Food  |  News & Politics

The Joe Englert I Knew

A lifelong friend remembers the onetime king of DC's bar scene.

Illustration by Josue Evilla.

Joe Englert, the extraordinarily prolific bar owner who opened more than 20 DC places over the years, died this morning at age 59. This afternoon, Twitter and Reddit lit up with memories of Englert. Here, longtime friend John Kazeva talks about Joe’s early days. In his own words:

“We met in tenth-grade English class in Western Pennsylvania, about 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. This would be 1977. Joe sat next to me in this class with a very dour English teacher. I didn’t know him at all. He’s got these albums like Elvis Costello, the Clash. I’m like, ‘What is this stuff? You don’t listen to Earth, Wind & Fire?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I do, but this is the better stuff.

“All through high school, he was always gregarious. That’s the way I always knew the external Joe. He always had the biggest laugh in the room. We graduated in ’79. He started at Penn State that fall, I started there a year later. One night,  I was at a party in State College, and I was driving back to the dorms with some friends. A chair goes out of the  second-story window of a house, and I was like, ‘Stop the car and let’s go check out this party.’ And of course it’s Joe Englert’s party.

“Then one time, I’m at the cafeteria at the dorms, and a guy in a big ape suit comes in with balloons, there to embarrass me. Joe was running a balloon-a-gram business. He was an entrepreneur even then. 

 “In 1987, I decided to move to DC and showed up at his doorstep. One day the next year, he says, ‘John, I need some money. The Dakota nightclub has just closed on Columbia Road. They’re selling their entire sound system and light system for $1,100. It’s worth ten times that. If you give me $1,100 right now, I’ll pay you back 50 percent interest.’ I wrote the check on his back. He used that to open Club Random. There was no decor, no ambience— just bottles of beer in a tub. That was his foray into the bar business.

“Joe worked at the Omni Georgetown—he bartended there. The Rolling Stones started their Steel Wheels tour in Washington, and they had about a week here to set up RFK. Joe became Keith Richards’s personal assistant. Keith says, ‘I only got two requirements: My bourbon never goes below half full in the glass, and I always have a fresh pack of Pall Malls with one pulled out just a liiiittle bit so I don’t gotta go digging for it.’

“As gregarious as he was, he was also very private. He had lost his hair, most of it, and he was not vain, but very shy about it and very embarrassed about it. You’d walk into his apartment and you’d see this big black [toupee] in the sink and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And he’s like, ‘I’m washing my hair!’

“Joe was not a drug user at all. He drank, but not crazy. He was always so up. We’d all be hammered from a kegger and he’d go back and write some more on his screenplay or novel. He’s always been in control that way. He never was a mess. Ever.” 

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.