The Golden Flame

I’ve spent the past few years bemoaning the gentrification of Silver Spring. How the town has lost her charm, her spice. How our dive bars have died. How we’ve been colonized by hipsters, transplants, neo-yuppies, armchair liberals, and the saccharine, mindless masses of salary serfs and condo owners. How we must endure the herpes-like sores of places like Firestation One and 8407.

I know you’re tired of this. I’m tired of it! I’m also heartbroken. My family roots are old and deep in Silver Spring. I have a sense of belonging, even of ownership in some cases. They say we’re always coming home, but what if you no longer recognize or respect your home? It’s hard to turn away from Silver Spring. To ignore it. These past few years condemning the changes have really just been a prolonged, sad obituary. Maybe it’s the morality that bothers me? What I talk about when I talk about gentrification is the insidious classism and racism that walks hand in hand with it. The quiet, polite removal of the natives in favor of unaffordable condo highrises and expensive beers.

But I’m the last person to worry about morality. The real issue is that I just want a quiet place where I can drink in peace. Don’t we all want that? The safe and homey Cheers-style dive bar where you can indulge in your private thoughts and vices?

So I’m pushed out – away from the yuppiedrone of the Ellsworth strip, away from the revitalized Georgia Avenue. I’m driven out to the fringes of Fenton Street, a street once dominated by project housing. I find myself at the only place in Silver Spring that has not changed. The only place that has stood defiantly against the tide of mediocrity. The Golden Flame.

I don’t quite know how to describe the Golden Flame. There are many regulars who believe it’s a front for the Greek mafia, and have even gone so far as to compile some fairly convincing evidence to back this up. It certainly explains a few things. The more optimistic of us see it for what it is, though: A family run business. A true family run business. One run by vampires. The only conclusion I can come to as the entire staff has remained unchanged – and unaged – since I started going to the Flame in 1998. And I mean the entire staff. The waiters, the bartenders, the kitchen staff. It’s a little bit eerie. They remember you, too. Even when a few years pass between visits. But it’s not that friendly kind of recollection. It’s a begrudging acknowledgment. You’ve been here before. We don’t have to explain anything to you. Order your goddamn beer and let me go away. This is balanced by the owner, a jovial old man who walks with a limp, who will approach you with warmth and love and throws the menu across the room if you don’t see something that grabs your eye. What do you want? We can make anything!

The Flame is the only place I’ve been to where ordering off the menu is mischievously encouraged. Well, if they know you. And if you’re talking to the owner. Don’t try it under any other circumstances.

You have to be careful, though. There are two sides to the Flame. Literally.

Let’s start out on Fenton, the autumn night clutching at you with a light breeze that hints at a harsh winter. The Flame is nestled on the ground floor of an office building, sunken a few steps below street level. You make your way to the nondescript doors. It used to be that the dining room and bar were a glowing beacon in the night, but now shades have camouflaged the Flame’s storefront windows. It’s not quite clear which door is open, or if they’re even in business. But, on any night where the temperature is above 50 degrees, there’s always a table outside for the smokers. Smokers who are rarely customers. These are large Greek guys with cigars. Huge football player types, with thick necks and hard stares as you meekly approach them. If they recognize you, or if you’re an attractive woman, one of them will leap to his feet and hold the door for you. No smiles, though. Just a nod, beady eyes staring into middle space somewhere over your shoulder. Inside, you have two choices, assuming you aren’t immediately waylaid by one of the owners. You can step forward into the prim and proper dining room, which looks beautiful enough to make your wallet itch, or you can turn to the right and enter the bar/lounge.

There’s always a family member at the bar, or holding court at one of the booths. Booths that I’ve never seen occupied by customers. They’re reserved for the Greek version of the Soprano family and associated minions. The bar itself is small, with just four beers on tap. Though that’s nothing to complain about when the Red Hook or equivalent is flowing at $4 a pint.

The bar is a small island on the edge of the lounge – a dimly lit, clean, comfortable space with high tables, regular tables, comfy chairs, and a couch that wants to hug you and never let go. Sit just right and it’ll start to feel like you’re in your living room. There’s a game on the big TV, and a few friends cheering along with you. Feet up on an end table, beer magically appearing at your side, the waiter always polite and never intrusive or demanding. You’re left alone. You’re not bedeviled at any point with that old question – “Is everything okay here?” They’ll come when you wave, when you waggle your empty glass. They’re never far away, but they respect the customer’s space.

Move to a table for food and the linens come out, the table is transformed. Customers are treated poshly. It’s awkward, actually. Ask for a menu and move from couch to table and you feel a little guilty as a waitress materializes with the tablecloth and settings and fusses over everything.

The prices on the menu have quietly climbed over the years. Some are hair-raising, but there are affordable options. Go cheap or drop $40 a plate, either way you’ll get enough food to last you about three days. Gigantic plates and servings, always done right. It’s hard to go wrong at the Flame. Every once in a blue moon you might strike out, but the food is usually delicious.

There’s no rush. Waiters will still come and compulsively take stuff away, but it feels natural. And, when you’re done, if you want to sit there and nurse a beer and continue watching TV, no problem. Largely because – nobody’s ever at the Flame. Sometimes the dining room fills up on a weekend, or there’s a pre-theater crowd. But, largely, the Flame repulses the masses. There’s a collection of regulars who hug the bar, most of them quiet and unobtrusive, some of them loud and bizarre. After a while, you realize that these regulars are all strange and broken people. The sort who normally inhabit basement dive bars. Surrounded by the Flame’s upscale, pseudo strip-mall like setting, they seem out of place.

It’s easy to become a regular, though. You want to. You can enjoy a quiet drink, a quiet meal, in peace. There’s no fighting for space, no need to put up a façade for public consumption, no screaming over music or the chatter of a hundred morons. The waiters and bartenders never lose their cool, are never rushed, are never businesslike or bored. There’s never a sense that you’ve overstayed your welcome, or that you’re tying up a table.

The Golden Flame is the sole survivor of old Silver Spring. It hasn’t succumbed to the expectations of the changing community. After a while, in the Flame, you start to think that it’s still 1999 out there on Fenton. You can retreat into the calm nostalgia, seek comfort at the bottom of a few glasses. And maybe run numbers for the mob.

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