The Black Rooster Pub came close to death once before. In 2009, Jody Taylor had been working for the family behind the downtown pub for 37 years when they offered to sell the business to him for just $1. In the following months, though, he was unable to work out an extension to the lease, and the landlord sent him a notice to vacate. Taylor was devastated. He auctioned off nearly everything in the bar. “I thought I was done,” he says.
Then a customer suggested he start a petition to try to keep the Black Rooster alive. Taylor was flabbergasted by the response: more than 20,000 people signed, and his story got picked up by all sorts of media. The landlord agreed to renew the lease (although not exactly with the terms Taylor wanted), and the bar owner was able to cancel the auction. The Black Rooster was saved.
At least for awhile. The Black Rooster will reach the end of its lease again in May, as the building’s main tenant, the Peace Corps, prepares to move out. This time, there will be no petition.
“It’s just time to go,” Taylor says, his voice getting quiet. “As much as I would love to still be there forever.”
The Black Rooster was opened in 1970 by Ulysses “Blackie” Auger, who died in 2004. Nicknamed for his jet-black hair during his service in World War II, Blackie was perhaps best known as the founder of longtime Washington institution Blackie’s House of Beef. But he also ran a bunch of spots with “Black” in the name, including the Black Ulysses and the Black Rose. The Black Rooster is the last one standing.
“At one time, he had probably 20-something places in DC,” Taylor says. The businesses ranged from nightclubs with house bands to a northern Italian restaurant, and most were in very close proximity downtown. “He used to say, ‘If I can stand on the roof of Blackie’s and not see it, I don’t want to have it.'”
Taylor, recognizable for his handlebar mustache, went to work for the Auger family in 1972 as a bouncer for the Black Greco, which was once across the street from the Black Rooster. It was his first job. He learned to bartend at the Rooster and worked his way up to manager and eventually director of operations for a number of different establishments. Today, Taylor’s son is the night bartender and manager at the Rooster, and like him, several employees have worked there for decades.
In a corridor that’s cycled through trendy grilled cheese spots and gimmicky fire-themed restaurants, the Black Rooster has been a mainstay. You’re more likely to enjoy Bud Light and chicken tenders than the latest local craft beer or cheffy bar snacks, but Taylor credits the pub’s longevity to the feeling you get when you walk in the door.
“I’ve spent a lot of time playing [rugby] in England, Wales, Ireland. And in these little small towns, the pubs are the center of community life,” he says. “Everybody knows you on a first-name basis, and I think that’s what we’ve tried to do well. People like coming to a place where they’re known. It’s the old Cheers thing.”
Taylor says his mission right now is to help find his staff new jobs, then he’ll send off the tavern with some Marine Corps bagpipers at the end of April or beginning of May. After that, the 70-year-old plans to catch up on his reading or “maybe go down to the islands.” Or maybe, you’ll see him around still pouring beers and whiskeys.
“Maybe I’ll find a bar to be somebody’s Norm or Cliff,” he says.