The Washington Post
Quarry House: Old whiskey in new bottle
The restored tavern has upgraded its cleanliness and retained its character
Basements are where you put up pickles, hide your old junk or bury the bodies. They’re not for sipping a $200 pour of 25-year-old Macallan — not unless you’re toasting some secret plot to prop up a foreign dictator. But throughout its official 84-year history, the Quarry House Tavern has never been the kind of place that conforms to social norms, even if you could order a basic burger, all juicy and rare. In fact, before it went legit, the subterranean pub was probably a speakeasy during Prohibition, which would better explain its location in the bowels of this Silver Spring building, exactly 13 steps below street level. Evidence suggests that QH began life under a different identity, one designed as a giant middle finger to the Volstead Act.
When I first descended into this hard-drinking den in the early aughts, the Quarry House was still owned by Jim Brown. Downtown Silver Spring had just rediscovered its swagger, thanks to a new outdoor mall, a revitalized Silver Theatre and the city’s own DINK magnet, otherwise known as a Whole Foods. Back then, QH felt like the antidote to the suburban renewal: a dark, certifiable hole, a place where regulars/cranks assembled to drink and devour massive burgers formed from ground beef that Brown bought fresh from nearby Snider’s Super Foods. Patrons often took bites between drags on their Marlboros, which you could still light up in Montgomery Country at the time.
Yet unknown to many back then, the Quarry House was hanging by a thread, which is how Jackie Greenbaum and Patrick Higgins got involved in the tavern in late 2005. Higgins pushed for the purchase, Greenbaum recalls, even if QH was a dubious investment. The business partners already had their hands full with Jackie’s, a retro-chic eatery located farther south off Georgia Avenue.
“It probably would have been more than I could handle,” Greenbaum remembers thinking at the time.
Those early months as the new proprietors of Quarry House were not easy on Greenbaum and
Higgins. They were accused of gentrifying the joint and providing a safe space for suburbanites to quaff microbrews while dialing up Tom Waits on the jukebox, a sort of dive bar for the Lexus set. Little did these critics realize, though, that the worst (or best, depending on your point of view) was yet to come. Greenbaum and Higgins installed Gordon Banks, a former host and server at Jackie’s, as general manager at QH, and Banks transformed the place. He built extensive whiskey and beer lists, despite the county’s liquor control apparatus, which is daunting enough to make a drunk sober up.
If the Quarry House didn’t qualify as a dive bar anymore — at least under the limited terms devised by colleague Fritz Hahn and myself (namely: a sense of history; patrons who are regulars; it can’t be expensive; it can’t have craft cocktails) — it was something better. It was a grungy watering hole that actually cared whether you drank well, not only often. It was even possible to order up a decent burger, with a generous side of tater tots, so that you could get toasted and eat like a teenager simultaneously.
All this history is important as the Quarry House enters its latest phase. A fire in 2015 and broken water main nearly a year later put QH out of commission for three godawful years, although the owners set up a kind of M.A.S.H. unit version of the bar across the street in the former Piratz Tavern, a space unsuited for the job. Quarry House Temporary never felt like the real thing. It was a hermit forced to live in the light.
After the twin disasters hit QH, the bar was literally a shell of itself, stripped down to cinder- block walls and a concrete floor. Greenbaum and crew could have rebuilt the place any way they wanted, but they never doubted their course. They had hired a videographer and photographer to archive the old Quarry House and then insisted that their contractor re-create the old space, down to the same textured black countertop for the bar. It was a restoration project, as valuable (to me at least) as any period re-creation of a colonial village.
Stepping back into the Quarry House this April, I almost wanted to cry. The space was cleaner, yes, but it wasn’t antiseptic, as if Disney engineers had reconceived QH for tourists. The knotty pine paneling, the low ceilings, the vintage jukebox, the mirrored beer signs and the stuffed boar head (it was apparently used as legal tender to settle a bar tab in the 1970s): They’re all here, and if Greenbaum happens to be occupying a bar stool during your visit, she’ll happily spool out long, lovely tales about almost every element in the new QH.
I’ve shared tables with friends and colleagues several times since Quarry House emerged from the ashes, and the place feels like home all over again. I haven’t yet mustered the nerve to order the 25-year-old Macallan, but I’ve savored every last drop of the WhistlePig Old World Cask Finish rye, with its notes of port and maple syrup. The bottle is just one of dozens available on the whiskey list of 10-plus pages, now curated by general manager Ellen Cox. Her “beericulum vitae,” also known as a beer list, runs a mere eight pages, but it packs almost as many pleasures. Both lists are expected to grow fatter in the coming months.
I’ve encountered a few issues, too, mostly the kind of stuff you expect from an overtaxed kitchen catering to a crush of humanity: a patty melt that dripped grease; underseasoned onion rings; an overcooked Barstool Rodeo burger with bacon and barbecue sauce; and even a Bibim Burger missing its defining Korean ingredients. But I’ve also gnawed on wings, rubbed with Old Bay and lime, that didn’t need a lick of sauce. I’ve marveled at the architectural balance of the We Love JBJ burger, with its negotiated truce between the fresh jalapeños and the jalapeño jelly. And, of course, I’ve gulped down more tots than any cardiologist would recommend. I don’t regret a single one.
I’m told the jukebox will remain free until the machine is stocked with the CDs that pass Greenbaum’s inspection and the sound system is wired for peak performance. Most nights, I couldn’t even tell the jukebox was operational, but one night, my selection popped up. I asked the bartender if he would crank up the volume. The guy next to me started bobbing his head to Keith Richards’s fuzzy riffs from “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and for the briefest moment, he was my best friend in the world. That’s the power of the Quarry House.