From four years ago when the New Deal Café in Greenbelt, MD considered closing its doors—to Monday when it beat out local music venue hall-of-famers in WTOP's Best of Washington competition—the comeback café has been on quite a climb.
The café won with 444 user and listener likes via Facebook. No other competitor touched those numbers.
But the real story of the place locals call their "community living room" is not about winning against Wolf Trap or The Birchmere and the other seven heavy-hitters, it's about a place that is more like family, café Board of Directors President Michael Hartman said.
"It's just so amazing," said New Deal Music Coordinator Amethyst Dwyer of the win. The café has journeyed far since 2008, when the primarily volunteer-run cooperative had taken on loans just to stay afloat, according to Dwyer.
"We were running a restaurant on hot plates, toaster ovens and microwaves," she said.
At that critical juncture, Chef Karim Kmaiha showed up and volunteers joined him in putting an end to the café's makeshift operation by installing a working kitchen.
And the New Deal kept right on going, adding a bar. Booking started picking up momentum as well, according to Hartman, praising Dwyer and her predecessors.
"We are constantly inundated with musicians and bands wanting to play the café—everyday," Dwyer said.
All that in a venue with around a 65-seat capacity that pays talent with tips.
But the tips aren't shabby, according to Dwyer—still, musicians tell her it's the café's "vibe" that draws them.
New Deal favorites include Grammy-nominated Ronn McFarlane, as well as Djesben with its world-beat groove jazz. Grateful Dead-greats, like Tom Constanten and John Kadlecik have also stood under its spotlights.
Kadlecik is such a New Deal regular that when he played at the Beacon Theatre in New York City in April, Dwyer said she noticed among its gold-plated statues and finery, there he stood—donning a New Deal Café T-Shirt while performing along with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh.
Though it hasn't stopped Kadlecik, other musicians won't play for tips, and they turn the New Deal down, Hartman said.
The way he sees it, though, anybody in the community should be able to come into the café and listen to good music—have a cup of coffee and talk with friends.
"People don't just come to the café to hear music, it's good music," Hartman said before running through names that sounded like his family geneaology—it's also Karim's cooking they come for, it's the way General Manager Terri Rutledge runs things, it's the music Amethyst books, it's the quality of Frank Kayser as sound engineer, it's Art Coordinator Julia Wade—and names continued rolling off his tongue in Genesis-like fashion.
Whether the credit goes to the music, the food, the Friends of the New Deal Cafe (FONDCA) or the green beer on tap on St. Paddy's—one thing is for certain, according to Dwyer, in this day when so many people feel disenfranchised, they need a space like the New Deal Café.
Feel free to shine the spotlight on some of your favorite café folk in the comments below.