The idea of a neighborhood bar “where everybody knows your name,” as the Cheers theme song goes, sounds almost fantastical nowadays, a nostalgic relic of a bygone era displaced by chain restaurants and urban development, especially in rapidly growing areas like Fairfax County.
At The Ice House Café and Bar in Herndon, however, that sense of community not only was real, but it still exists, which made news of the nearly 40-year-old establishment’s impending closure all the more devastating to its staff and customers.
“It’s very sad,” Anne Marie Shattuck, a frequent patron, said. “It’s an icon in Herndon.”
The Ice House Café’s first owner, Dan Chamblin, and his friends, Ron Ashwell and Eddie Grimes, founded the Elden Street staple in 1979, back when the Town of Herndon was much smaller and less removed from its rural, railroad-centered origins.
According to the Herndon Historical Society, the building that now contains The Ice House Café was originally constructed in the 1950s as a drug store, though it also hosted apartments, a doctor’s office, and even briefly a topless bar called The Pink Pussycat in the 1960s.
Chamblin, Ashwell, and Grimes envisioned The Ice House Café as a restaurant with the cozy, rustic vibe of a saloon. They planned to serve contemporary American food and host live jazz bands to entertain diners.
A bar was added about a year later, converted from an adjacent space that had been occupied by a hair salon, but otherwise, The Ice House Café has changed very little since it first opened 39 years ago, according to its longtime bartender, Dan Root.
Even a quick scan of The Ice House Café’s wood-paneled walls reveals both its fidelity to tradition and the amount of history that has accumulated here.
Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a framed photo of jazz musician E.Z. Smith, a regular presence on the café’s weekend live music lineup until he died from cancer years ago.
His donated saxophone sits in a shadowbox affixed to the restaurant wall, surrounded by a poster for The Ice House Café from 1987, a photo from the 1984 Virginia Gold Cup at Broadview, and a stuffed goose with its wings outstretched.
More taxidermy, including two antlered deer, a boar head, a turkey, and a fox carrying a bird in its mouth, can be found amid vintage photos, posters, and other memorabilia scattered around the bar.
A table across from the bar has been named the Reserved Gentleman’s Table in honor of U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jack Pink, a Vietnam War veteran and longtime Northern Virginia resident who is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
According to an article by The Washington Post from Feb. 16, 1983, The Ice House Café was a popular destination at that time for Washington Redskins players, six of whom lived year-round in Herndon with five others residing nearby in Reston.
Even now, the people who work at and visit The Ice House Café carry their own histories.
Root, for instance, started bartending at The Ice House Café in October 1986 shortly after finishing college and moving to Virginia from upstate New York. He never left.
Now, after 32 years, regular happy-hour patrons think of him as “our bartender,” and he knows some of them well enough to have their drinks prepared in advance of their arrival.
“It’s all about the people,” Root said. “It’s a quaint little restaurant that is very different than most restaurants in this area, but it’s the people that make it what it is…It’s just been that since the beginning, just kind, wonderful, chill, easygoing, cool people that make me want to stay here as long as I have.”
The affection that Herndon as a community has for The Ice House Café made the decision to close especially difficult for Alice Dai, whose family has owned the establishment since taking it over from Chamblin in 1991.
Dai’s family has deep ties to the restaurant industry.
Her father trained as a chef in French cuisine, and he opened two restaurants, La Bonne Auberge in Great Falls and Santa Fe East in Old Town Alexandria, prior to acquiring The Ice House Café.
Dai runs The Ice House Café’s day-to-day business, but her brother also works there as a chef, crafting seafood-heavy dishes like smoked salmon and sautéed jumbo shrimp.
According to Dai, her family was initially attracted to The Ice House Café because of its focus on American food and its championing of local jazz music.
“We liked that idea having music on the weekend, so we never stopped,” Dai said. “We always have live entertainment for our patrons. A lot of customers, they appreciate it.”
Unfortunately, economic and personal challenges threw doubt onto The Ice House Café’s future.
To start with, the end of the establishment’s current lease term is coming up, and the building’s landlord has doubled the rent, according to Dai.
On top of that, Dai has been dealing with some health issues, and with her mother now 88 years old, she says the time is right for her to retire.
“This is very sentimental,” Dai said. “We have a lot of passion for the restaurant, but the thing is the lease again is up, and unfortunately, the landlord wants to double the rent. So, my family have decided, we have decided just let it go.”
Dai says her family had some discussions with their landlord Alice Martin, who lives down in Panama City, Fla., but they made little headway regarding the rent, and her health was ultimately the more important factor in her decision to close.
At least one person has expressed interest in continuing The Ice House Café after Dai leaves, but so far, those hopes have not materialized into any solid plans.
Unless something changes, The Ice House Café and Bar will mark its last day with a New Year’s Eve celebration on Dec. 31.
“[There are] so many loyal patrons that I come across. I don’t even know how many names. It’s just so many,” Dai said. “I want to thank them for their loyalty and over-the-years patronage, so I do want to express my gratitude not just to any particular patron, but overall, [to] everybody.”
Many of those loyal patrons are still reeling from the news of The Ice House Café’s closure, which they say came as a complete surprise.
Shattuck, her husband Jim, and their friends, Colleen Hannas and Paula and Stephen Smith-Cobbs, are fixtures at the bar’s corner table on Friday nights, often calling ahead so that Root can keep their table in reserve.
The Ice House Café has played host to their birthdays, wedding rehearsal dinners, anniversary celebrations, and children’s graduation parties.
When Paula Smith-Cobbs’s mother died, the group came to The Ice House Café and toasted her mother with Old Fashioned cocktails that Root made.
Hannas and her family have been visiting for 30 years. She remembers seeing her four children perched on bar stools watching Root perform magic tricks while she and her husband drank coffees after dinner.
“They still refer to him as ‘their bartender,’” Hannas said. “Some people kind of look at us like we’re crazy when we say, well, yeah, my bartender. They don’t understand how long we’ve known him and what a special place he has in our lives.”
The group says they are disappointed that The Ice House Café will leave after it has spent so many years as an anchor for Elden Street, ushering in other local establishments like Jimmy’s Old Town Tavern across the road and the upscale Zeffirelli Ristorante Italiano a few blocks up Station Street.
Hannas recalls that the neighboring building used to be a closed-down gas station. Now, it is home to a nail salon and spa, a hair salon, and a pub called Sully’s Pour House that offers karaoke as well as game and trivia nights.
“It would be great if they could do something to keep this place going, if there’s something the town can do,” Shattuck said. “I don’t know…It’s not just going to affect this place. It’s going to be the whole town.”