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Posted at 3:25 PM ET, 12/23/2008

When the Watering Hole Gets a Wii

By Julia Beizer

Brothers buy a beloved bar, give it a facelift, enjoy the rewards. The storyline is almost a cliche, like that "Family Guy" episode where all the renovation takes place during a speedy construction montage set to '80s music. But that's basically what has happened over the last year with Zac and Matt Culbertson, a pair of brothers who made over North Arlington's Cowboy Cafe.


The Cowboy Cafe's Western decor makes it a favorite with children. (Julia Beizer/washingtonpost.com)

"It was floundering a little bit, I felt, due to mismanagement," Zac said of the bar, where he had worked for six years when the opportunity to purchase the place arose. The brothers bought the divey hole-in-the-wall in November 2007, and in March updated the look with new furniture and added a cigarette-smoke ventilation system. Down went the terracotta Elvis Presley head; up went new coats of paint, flat-screen TVs and a Wii. The menu has been transformed as well. Now jerk wings are available in addition to hot wings, and house-made pickles accompany the bar's popular burgers.

"It's like 'Cheers' but not as cheesy," said Mike Pugh, a regular who struck up a conversation with this camera-wielding reporter last night. The Cow, as Pugh assures me "everyone calls it," is just like that: people talk to strangers, families with little kids gather for dinner and barflies tease owner/bartender Matt about being a Giants fan. Last night, a few patrons agreed, the Cow is like a home away from home.

Change isn't always easy, Zac acknowledges. "For some of the old customers, it took them some time to get to used to. It was kind of a like an old sock," beloved but worn-out, he said. Last night when I ordered tempura-battered shrimp with wasabi sauce, Pugh scoffed. That sort of thing would never have been on the old menu. But even old-school patrons say that the food's gotten better in the hands of Chef Chris Kenworthy. The chef has added a Southern angle to the menu -- shrimp and grits, stuffed calamari -- and expanded the dessert repertoire to include kid-friendly options like Butterfinger bread pudding.


The pickled cowboy. (Julia Beizer/washingtonpost.com)

The bar has some new additions as well. The pickled cowboy cocktail is a taste of something different: a dirty martini made with Hendrick's gin and juice from the house-made pickles instead of olive juice. The bar offers Starr Hill lager and pale ale on tap, but rail drinks and bottle beers have been popular with patrons on my visits.

Live bands crunch into the tiny space on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Want to give the Arlington dive a shot? Check it out during happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. on weekdays. There are specials every night, including half-price burgers on Tuesdays, and 50-cent wings on Wednesdays. On weekends, brunch comes with half-priced mimosas, bloody marys and screwdrivers.

-- Julia


(Julia Beizer/washingtonpost.com)

By Julia Beizer  | December 23, 2008; 3:25 PM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs, Restaurants  
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Comments

Actually the last time I visited there (in July) I thought the quality and service had gone noticably downhill.

Posted by: Efffyew2 | December 23, 2008 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Noticeably downhill from where?

I mourn the loss of the "townie bar." RIP Frank's, Jay's, the Forest, Luna Park, Whitey's ... and this is supposed to be the holiday season.

Posted by: info_stuporhighway | December 23, 2008 10:17 PM | Report abuse

This Place has seen such an improvement since the new owners took over. It's better than ever, especially since some they replaced the old staff, dramatically improved the food, and eliminated the smoke.

Posted by: usosad | December 24, 2008 9:30 AM | Report abuse

I have never called it "the cow." I have called it and heard it called "the boy."
Zac brought in better beer while keeping PBR and the food is good. I don't go there to eat, but I eat when I'm there.
Staff changes, I say you win some you lose some.

I agree with "downhill from where." It's a divey bar, it's supposed to be downhill.

Just wish I had won something in the old decor raffle.

Posted by: johnj78 | December 24, 2008 10:31 AM | Report abuse

@ efff
Any particular reason why? Maybe you just turned into a whiny nit-picky customer sometime around mid-June?

@ info
What are you talking about? First of all, Jay's and the Forest are still in business. There's also a little place on Rt. 50 called JV's, ever heard of it? It's been around for over 50 years and even has it's own wikipedia page. Second of all, the reason Luna and Whitey's went out of business is because the people that ran them didn't care to or couldn't afford to keep them running. Either way, the fact that the Cowboy is still open and is now packed most nights is a testament to the hard work by the Culbertsons and their staff.

Congrats Matt and Zack, you are doing a wonderful job. Keep hiring cute waitresses and tell Chris the cook get back on the grill!

Posted by: DCnative9 | December 24, 2008 10:32 AM | Report abuse

DCnative9: I do not mean to bash the Cowboy Cafe, I have spent many a sticky-booted evening at JVs, and I'm glad I'm wrong about Jay's and the Forest (since I moved out of Arlington.)

Maybe it's because MoCo - and gentrification in general - tends to sanitize the old character of neighborhoods, but I think there's a place for bars where the 'keep looks at you funny if you let your Bud sit on the counter too long and gruffly inquires, "what ... you want a glass with that?"

Posted by: info_stuporhighway | December 27, 2008 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Info - We won't hold it against you for moving out of the Commonwealth, lol! And trust me, Clarendon has plenty of sanitized corporate establishments, though I hear MoCo is much worse. Let's raise a glass to local business!

Posted by: DCnative9 | December 29, 2008 3:08 PM | Report abuse

The Cowboy Cafe has improved tenfold since Zac took it over. The food, service and entertainment are first rate. Please support local business.

Posted by: HJ46 | December 30, 2008 10:00 AM | Report abuse

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