Argonaut Fire Brings Revival Efforts

Posted June 23, 2010 at 4:47pm

It didn’t take long for Shaaren Pine, who runs social media for the local bar and restaurant the Argonaut, to post a series of expletives on Twitter on Sunday morning.

She and Scott Magnuson — her husband and general manager of the Argonaut (1430 Maryland Ave. NE) — had just been summoned to the charred remnants of the eatery’s kitchen, burned out by what they now think was an electrical fire.

“The good thing is the fire was contained pretty much by the kitchen,” which is a converted alleyway, Magnuson said. “That thick exterior brick wall pretty much contained it to the kitchen and the downstairs bar and restaurant.”

A passerby called for help when she saw smoke billowing from the window, but the fire had already been burning for a while. The District of Columbia Fire Department estimates there’s at least $200,000 worth of damage and is still investigating the cause of the blaze, although it “appears to be accidental,” DCFD spokesman Pete Piringer said.

Magnuson, though, said he thinks the kitchen’s electrical meter is the culprit.

But while they deal with what is, of course, a difficult loss for the couple and the restaurant’s 25 employees, there’s a surprisingly bittersweet silver lining, he said.

“I can’t say it’s a good experience. But there’s a lot of positive from a negative experience,” Magnuson said. “The e-mails, the letters of support, the tweets that we’ve received have just been amazing.”

The restaurant’s website has gotten about 5,000 hits, unlike the usual 100 or so a day, from people trying to keep up with Argonaut current events. And D.C. Fire Chief Dennis Rubin called Magnuson to offer any support he can to expedite the reopening.

On June 30, neighboring Rock N Roll Hotel (1353 H St. NE) will host a $20-per-person all-ages fundraiser and silent auction with complementary drinks “to supplement, basically, a complete loss of income to employees who have been working there for years,” said Steve Lambert, booking manager for the bar and venue.

He added that area restaurants and bars would offer Argonaut staff temporary jobs.

Still, the smoke damage is omnipresent downstairs. Any timeline for a back-to-normal scenario is a complete crapshoot, Magnuson said. There’s still a litany of insurance adjusters, building permits and investigators to wade through.

“Six months. That’s just a number that pops in my head,” he said. “I have no idea if that’s close and feasible, but right now it’s a waiting game.”

He did say, though, that he hopes to open the upstairs and patio, mostly untouched by the flames and smoke, as a bar with light snacks by the Argonaut’s five-year anniversary in August. On Wednesday, the District of Columbia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board granted the restaurant a temporary tavern license, making the idea legal.

Restaurant mogul Joe Englert, part-owner of the Argonaut, had a much more optimistic timeline: He said he hopes to be back to normal in four to six weeks.

“There’s not a lot of structural damage,” Englert said. “You clean, you build, you repaint, you put floors down again, re-do the bar, put up the washable panels in the kitchen and put in the equipment and pretty much we’re done.”

He said he’s confident that the bank and insurance company will be expeditious in handling the claims, especially since the blaze was caused by “a very basic reason,” though he wouldn’t elaborate on the record, except to say, “It’s no one’s fault.”

In the meantime, Lambert said, the Atlas District community will be there to help one of the first new restaurants that ventured into the H Street area when the street’s revitalization efforts started in 2005.

“This is very much a family down here. It’s a lot of the same owners, the same employees working at the same places,” he said. And, he added, there’s an army of “plumbers, carpenters, ready to go immediately. As soon as the permits line up, they’re ready to go that day.”