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The Brickskeller (officially The Brickskeller Dining House and Down Home Saloon) was a tavern in Washington, D.C., located near Dupont Circle across from Rock Creek Park and on the edge of Georgetown, in the Marifex Hotel (now the Brickskeller Inn) building. With over 1200 choices of bottled beer in the coolers, over a dozen keg beers and real ale in cask, the Brickskeller from its beginnings was the first restaurant ever to offer customers a beer list to introduce many thousands of beers to the city, the country and the continent.
Felix Coja, a young man from the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, along with his bride Marie joined the many Corsican natives who emigrated to the Americas after World War I. Coja, a Cordon Bleu trained Master French chef, found work in Washington, D.C. at the Blackstone Hotel on 17th Street NW. Following a successful career at the Blackstone the couple purchased their own hotel property several blocks away near 22nd and P Street NW when they acquired The Robert Peter Inn. With its dominant commercial location in the bustling embassy area near Rock Creek Park they changed the property name to The Marifex Hotel. The Brickskeller restaurant was established in 1957 as a rathskeller-type eatery, by Felix and Marie. Later their son Maurice, along with his wife June, wound up developing the property extensively in the 1960s until 1982 when their daughter Diane and her husband former Brickskeller bartender Dave Alexander took over the daily operations. The Brickskeller therefore can be called a matriarchal corporation. Marie was the first president and Diane the last. The Alexanders ran the Brickskeller from 1982 until selling the building and moving all Brickskeller tastings and events to their new restaurant, RFD Washington at 810 7th Street NW. The original Brickskeller's official last night of operation was December 18, 2010.
Diane's grandfather Felix established a Washington import company, disassociating himself from the restaurant to start Wide World Imports. He was the first and original importer of such European beers like Cantillion, DeDolle, Schlenkerla Rauchbier and Scheidmantle – introducing the North American continent to these. He later invented one of the first computer-driven automatic bar machines which accurately measured and poured alcoholic beverages automatically for bars throughout the United States.
The Brickskeller was one of the city's most popular night spots in the 1960s and 70s after son Maurice and June Coja took over the restaurant-hotel operation while his dad pursued other interests. Residing in the hotel, Maurice and June took over all day-to-day operations and employed their genius marketing skills to develop the property quickly pushing the basement hideaway into local prominence. The young couple took advantage of the 50 year old brick sand-blasted interiors of the former cellar of the hotel to create a darkened atmosphere of few lights and many red-checkered tablecloths seating in the many dimly lit nooks and crannies of the multi-roomed cellar. The atmosphere and ambiance were perfect for couples and student groups from the many Washington area colleges and schools to get acquainted over a cold 3.2 percent alcohol beer (the only legal alcohol available to the 18-21 age crowd in the District of Columbia at the time). In addition to the university crowd from nearby George Washington, Georgetown, American University, Gallaudet, Howard, the University of Maryland and many other colleges, a younger group from neighboring Virginia and Maryland high schools often lined up nightly circling a large portion of the city block waiting for tables to open so they might get romantic seating at the very popular Bricks. The basement restaurant became so popular in its heyday that The Coja family added a large upstairs addition directly above to the basement restaurant which operated as a live music venue during those early years hosting many young folk acts who highlighted D.C.'s live music scene of the sixties and seventies. While The Cellar Door in nearby Georgetown was hosting top social activist performers like Peter, Paul & Mary, The Mama's & Papa's and Judy Collins - the Brickskeller Upstairs brought in lesser known new folk acts like Jose Feliciano, Tom Rush, Bill Monroe & his Bluegrass Boys and The Country Gentlemen to name a few. Business boomed in those days as Maurice and June had obviously discovered and created a formula that fit the bill for success and future growth. As pointed out in a current Facebook site: "I used To Hang At The Bricks", the history of this original down home saloon remains a storied legend attested by decades of young people who frequented DC and Georgetown bars when they were students, government workers and beer connoisseurs from 1957 until 2010 when it closed.
The beer menu was always a prominent calling card for patrons but it wasn't until the late 1960s when one of the Coja's sharp management crew, Joe Corey, a talented musician and the in-house booking agent for upstairs music acts, started making runs in a rented refrigerated truck to Golden, Colorado, to buy truckloads of a little known beer (on the east coast) called Coors. Beer lovers from around The Beltway flocked to the Brickskeller to enjoy the newly discovered brew that advertised and prided itself in never shipping any of their cold filtered products east of Colorado. The beer staple continued to grow for the Brickskeller and the extremely large beer menu started growing to an enormous import list that rivaled any in the United States. Combining food items like their famous "Brickburger" and pizzas with cheap $2 monogrammed Brickskeller pitchers of beer kept the place packed with budget conscious students and other saloon lovers. When Maurice became less active in the business in the late 1970s his daughter Diane Alexander and her husband Dave took over the business and continued the success patterns of her parents. During the Alexander's years at the helm they received a Guinness World Record for the largest selection of beers commercially available, Dave was the first bar owner and fifth American to be knighted into the Confederation of Belgian Brewers in their over 600-year history. He received the Best Beer Bar in the. Country award from the Adams Beverage Media group and the first landmark lifetime achievement award they ever presented from the Washintonian magazine. In addition the Washington Post and other city papers declared The Brickskeller the best "beer bar" and best beer selections in the District of Columbia.
The Brickskeller had selections from around the world, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, as well as a large selection of domestic brews. The menu included several hundreds of Belgian beers, Dozens of varieties of wheat beers including Paulaner and witbiers such as Hoegaarden, as well as other European brews including Baltica 6, the definitive Baltic porter, Herold microbrew from the Czech Republic. The beer list also included ordinary varieties such as Bud Light, Miller, and regional favorites like Old Style, Point, Rainier, Henry Weinhardt, Leinenkugel, Yeungling, Rolling Rock and in their time Knickerbocker, Rhinelander, Stony and many others. In 1957 the Brickskeller opened with over 50 beers, at that time the worlds largest selection of beers. In her many firsts, along with first presenting a "beer tasting" the Brickskeller was the FIRST restaurant to offer a beer LIST.
The Brickskeller also first presented real ale in cask. The Brickskeller also had more than 50 aged beers, and four varieties of mead ("honey wine"). Another first was a beer cocktail menu featuring numerous beer cocktails including "Maui Mouthwash", which contains Malibu Caribbean White Rum with Coconut, fruit juice, blue curacao, vodka and golden lager, and Smack & Tan.
During the 1970s, beer-can collecting gained in popularity, and The Brickskeller took advantage of that craze. They served beer in cans, which were opened from the bottom, so the collectors could take home cleaned cans that looked "unopened" when set upright. Some collectors were underaged, so they would come into the bar with their apparently well-to-do fathers, and have hundreds of dollars worth of beer, opened from the bottom of the can, and then dumped, as the underaged beer can collector only wanted the cans!
The Brickskeller served standard American pub food, including spicy chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, potato skins, chicken tenders, and burgers. In the 1980s, the Brickskeller introduced buffalo meat burgers (buffalo burgers) and buffalo pizza, both dishes that quickly developed a following among the bar's patrons. Other menu items included spinach and artichoke dip, pierogies, spiced shrimp, salad, and sandwiches. The kitchen at the Brickskeller was small but remarkably efficient. the staff calls it a submarine kitchen, putting out an average of over 650 dinners a night. The Brickskeller was open for lunch on weekdays, and opened at 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
The Brickskeller has a rustic saloon motif. On the lower level, old barrels were made into bar stools. The worlds largest selection of antique beer cans along with so much beer memorabilia adorned the turn of the century hand fired brick walls people called it a "Brewseum" The Brickskeller seated 450 on both floors. Upstairs was where they held beer tastings and other special occasions. The Brickskeller added televisions upstairs in 2003, so it could show March Madness and other sports events.
The Brickskeller was popular among the 25-34 age crows being so close to the Georgetown, George Washington and American Universities but in fact had a demographic most bars would kill for. Politicians, Capitol Hill aides, diplomats, tourists, celebrities like Quentin Tarentino, Jerry Seinfeld, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Brooke Shields and beer aficionados regularly frequented the Brickskeller. It was quite common to walk they the dining room and hear half a dozen languages being spoken. Dads would bring sons in to show them where they drank while in college and look to see if their name was still scraped into the ship room wall, which it was. Notorious spy, Aldrich Ames, met with his Soviet counterparts in a dark corner of the dining room
The Brickskeller hosted monthly beer tastings and sponsors other events. The Brickskeller sponsored a number of educational events at the National Geographic Society, as well as Smithsonian seminars held at the Brickskeller that drew top experts, and speakers including Bert Grant, Russ Scherer, Fritz Maytag, Ken Grossman, Tomme Arthur, Vinnie CilurO, Aram Avery, Larry Bell, Kim Jordan, Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery and Dick Yuengling of D. G. Yuengling & Son.
Dave and Diane Alexander opened a sister location called R.F.D. (Regional Food & Drink) in 2003 in Chinatown, near the Gallery Place Metro station, at the former Coco Loco site. R.F.D. occupies a larger space than the Brickskeller did, allowing the owners to do things they couldn't do at the original location, such as provide a very large selection of draft beer. At R.F.D., there are approximately 40 taps, which was more than any other place in all of Washington until the Birch & Barley and ChurchKey opened in October 2009. R.F.D. has taps in both the front and back rooms; In the back room, the trunk line from the cooler to the tap is very short, with the keg box located right behind the bar. The tap system uses a 75/25 gas blend. RFD would close in 2017.
The building was first occupied in 1912. Felix opened his Brickskeller replacing the former occupant, the Robert Peter Inn, in 1957. The hotel remains open, as a small European-style inn that offers single and double rooms.
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