During the twilight hours of a hot, summer night last week, approximately 60 people gathered under a tent in an Old Town Alexandria alley. Those in attendance were there to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Grille, a restaurant and piano bar located in the Morrison House hotel on S. Alfred Street.
The anniversary celebration featured roasted pig and a seafood bar created by The Grille at Morrison House Chef, Dennis Marron, a tribute to pianist Pat Rohrer, who has been playing at The Grille for more than two decades, and musicians who have performed at The Grille for many years. Sitting at candlelit tables and surrounded by festive party lights, patrons enjoyed an eclectic mix of show tunes, old time favorites and pop songs like "Thanks for the Memory," "For Once in My Life," and "Delilah" — all songs which are heard at The Grille on a regular basis.
Bob Smith of Bowling Green, Va., is one of the musicians who comes to The Grille on a regular basis. He served as the official White House pianist for Presidents Nixon through Clinton, and was a sergeant major of the U.S. Army Chorale. Smith has been commuting 80 miles from his home to play at The Grille two nights a week for the past two years.
"I like it when nothing is planned. You never know who’s going to come and sing and it’s a challenge for me to make sure that I can give them the best accompaniment possible," said Smith.
Other performers who have distinguished themselves as crowd favorites include regulars Rachel Jackson, Tim Day, Michael Blaney, Jim Seeley and Bob Powers — all local residents.
"The point of piano bars is that there should be some sense of intimacy and you get that here," said Powers, a performer of the piano bar for nearly 20 years well known at The Grille for his rendition of "Delilah."
Jackson recalled the first time she visited Morrison House. "I was having dinner in the dining room and I heard the piano start to play this beautiful music in the other room … I heard people start to sing and I went into the piano room and never returned to the dinner table." She did not know anyone at The Grille the first time she attended, but was drawn to the sense of camaraderie among performers and patrons. "It’s like having a party with all your friends."
However, the most popular performer of the night was Pat Rohrer of Alexandria. Rohrer is a pianist with several decades of experience. She plays everything from Irving Berlin to Frank Sinatra, has no problems playing without sheet music and even transposes music to different keys for singers without hesitation.
Rohrer said she has always loved playing in shows and did so for many years at Bishop Ireton High School where she served as the school’s music director and show accompanist. Coincidentally, fellow performer Jim Seeley was heavily involved in the Bishop Ireton drama department and worked with Rohrer before they would again meet at The Grille.
During the anniversary celebration, Rohrer was presented with a framed picture of herself with messages from piano bar regulars written around the photo’s border in honor of her 22 years at The Grille. Following the presentation, the crowd honored Rohrer by singing, "For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow." When asked if she would like to make a speech, Rohrer humbly thanked those in attendance and politely declined.
"The Grille has been a community crossroads over the years. Performers have been singing with us 10 or even 20 years. They’re the ones who keep it alive year after year," said Robert Hannigan, general manager of the Morrison House.
Although The Grille may not be as well known as other venues in the area, it has found a spot in the hearts of many who spend an evening enjoying the piano bar. Several nights a week, locals and tourists alike gather in the cozy piano bar where they sit at the bar or in cushy red club chairs with wood paneling listening to performances by musicians, professional singers, and fellow patrons on open mic nights — somewhat of an upscale karaoke.
"I wanted to bring back some of the life of the sing-a-long piano bar, which I think is a rare item these days — hence why we’re doing this," said William Smith, The Grille’s general manager.
Hannigan recounted one of his favorite moments at The Grille. A bride and groom had just left their reception and were staying the night at Morrison House. Still dressed in gown and tuxedo, the couple was encouraged to check out The Grille. Jim Seeley of Alexandria, a regular performer at the piano bar, was singing that night. As soon as the bride and groom walked in, Seeley began singing "Some Enchanted Evening." The patrons of The Grille stood up and began singing along. The bride was so moved, she cried.
While this may not happen every night, it is certainly a testament to the performers and those who patronize the piano bar every week. Regulars, like Eileen Marousek, Susan Merritt Nelsen, and Nancy Gasparovic rave about the piano bar. "It’s an extension of my living room," said Marousek, a local real estate agent. Nelsen met her husband at the piano bar. Gasparovic, a resident of Southern Maryland, purchased a second house down the block from The Grille just so she could see Rohrer play on a regular basis.
Although The Grille attracts a slightly older crowd than some of the more popular spots in Alexandria, it’s not for lack of charm or energy. Perhaps Natalie Gilbert, a 20-something and one of the youngest in attendance, put it best when she said, "it’s where people go to get young."
As the evening came to a close, laughter and group singing could still be heard as the piano played one last song. Of course, it is clear that many of the performers, locals, and tourists alike would once again gather at The Grille to continue singing long into yet another night.
Proceeds benefited the Band of Parents, an organization comprised of families impacted by neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer. Band of Parents works with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a facility that treats more children with the disease than any other hospital in the world. Morrison House chose this charity in honor of its director of catering, Annee Gillett, whose niece is currently being treated for the disease.