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Friday, June 1, 2012

The sun sets on Annandale's dive bar

The Thrillbillys final set at the Sunset Grille
The regular crowd turned out in droves last night to rock out to the Thrillbillys one last time at the Sunset Grille. The popular nightspot shut down for good on May 31, as the owner, Shel Youtz, determined it’s no longer financially viable.

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.

As the site lies at the heart of Annandale, at the crossroads of Little River Turnpike and Columbia Pike, it’s a prime spot for development.

That building has long been a major gathering place for Annandale residents. It was Bill’s CafĂ© 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.”


  1. Wow sad to see this institution go but opens the door to real redevelopment!

  2. Denise S.. Wells11/17/14, 12:59 PM

    For my fellow musicians, and music lovers...

    Annandale VA: The sun sets on Annandale's dive bar

    OMGosh... So sad...

    Just recently I discovered a blog, of people talking about the old music/dance haunts from rt 29/Lee Hwy, in Fairfax/ Centreville/Chantilly, where the older generations of my family used to shag, twist, waltz, and my favorite, JITTERBUG their hearts out... Social Circle, Partners 2, and my old favorite, Hunter's Lodge, which was one of the first Virginia venues where I sang, as a child, with different bands, the music loving owner would host, and where my Mama would often guest host, on special occasion act as bar manager, and her real talent, as the club's bookkeeper, and resident jitterbug queen. ;)
    She rarely drank a lick, but loved the music, and the dance floor was hallowed ground for generations of my entire family. I doubt there was an inch of that old dance floor that hadn't been graced by my beloved family's feet...each and every one, including my own! jitterbuggin' with my Uncle Johnny, and cut tin' it up with my older gosh, wonderful old memories, and so incredibly cool to 'meet' others with shared memories, and those who remember members of my family, long gone now...

    So now, it's bittersweet to again today read that this little 'dive', known as The Sunset Grill, where I had my very first REAL 'Shirley Temple', when the Grill was still known as, The Annandale Bar & Grill, which was probably one of the first of those places I was taken as a child, probably not much more than...8, dressed in my Sunday best, my very beloved Uncle Woody, who was like a Father figure to me, would take me in, to 'show me off', order me a burger, fries, and my very grown up, Shirley Temple, and would be asked to sing out loud to the jukebox hits...I later years, the jukebox turned to karaoke, and then bands of the area... And even though I don't drink (by choice-people often wonder if I'm an alcoholic, and my answer is always, No, but too many of the people I've loved were, so I choose not to temp 'fate'!), I went to this little 'dive', to immerse myself in memories, (I would have sworn Uncle Woody was there that night. I ordered a Shirley Temple, from the same bartender, who never blinked an eye.) and listen to music, after losing Mama... I sang that night, like I had NEVER sung before, and I was compelled to go there to do it...KNOWING Mama could finally really hear me again, and perfectly...I wanted to do what she had always championed me to do, "Sing your heart out baby!" That night was the beginning of a whole new voice... Inspired by Mama...

    Sad to know this old place, among others are gone...but the memories will always remain.

    I felt moved to write this, because once again, I realize how many wonderful, LIVE MUSIC supporting places have had to close, for one reason or another, so if you LOVE music and LIVE MUSIC , as I do, remember, if you don't support these venues, they will disappear, and thus, our LIVE MUSIC, and so many wonderful, talented musicians will be without places to showcase their talents. Support venues, compliment the bands with owners and managers, and let the bands/artists know they are loved and supported. I don't know about you, but I can't stand the thought of a local world with no music venues!


    1. The Sunset Grille was the Annandale Inn at one point. The Annandale Bar and Grill was on the other side of the building.