Over the past two decades, Dave Perruzza carved out a niche for himself in the LGBTQ community as the public face of one of the city’s longest-running nightlife spots, JR.’s Bar and Grill. Still, as much as he loved being the general manager of JR.’s, he regretted not being able to have the final say over how the bar was run.
“The first 15 years at JR.’s were amazing,” says the youthful 43-year-old. “Over the last five years, the landscape has changed a lot. I held on, thinking maybe [owner Eric Little] will sell me the bar.”
The offer never came. One night, a mutual acquaintance told Perruzza that his father had a bar in Adams Morgan and was seeking a manager. Perruzza checked it out and immediately fell in love. “The first time I saw this place, I thought, ‘This is amazing,” he recalls. “This is a gorgeous space. It needs a lot of love, and it smells really bad, but it’s got a lot of potential.'”
Perruzza agreed to take it on but only as an owner. And so, the buildings that once housed Adams Morgan mainstays Spaghetti Garden, Brass Monkey, Roxanne Restaurant, and Peyote Karaoke Cafe, begat Pitchers, an LGBTQ sports bar, which opened in June, and A League of Her Own, a lesbian and queer sports bar that caters primarily to female-bodied individuals, which opened earlier in August.
Two months in, Pitchers is home run, with the bases loaded. On weeknights, there’s a steady hum of business from early evening until closing. And on weekends, you can barely push your way through the crowds. Downstairs, patrons enjoy food from a simple yet excellent menu that includes a kick-ass burger, garden-fresh salads, pizza, and all manner of finger foods.
On the upper floor, you’d be hard pressed not to be amused by the bannisters fashioned from unfinished Louisville sluggers. There are two patios, a gaming room, a multitude of TV screens, some showing sporting events, others designated for video games — a particular love of Perruzza’s. Last week, Pitchers opened its final element, a sizable dance floor complete with a corner DJ booth. Downstairs resides A League of Her Own, a cozy and notably beautiful space that boasts its own entryway from the street.
Perruzza is visibly proud of A League of Her Own, his effort to create a much-needed space for queer women, who have lacked a permanent nightlife space since the closing of Phase One a few years ago and Hung Jury before that.
“I think it’s disgusting that we’re the nation’s capital and there’s no bar for lesbians,” he says. “When I told people [about A League of her Own], they were like, ‘What, are you nuts? That could be such a cute little gay bar. You should make it like a dungeon-ish bar.’ I said, ‘No, I want to make a bar for queer women.’ They said, ‘It’s never going to work.’ I was like, ‘I know it’s going to work. I’ve been at JR.’s, I’ve seen that women have no place to go.'”
Jo McDaniel, ALOHO’s manager, says Perruzza has welcomed feedback from the community and has provided her autonomy so that the space can grow and flourish.
“It’s pretty great working with Dave,” McDaniel says. “I felt that from the start, my voice was important. I just dig that he likes my face to be around Pitchers as well. He likes people to know about downstairs, how welcome women are throughout this space.”
“Dave goes a mile a minute, he never rests,” says Perruzza’s husband, Richard Paules, who temporarily put aside his own landscaping business to help renovate Pitcher’s. “He is the hardest working person I have ever known. When he gets something in his head that he wants to accomplish, he does it. Everyone loves him. I love him. And I really admire him, greatly.”
Raised in a typically rambunctious Italian family in Westchester, New York, Perruzza is unapologetically blunt, which has left him with some enemies, who frequently malign him on social media. Yet, anyone who genuinely knows Perruzza, comes to quickly realize that he is a people pleaser with a proverbial heart of gold. Funny, outspoken, and a deeply warm person, with an entrenched caring of his friends, patrons, and community, he’s one of what was called, in an era gone by, “the good guys.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start by talking about your childhood.
DAVE PERRUZZA: I grew up in Mahopac, New York, a little town outside of New York City in Westchester County. I grew up a young, confused gay boy with nobody in town that was gay or like me. My mom’s Sicilian, my dad was from Rome. So I’m half Sicilian, technically. I say I get my bitchiness from the Sicilian part and my easygoingness from the Roman part.
We were middle class. My dad worked two jobs. He was a musician and wedding singer on weekends, and did construction during the week. My mom was a hairdresser. I have two wonderful sisters — can you put wonderful in capitals? [Laughs.] I’m the youngest. We had a crazy Italian upbringing — pasta five days a week and stuff like that. Just a good, loud Italian family.
MW: When did you come out to your parents?
PERRUZZA: My sister came out to them for me. I’m on the phone with my mother and she said, “Your sister came over and she talked to us.” I’m like, “Oh yeah? What did she say?” She’s like, “Well, you tell me.” And I said, “Well, I’m not gonna incriminate myself. What did she say?” She said, “She told us you’re gay. Is that true?” And I said, “Well, yeah.”
MW: What prevented you from telling your parents?
PERRUZZA: Distance. I was in Hawaii and they were in New York and it’s never an easy thing to do. I mean, I was going to do it because I just needed to. I was sick of the lying.
MW: Why do you think your sister outed you?
PERRUZZA: Because she knew I was sick of hiding it. I’ve talked to her about it, and she told me, “I knew you were gay because my friend saw you on the dance floor when we were all dancing. You started snapping your fingers like that.” I said, “Not all gay people snap their fingers.”
MW: You mention the Navy.
PERRUZZA: I was never book smart, and I couldn’t focus on anything, so I thought, “If I go to college, I’m going to be miserable. Let me join the Navy.” My boot camp was in Great Lakes, which they called “Great Mistakes.” Then I went to my A School in San Diego, and from there I was stationed in Pearl Harbor for four years.
MW: You were in the military at the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” first came into effect.
PERRUZZA: Right. When I joined, the recruiter took a black marker and crossed out “Are you a homosexual?” He said, “Can’t ask you that question anymore.” And I thought, “Well, thank God.”
MW: Would you have told the truth if they’d asked?
PERRUZZA: No. I wouldn’t have got the job otherwise, and for me I’d always planned on going in the Navy.
MW: What was it like living under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?
PERRUZZA: For me it was fine. The gay people that I knew had their pink triangles on their cars, the rainbow stickers, because this was Hawaii, so no one cared. Now, there were some witch hunts in Hawaii that were going on that had been publicized. But I’ve always kept my professional life professional, and I wouldn’t talk about my social life. I wouldn’t let people know I was gay. I would show up to work, I did what I had to do, and I went home. My personal life was my personal life in the Navy. When I went home, I was me.
MW: How did you end up at JR.’s?
PERRUZZA: I did four years in the Navy, and my best friend, Dave DeSeve, moved to D.C. I came to visit, and I fell in love with D.C. Actually, I fell in love with JR.’s when I first came here. I wasn’t 21, but I went in there and was having cocktails all the time. They’re very strict about carding under 21 now, but those were the Marion Barry days. No one gave a shit. You could go anywhere back then and drink in any bar under 21. No one cared. Anyway, Dave knew Eric Little and Eric needed a coat check guy. I started coat check at JR.’s on December 2, 1997.
MW: How did it evolve from there?
PERRUZZA: When I first started working at JR.’s was when Eric had first bought it. So I started helping, because he extended the upper part out and then we added a back bar, so I was really handy. I’m like my dad. If I see something I can build it if I need to. I don’t need instructions. So I helped do all our renovations at JR.’s and Eric saw that and was appreciative. He made me a barback right away because another position opened up. From there, I became a bartender, then a manager, then the general manager.
MW: What is your fondest memory of JR.’s?
PERRUZZA: The memories with the staff and customers. I think JR.’s has probably the most generous customers. Whenever we did something like a benefit or sold Jell-O shots, the customers were always generous — I think that’s a testament to the people who go there. The High Heel Races over the years were always memorable. I’d sit back at the end of the night and look out at 50,000 people along 17th Street and think, “I did this.”
MW: This will be your last year running the High Heel Race. Do you feel it’s going to be awkward working with JR.’s on that?
PERRUZZA: I really didn’t work with JR.’s on it last time. Just because I ran JR.’s doesn’t mean JR.’s did anything for it. It’s a community event at this point. Yeah, JR.’s will always be a sponsor because they should be, but it’s a community event and that’s why I agreed to do it one more time.
MW: One of the other iconic things at JR.’s that you’re credited with growing is the Easter bonnet contest. Are you going to try to do that at Pitchers?
PERRUZZA: No, I’m not going to do anything that competes with JR.’s. When I used to run JR.’s, it used to piss me off when I would do trivia night and then another bar did trivia night on the same night. Every time we did something, somebody would do the same thing on the same night.
MW: So you’re going to start your own traditions here.
PERRUZZA: Yes. I want to get the whole bar open and then that’s when we’re going to start looking at things we can do. I want to start Drag Queen Olympics. They did it in Amsterdam and I thought it was a brilliant idea. So I’m just gonna find a date for the park in Adams Morgan and we’re going to do Drag Queen Olympics.
MW: What does Drag Olympics entail?
PERRUZZA: You just find a bunch of sports, like pole vault, hurtling, whatever you normally do, but do it in drag. It’s going be a lot of fun.
MW: What made you start thinking about leaving JR.’s to open your own place?
PERRUZZA: A lot of it was stress. I don’t really stress out, but it was just more irritation of having to deal with nonsense. Every time something bad happened with the company, I was the fall guy. It kind of sucked and it made my life a little miserable the last five years.
MW: Did people think you were the owner?
PERRUZZA: Everyone thought I was the owner. I mean, everyone thought I was the owner of Level One. So when Level One closed, people were talking trash about me. Every time something bad would happen, people would talk trash about me. They thought I owned Cobalt, too. But I didn’t. If I had owned it, I would have done things differently, but I’m not an owner. I never had any partnership in it. I never had any stake in it. The only thing I did was run it.
MW: You were very visible though.
PERRUZZA: I was, and it’s funny, I get shit from everybody and everyone says all this stuff about me, but they don’t realize the reason I’m so visible is because I’ve never said no to a charity. I’ve actually used JR.’s and its popularity as a platform. For the last 20 years, I’ve never said no to a charity, except for Gays for Trump. I did deny them a party at JR.’s and there’s a bad Yelp review on the JR.’s page about me being an asshole for not allowing the Gays for Trump, so that’s a true fact. But that’s the only thing I’ve ever said no to.
Another criticism I got on Yelp was everyone says I hate women. I don’t hate women — I actually love women. But people read that on the Yelp reviews. And I always say, “Well, did you look at the dates?” The dates of those reviews coincide with Sundays. I’d kick a lot of people out on Sundays, because it’s brunch and after they start bottomless mimosas I have to deal with nothing but drunk straight girls. That was a problem, and the first thing they’d do was go home and write a Yelp review about “the manager at JR.’s hating on me because I’m a girl.” It has nothing to do with your gender. It had to do with the fact that you’re drunk. I got shit from everyone about everything at JR.’s. I could have given Mother Teresa a kidney, and they’d be like, “Why didn’t Perruzza give her the other kidney? It’s a better kidney.” I can’t win.
MW: Why do you think there’s such hostility directed at you?
PERRUZZA: I think that people feel like we’re here to serve them and nothing but them. And I agree it’s the service industry, but part of me knows you can’t make everybody happy. When I opened up Pitchers, everyone said, “Oh, he’s opening up a heteronormative, masculine, testosterone-driven bar because it’s a sports bar.” And I’m like, “Can you just wait until it’s open so you can see what I’m doing, instead of just bashing me before it even opens?”
MW: Do you think you’ve made enemies in D.C.?
PERRUZZA: Yeah, and I’ll be honest, I don’t give a shit about making enemies. I’m here to run a bar. I follow the rules of ABRA. I have a liquor license, and we can’t allow dancing in this building in some spots, per my liquor license. That’s why I had to wait to open up the floor for people to dance on, and when I stick to those rules, I’m not going to be popular with people. But people forget — you’re one person bitching at me for something, but I’m keeping the other 250 people that are in the bar safe. Your actions can disrupt all the other actions.
Let’s take a bachelorette party. I’ve been working a bar for 20 years. The minute a bachelorette party comes walking through that front door, the mood in that whole room changes immediately. Gay people look at a bachelorette party and all we do is remember that “You used to come in our bars all the time when we couldn’t even get married, and you’re still coming to our bars. Yeah, we can get married, but we still get shit for it.” So when gay people see bachelorette parties, the first thing that goes on in their head is “Ugh.” And it really disrupts business, so I don’t allow them.
I got a lot of shit on PoPville about it recently, but I don’t care. I’m not gonna let you come into my establishment where people feel safe, and disrupt the way people feel. I want everybody to feel comfortable, and bachelorette parties are essentially a bar crawl for people saying, “Hey, this is my last night to be a mess,” and they look at gay people like we’re some kind of zoo. We’re props in their whole bridal party crap.
Even on PoPville, the people who complained stumbled out of a car. Yeah, it was raining. Who gives a shit if it’s raining? It’s not my problem it’s raining. You came here drunk. I’m not letting drunk people in. There’s plenty of gorgeous gay men I haven’t let in because they’ve been drunk. We have a very strict policy about letting drunk people in.
MW: Is there a legal issue regarding discrimination if you turn away straight people?
PERRUZZA: I’m not turning away straight people, I’m turning away a group. In my voluntary agreement, I’m not allowed to have bar crawls in, and technically a bachelorette party is a bar crawl.
MW: What can happen to your ABRA license if you violate the terms of your agreement, or if you over-serve somebody, or they get hurt on your watch?
PERRUZZA: I have to make sure that they don’t fall down the stairs. I have make sure that they don’t go pee in the urinal and knock their head on it. The minute we have to call the police or an ambulance for anything, they have to file a report with ABRA. Then ABRA has to talk to us. Then we have to show them all our cameras, and then if they feel like we need to go in front of the board, then we have to go in front of the board.
I can judge somebody right away by how much they’ve had to drink. My staff all knows — and you can talk to anybody that’s ever worked for me — do not get your customers drunk. I don’t think that you’re doing a favor to the customers, and I think that they’ll thank you in the morning if you give them a water.
I’m pretty up front with people. I’ll tell them, “You know you’ve had too much.” We’re pretty nice about it. We haven’t had a lot of problems here. I think people when they’re drunk know they’re drunk. I think their friends get more pissed off that we’re kicking the other friend out, and the friends end up being the problem more than the person that’s been drinking.
MW: Some people will say, isn’t that the point of a bar, to let people go out and get drunk?
PERRUZZA: No. The point of a bar is to meet friends and have a good time. You don’t have to go to a bar to get drunk. For me, people that go to a bar to get drunk have a problem. Go to a bar and have fun. There’s no reason for you to take that one extra drink. That $5 is not worth it to me as a bar owner. I’ve told my staff, “If you wanna pay all my legal fees if I have any problem, then you’re more welcome to. But I’d rather lose $3 on a bottle of water than gain $5 by getting somebody drunk.”
MW: What’s interesting about the bachelorette party who complained to PoPville is that you received a lot of feedback from gay men who rallied behind you.
PERRUZZA: Right, they did, because look what happened to Town. You couldn’t go to a drag show there. I want to have drag here, but all I’m going to do is attract the straight girls. It has taken over every bar that does drag, and it’s kind of sad.
We haven’t actually had the problem of the straight girls coming in here that much. I mean, we have a few and I think it’s because this place was around for 38 years, and it used to be the Brass Monkey, and used to be an old stomping ground for a lot of straight girls. But it hasn’t been a problem.
When people come in, we make sure they know it’s a gay bar. And we had to do this in the beginning because we’d have people go up and say something derogatory because it was no longer Brass Monkey. People have asked, “Why do you have a sign that says ‘This is a gay bar?'” Because someone will go in, go upstairs and say, “Oh this is a fucking gay bar,” or something like that. I’m not gonna have somebody say that out loud around my customers, because that doesn’t make them feel good and then they’ll walk out. So I put up a sign that says, “This is a gay bar.”
MW: Has social media made your life better or worse?
PERRUZZA: I think social media’s the devil. I think it’s great for advertising and for pushing stuff out for charity. I’ve made a shit ton of money for different charities through social media. InstaGram’s great. You just take pictures of your clientele and what’s going on at the bar. Facebook’s great because we let people know what’s going up. But I don’t have a Twitter account for Pitchers. People ask me why, and it’s because Twitter is just a way for people to be mean. People can express their opinions a lot easier from behind a keyboard now. Half the people will come and ask me for things and then turn around and talk shit about me behind my back. People can bash you as much as they want and feel free to do it now because they don’t have to look at you in the face when they do it.
All the “justice warriors” that are out now, you’re not doing any justice. They think they’re doing so great by talking shit about me or other people, but the people they’re talking shit about are the ones that do the most for the community. If you really want to do something, do what I do. Go volunteer at a homeless shelter. Go raise money. Use your 110,000 Twitter followers for good.
MW: How important is Yelp in promoting your business?
PERRUZZA: I actually got in an argument with the woman from Yelp. She goes, “We’d like you to set up your account.” I’m asking, “Why would I want to set up an account with you?” And she’ll say, “What are you talking about? It helps…” And I’m saying, “Does it? Because you guys don’t have a filter for dyke, cunt, fat, and several other things that people have called my employees — and I’ve only been open for a month and a half.”
We cut off a straight guy, and he was drunk, and because Jo [McDaniel] was serving him, he calls her a “dyke cunt.” So he goes on Yelp and he puts that on there. Then, the bachelorette party that we wouldn’t allow in who wrote the PoPville article insulted my doorman, saying there’s no way he’s gay because gay guys are cute and this guy was fat and gross. They put that on Yelp. So I told the woman from Yelp, “Why the hell would I wanna deal with Yelp at all when you let this shit go on there and ruin how my staff feels about themselves because they read your shitty Yelp reviews.” So social media’s the devil.
MW: Why did you decide to open a sports bar?
PERRUZZA: Because I can’t tell you the amount of times, everywhere I go people say, “Gay people don’t watch sports.” Gay people love sports. And I will have sports on TV — we’ll have football and stuff — but my goal for Pitchers is for it to be more like a community center. I like to say we’re D.C.’s version of Sidetrack in Chicago. I always wanted a bar like Sidetrack, where if you don’t wanna dance, you don’t have to dance. If you’re an introvert, you can play video games. If you want to relax outside, you have two patios to hang out, but if you like sports you can watch sports. If you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, we can put RuPaul’s Drag Race on for you.
MW: Did you ever consider Nellie’s, that you’d be competing with them for customers?
PERRUZZA: No, I didn’t. That might sound cruel, but my goal is to be different from Nellie’s. The minute I saw this space, I saw everything I wanted to do. So I wasn’t worried about competing with Nellie’s or being like Nellie’s because I knew I was going to be completely different. If people are on that side of town and they want to go to a sports bar, they’ve got one there. There could be a sports bar on every street.
MW: There’s always a danger of a bar becoming something that the owner doesn’t envision. How important is it to you that Pitchers maintain itself as an LGBTQ bar?
PERRUZZA: It is one hundred percent important to me. People say that you don’t need safe spaces, but I will keep this bar a gay bar for the people that wanna feel safe in a space. And honest to God, I think too often people say, “Oh, well, we don’t need gay bars anymore.” But when they ask people that, it’s young, white gay guys. It’s never the transgender person that does not feel comfortable going to a straight bar. It’s never the lesbian that identifies as something else that does not feel comfortable going to a straight bar. And there are some very flamboyant gay men that don’t feel comfortable going to straight bars.
Maybe people need to stop asking young, white gay guys, “Hey do we need gay bars?” Because when they go to a straight bar, people don’t know that they’re gay. And that’s the problem with society right now. People forget about transgender people or lesbians. We’re the first lesbian bar in so long, because people forget about everybody else in our community and it’s sad. My goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The way I want to run this bar is like you’re in this little town in Minnesota and there’s one gay bar. You have lesbians, gays, transgender — no matter what, you’ve all gotta go to one bar because that’s the only bar you have. That’s what small town gay living’s like. City living’s not like that because there’s so many options. This whole bar is for everybody. I think I heard somebody on a blog say, “What, does he think that lesbians don’t like patios? That he’s gonna put us in the lower level…” No, you can go to the patio. You can go anywhere you want in the building. You can go to the restaurant. You can go to the dance bar. I just want you to have fun.
With this bar, I feel like I’ve achieved what I want and I’ve been very happy with the success so far. I feel what I did here was really, really good and I think it is needed. People come up to me and say, “I’ve never to a bar with this diversity in my life.” That’s the best compliment you could give me. I want everyone in this bar. I don’t care what you identify as — I want everybody in this bar. Pitchers is for everyone.
Pitchers is located at 2317 18th St. NW. For more information, visit pitchersbardc.com or check out their daily listings in this magazine’s Nightlife section.