as the DJ, and we had bands in here. We had poetry in here and readings in here. Over the years, we've had plays and musicals and recitals and weddings, and we've had bar mitzvah celebrations. It's been an all-purpose, social, creative meeting place with a lot of art. A lot of the people who painted this stuff also worked here and built this place.
Do you have some favorite memories from over the years?
A lot of things have happened. We used to have drawing classes upstairs, and they were figure drawing classes, and we were at war with the building across from us for noise. They looked through their windows and they saw a nude person, a 78-year-old man posing. And they sent the cops in here, guns drawn. As the guy looks around, I say, "Let me get you a towel." The police were so embarrassed, we said, "You guys better go downstairs and have a glass of tequila." They said, "Man, we're going to take you up on that."
This is where people came to cry. A lot of people fell in love here. A lot got married and contributed to the stroller-mania that Adams Morgan has become. Adams Morgan has lost its funk. It's because of the moratorium on liquor licenses on 18th Street. No cool places would move up here...
The Rolling Stones came here once just to get away from it all. I couldn't talk about it for five years.
Why five years? Did they make you sign some contract?
Yeah, I couldn't advertise the fact that they were just coming here to have an after-show drink. I had to provide them a room, and I just shook hands with them, and then I had to honor the contract and leave them alone... George Clooney and Steve Soderbergh filmed part of their K Street series here. You know Enemy of the State, a lot of it was shot here. There's been all kinds of great bands that have gone on to tour, and a lot of artists passed through here. A lot of employees have gone out and started their own bars... It's sort of a sad thing to see this go, because this is really an element of what we might consider the last of the hippie days.
When did things start changing?
That was three years after you opened.
Well, I opened another place down the street called Rancho Deluxe, and it was really my best work and it just didn't catch on because they never understood the wit. But the wit of Chief Ike's, I already had, which had a good following... What can I tell you? It's a long, long hard trip. But you know, what happened is that the community lost interest in this place and the whole tenor of Adams Morgan changed. The City Paper moved.
At what point did you start thinking about closing?
Well, it wasn't even a question of deciding it. It was decided for us just financially. It was kind of a "either you change or change will be foisted upon you." We were foisted upon. We tried to sell it. We tried to keep it going. I brought in a Bar Concepts specialist, who it turned out helped us quite a bit, but it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough. It's also an indication that the people who used to live around here have all gotten older, and they don't go out anymore. And the kids that used to come in from out of town, like from Virginia or Maryland, they'll go down to 14th Street now because that's where all the action is.
At the same time, it does seem like there are a lot of new places in Adams Morgan.
Lots of restaurants. They're not dance clubs or performance spaces or music clubs. They're not wild like this place was. They're not funky. They're just status quo. I feel bad about Adams Morgan becoming so—as I've said—"strollerfied," because it's got to be safe for the children. Many of the children which I have spawned by introducing their parents. But what can you do? I don't hate kids. But this is becoming much more of a residential community, and people are looking much more for places for kids and they don't want all the hoards at night.
Does that funkiness even exist in D.C. anymore? Are there neighborhoods where you think that element is still alive?
I think they're trying to recreate it on H Street NE, but that comes and goes. It's lost on 14th Street, and it doesn't exist on U Street. The town's just not funky. There are some secret places that people tell me about, but they shall remain secret.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo by Jessica Sidman