Washington DC | September 25, 2020 1:55 pm

A Requiem for the Hilton Brothers, And the Perfect DC Bars They Built

Washingtonians remember seven great bars that will imminently close due to the coronavirus pandemic

hilton brothers players club
The Players Club is one of seven DC bars from the Hilton Brothers
The Players Club/Facebook

On Halloween, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll see something scary — a horror flick, a haunted house, sexy Mitch McConnell costumes. This year, though, October 31st will bring with it something far more funereal: the closure of seven beloved DC bars and restaurants, all owned by the enterprising Hilton brothers. 

The seven establishments, which include American Ice Company, El Rey, The Gibson, The Brixton, Echo Park, Marvin and Players Club, are places Washingtonians might have visited on Halloween night in years prior, or maybe on a first date, or to celebrate a promotion or anniversary. Stretching up 14th Street NW and down U Street NW, they’re places that helped solidify the area as the prime nightlife destination in the city over the last two decades.

The Hilton Brothers — Ian and Eric — unfortunately announced that the spots will all be closing on Halloween “for the foreseeable future” after six months of trying to keep them afloat amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

“When the crisis began, we knew this year would be a tremendous challenge,” they said in a statement, adding that “sometimes, taking a step back is the only way to move forward.”

Closures have been happening around the city as a result of the pandemic, and with each shuttered restaurant or bar comes an inevitable flood of memories for those who spend time there. 

The long line outside of El Rey’s colorful metal facade, for instance, has been a familiar sight for a multitude of bargoers in the city since 2013, when it became the first shipping-container restaurant to open in the city.

“It’s hard for me to pick just one defining memory of El Rey,” reminisces Victoria Park, associate director of communications at McCann and a former American University student. “It’s one of those unique institutions that has been a part of my life from my college days at AU through my time on Capitol Hill.”

“Probably one of the only places I enjoyed when I was 21 years old and still do now. I’ve celebrated birthdays, graduations, congressional recesses and more under the open roof of that back patio with the best margaritas in town in hand. And I mean it when I say those nachos saved my life more times than I can count. It’s hard to see your favorite places go, even from a distance here in New York, especially when that place seemed it’d always be a part of your life. So — pa’ribba, pa’bajo pa’centro, pa’dentro y un abrazo, El Rey. You will be missed.”

El Rey/Facebook

The Brixton is another spot known for its infamously long line, one that college students often saw as a rite of passage to get to the front of after they finally reached drinking age. But for all the debauchery that happened inside the British-themed watering hole, it’s also a place where friendships were forged dancing beneath antler chandeliers and coming up for a breath of fresh air on the rooftop. 

Each location holds a sort of life of its own, from American Ice Company’s role as the prime spot for pre-gaming a show down the street at the 930 Club to the Gibson’s claim as possibly the best (and most frequented) first-date venue in the city. 

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Marvin and the Gibson, with their dark, dreamy, den-like interiors. In its early days, Marvin was the backdrop for many double dates over mussels and Belgian brews, the place where I took out-of-towners to impress them. Dinner downstairs followed by more drinks and music upstairs — with bustling U Street waiting for us just outside the door — was pretty much my perfect D.C. evening,” says Rina Rapuano, a local freelance food writer.

“The Gibson was a game-changer for Washington’s cocktail culture back in the day. I can still remember the first time I walked through the unmarked door — the smell of singed orange peel, the flicker of candles, the gothic black walls and, of course, the killer cocktails. It never lost its edge, and I’ll miss it dearly.”

Most recently opened was Player’s Club, a retro 1970s themed bar known for arcade games and its basement location. The bar had even extended its offerings to include a rooftop venue called Skybox last April — just about a year before the city’s nightlife scene ground to a halt down because of COVID-19. 

“Ian and Eric have a true talent for creating spaces that feel reminiscent of something in your memories,” says Tim Ma, executive chef at Eaton DC and Prather’s on the Alley. “I think that showed more than anything at Player’s Club. It truly made you feel like you were in the basement of your dreams from That 70s Show. It was fun to just go there and play arcade games and have a drink. It will surely be missed.”

Besides the seven institutions set to shutter their doors at the end of next month, the Hiltons also operate The Brighton, Chez Billy Sud and Crimson Diner + Whiskey Bar at the Motto. They have not made any other announcements about potential closures. As cooler weather heads our way and government aid money given to struggling businesses begins to run out, the restaurant industry is expecting closures to ramp up during the upcoming fall and winter. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a press briefing last week that the city needs a “real federal stimulus and sustained federal stimulus” to help DC’s hard-hit businesses recover, and a new grant program called The Streatery Winter Ready grant program will offer hopefully some temporary support in the form of six thousand dollars given to restaurants and non-food retail businesses with an active sidewalk cafe permit, including temporary “streatery” permits, or a private outdoor space with a liquor license. 

Tip your bartenders. Well.