Neon light poured from the sign for 26 years. But the neon “Eat” over Whitey’s Restaurant is dark for good now, after financial trouble forced owner Calvin Seville to close the doors.
Seville remembers seeing the sign for the first time. When he bought Whitey’s in 1977, one of the first orders of business was to look over the inventory. The sign was listed next to a description, “Does not work, will not work.”
But Seville took it apart and salvaged it. He protected it when county sign ordinances changed. He did his best to protect Whitey’s, at 2761 Washington Blvd., over the years, as business slowed and he found himself in financial trouble. But after operating in Chapter 11 for several years, the property was finally foreclosed on Monday, April 7.
“It’s almost like the death of a loved one,” said Wil Gravatt, who led the house band each Thursday at Whitey’s for the last 4 1/2 years. “It doesn’t hit you until well after the funeral is over.”
Whitey’s was “our beloved Arlington dive,” Gravatt said. It was never an elegant bar, but the atmosphere was unmistakable.
“We showed up and played every Thursday, and that was all that mattered.”
Seville said that atmosphere made Whitey’s a special place for customers over the years.
“There were no airs put on,” he said. “It was just a down-to-earth place. It’s not the glass and brass places that people have nowadays. It’s got the knotty pine walls, the booths. It’s got the high ceiling so you don’t feel cramped in there. I know they felt comfortable in it. They don’t have to put on airs, you know. Whoever is in there is in there.”
WHITEY’S WAS BACKDROP for many memories during its long life in Arlington. Seville bought the restaurant from Alexander Joy, who gave it the Whitey’s name in the mid-1950s. It operated for a decade earlier under the names “Tommy’s” and “The Nebraskan.”
Through name changes, it remained a landmark in the Lyon Park neighborhood. Erik Gutshall, president of the Lyon Park Civic Association, said some of the oldest residents of the neighborhood tell stories of meeting their husbands for the first time at Whitey’s in the old days.
That tradition didn’t end in the 1950s – Gravatt met his fiancée at Whitey’s and is planning a July wedding.
People got to know each other at Whitey’s because it was a true neighborhood bar, Seville said. “People would come in the same night every week. They wouldn’t come in every night, but if they came in on a Tuesday, they’d be back next Tuesday,” he said. “If they came in on Wednesday, they’d be back the next Wednesday.”
CLIENTELE VARIED OVER the years. Seville recalled Whitey’s one-time reputation as a hangout for the Pagans, one of the most notorious biker gangs in the country.
By the time he bought it, Whitey’s had shaken the outlaw image, but until the end it retained the affection of motorcycle enthusiasts. Rows of Harley-Davidsons lined Washington Boulevard in front of Whitey’s each Memorial Day, as bikers came for the annual Rolling Thunder rally in the District.
It was no rough-and-tumble roadhouse, though. Some of Seville’s fondest memories are of children who ate at Whitey’s with their parents over the years. “We had one couple that met in Whitey’s, they got married, they had a son, their son has had every birthday party there since he was about 6 years old,” said Seville. “He’s 21 now, he had his first beer at Whitey’s.”
THOSE CONNECTIONS make it hard for some to say goodbye. Steve Seville, Calvin’s brother, spent 17 years helping his brother manage Whitey’s.
“I think in the end, when you stack everything up, it was a place with great character, and there were a lot of great characters, and I think I’ll just be another one of those characters that will be another part of Whitey’s history,” he said.
Calvin Seville thinks he will fill a small role in the Whitey’s history too. “It’s a shame that I had to close, but honestly Whitey’s was not mine,” he said. “Whitey’s belonged to the people. I was just a keybearer. The customers were what Whitey’s was all about.”
Customers proved fickle in recent years. Calvin Seville said the turning point came after business peaked in the early 1990s. He bought the store next door and expanded, moving live entertainment to the new wing.
But that meant he had to apply for a new site plan permit from the County Board. After a 9-month review process, which cost Seville over $84,000, Board members granted the permit, but with reduced hours.
Instead of letting bands play from 8 p.m.-1:30 a.m., the Board restricted live entertainment at Whitey’s from 9- midnight. “People that go out for entertainment don’t go out till 9 or 10 o’clock anyway,” said Seville.
Eventually the Board awarded the lost hours, but the damage had been done, Seville said, and many customers had begun frequenting other Clarendon bars.
County Board member Chris Zimmerman was not on the Board during that time, but he said it was simply a competitive market, not Board decisions, that doomed Whitey’s.
“They lost their night business basically with the growth of Clarendon,” said Zimmerman. “They were really hanging on by a thread for a number of years now.”
PLANS FOR THE Whitey’s location have not yet been submitted to the county. “I have not heard anything specifically,” said Karen Vasquez, a spokesperson for Arlington Economic Development.
Despite the competition that forced Seville out, Zimmerman said Whitey’s location provides a good opportunity for a small business to develop. “You wonder how a coffee shop might do,” he said.
But the idea of a coffee shop on the site of one of Arlington’s most famous and longest-running bars doesn’t sit well with some. “I guess there’s always the hope that somebody will buy it and try to revive it instead of just closing down Whitey’s altogether,” said Gutshall.
Steve Seville, doesn’t want to think about the future. “It’s tough enough thinking it’s not going to be there,” he said. “I guess we could have tried to seek out some kind of publicity about it, but for me, I just want to let it go.”
Calvin Seville isn’t sure yet what the future holds for him. He invested considerably to try saving Whitey’s. When some nearby residents complained about noise from the bar, he bought the three nearest houses “to create a buffer zone,” but in the end it didn’t work out.
“I don’t have Whitey’s any more, I don’t have the houses any more, I don’t have anything,” he said. The 58-year-old is struggling with health problems. “I had a slight stroke not long ago, and discovered I’ve got Parkinson’s [disease],” he said. “So I’ve got to wait to see what I can do, and get straightened out on the medicine.”
But he isn’t giving up. “I’m a survivor,” he said. “If I have to go down there and become a street person in front of Whitey’s, I’m sure I can make some money there.”