|The Thrillbillys final set at the Sunset Grille|
Revenue has been declining for the past few years. Youtz, too busy in the kitchen on the last day to talk much, blames “changing demographics and the economy.” A friend of Youtz who’s been coming to the Sunset, and its predecessors, for 32 years, shed a little more light on the situation: When the prices of drinks and food had to rise to keep up with the bar’s costs, many patrons just couldn’t afford to come out so much.
Meanwhile, he said, the county’s smoking ban caused a lot of customers to move a couple of blocks away to the bar at the American Legion post, which allows smoking. You can smoke in the back bar at the Sunset, but it took a long time to get that approved.
Burke and Herbert, which owns the property and adjacent buildings on that block, has no immediate plans for redeveloping the site, says a bank officer. A former Sunset employee notes that bringing the Sunset to current building code standards would be costly, if someone wanted to reopen a bar there.
That building has long been a major gathering place for Annandale residents. It was Bill’s Café in the 1930s and went through several more iterations, including Tom Weston’s restaurant and the Annandale Bar and Grill, before it became the Sunset Grille about 22 or 23 years ago, says former manager Kay Hopson.
“There’s no other place around here like this,” says Annandale resident Micki, who’s been coming to the Sunset since 1991. “Blue collar types are mixed in with people in suits and ties. It’s a place for people of all ages, bikers, and professionals. Everyone is so friendly.”
As Big Fat Daddy began its final set at the Sunset May 30, she noted, “there’s nowhere else around here with live music on Tuesday and Wednesday night.”
“I love this place. It’s the only reason I come to Annandale,” says Bill, a resident of Bailey’s Crossroads. The Sunset helped him get through three marriages, two divorces, a separation, and the times in between. Like several other patrons, he planned to start hanging out at the Little Italy in the Bradlick Shopping Center.
The Sunset is the “the Alamo of Annandale,” Bill says. “It’s the last outpost, the last American dive bar in Annandale.”
It’s got a reputation as being a biker bar, and Bill recalls an incident about 10 years ago when the fire marshal shut the place down for a week following an altercation during a performance by Sunset legend, Bill Kirchen’s rockabilly band Too Much Fun.
Kirchen used to play every Tuesday night, and Wednesday night was reserved for the biker club known originally as the Grill Billies, and later changed to the Wednesday Night Crew. Other biker clubs used to hang out at the Sunset, too, including the Knights of Iron, Wheels of Soul, Flaming Knights, and at times, Hells Angels.
“People accept you here no matter who you are,” says long-time customer Maurice. When he came back to the Sunset after being away from Annandale for 11 years, “the bartender knew exactly what I drink,” he recalls.
When Diane moved to Virginia from Wisconsin in 1994, she didn’t know anybody. She missed the bars back home and found the Sunset in the phone book. It was the kind of bar where a single woman could come to enjoy the music without feeling weird.
“All the friends I have I met here,” she recalls. “It’s not like the bars in D.C. where people ask ‘what do you do?’ Here, it doesn’t matter. No one asks.”
Mike, who grew up in Annandale, started coming to the bar in the back room of Tom Weston’s in 1974 and lately, he’s been at the Sunset every day even though he doesn’t drink any more.
It’s more than just a bar, he says, citing the Sunset’s charity activities, like Toys for Tots, and social events like the golf tournaments with the staff of the long-defunct Ribster’s and softball games against Grevey’s. It’s the people that made this place special, Mike says, adding that he met his last girlfriend there.
And then there’s Dick Haven, age 90, of the Lake Barcroft area, a Sunset regular who was dancing up a storm on the last night. Haven has been coming to the Sunset and its previous incarnations for 50 or 60 years. “It’s a good place to take a drink and take a dance,” he says. “I’ve seen it close three or four times. It will rise from the ashes. It always has.”