Dive into Capitol Hills famous Tune Inn

Tune Inn’s family of drinkers takes it personally when Esquire magazine describes the bar this way: “You’re having: A ten-dollar pitcher of Miller with a burger. The mounted deer heads on the wall make this dive interesting. The deer asses make it great.”

Esquire named the Tune Inn, on Pennsylvania Avenue S.E., one of the best bars in America in a June feature titled “From Alaska to Brooklyn, a coast-to-coast tour of our favorite lounges, taverns, and dives.”

Patrick Dozier, a D.C. property manager sitting a few feet from a deer’s rear end, considers the point and retorts, “I wouldn’t describe it as a dive. It’s a great neighborhood bar; the people, the staff, and the burgers are the best.”

Macy Whitney, who sits next to Dozier, also takes issue with the word “dive” as she orders rum, Diet Coke and lemonade, a concoction known here as “the Macy.”

“It’s not a fern bar, and if you want champagne you’re not going to get it at the Tune Inn, not unless it has a screw top,” Whitney says.

She has been stopping by on “a near daily basis” since she moved to Capitol Hill in 1978, and she’s feeling nostalgic now that she and her husband are leaving for Mississippi to open a bed-and-breakfast inn.

Today the TV, tuned to the World Cup, delivers a bit of dive ambiance when the British announcer brightly describes the efforts of the “Polack” team.

The Tune Inn has dingy wall paneling and too much sunlight. (Dark is good in a dive. Very dark is better.) Insignia patches plaster the wall: Mississippi Highway Patrol, City of New York Police, Okauchee Fire Dept. Wisconsin, Operation Iraqi Freedom. From a shelf above the bar, a range of rather sinister black furry animals of indistinct species look down on the drinkers. And what are they?

“Dead,” Whitney says. “A raccoon? A fox? No one’s really sure.”

Dozier and Whitney are joined by Betsy Allman, operations director of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

“I had my first legal beer here in 1974,” Allman says. “Maybe prior to that too.”

Waitress Susan Mathers has a look that suggests she has seen a lot. She’s lived on Capitol Hill for almost two decades and has worked shifts at the Tune Inn for some 15 years.

“I’m not a bar person,” she says. “I love culture, history, literature. I’ve had wonderful conversations with someone reading a new book. The writer Neal Holland Duncan mentioned the Tune Inn in his book, She Came of Decent People.” (The dive quotient is evaporating rapidly.)

The people Mathers remembers are the lovers: “We have marriage proposals made here. Once a regular put up a big banner that said, ‘I love you. Will you marry me?’ He said yes.

“Another time a nice couple wandered in with their three teenagers. They said, ‘We wanted to bring the kids to see where we had our first date.’ My son met his future wife here, and they had their first kiss right back there next to the telephone. They have an 8-year-old son.”

Committee staffers from the Capitol, most of them 20 years younger than the regulars at the bar, jam a booth drinking Miller Genuine Draft and eating fried pickles. Kristin Pyzyk from San Francisco and Jessica Agarwal from New Jersey give their names, but the rest look furtive and mistrustful and hide behind pseudonyms such as Mahatma, Shirley and Anonymous.

“It’s totally unaffected, not snobby,” said Pyzyk, who worked in the San Francisco public-defenders office before her stint in D.C. and is a first time visitor to the Tune Inn. “I ordered Grey Goose, and they didn’t have it. It’s kind of charming not to have those froufrou drinks.”

“Matt’s the best bartender in D.C.,” Mahatma adds.

Dives thrive on anonymity, but Washington’s boldface names are comfortable here, too. The list includes Reps. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), as well as CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley and the cast from the Shakespeare Theater. Everyone knows that Democratic political strategist James Carville brought his Republican wife, Mary Matalin, to the Tune Inn for their first date, but a packed bar sent them next door to the Hawk ’n’ Dove.

Former Attorney General Janet Reno used to come here too. “I’m a big fan of Janet Reno,” says owner Lisa Nardelli, 32. “She’d come in, and you know she’s a large woman, but no one would look up. She felt comfortable. She said we had the best burgers.”

There are also some eccentrics. There is a retired judge obsessed with NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte. He arrives wearing Labonte’s number, 18, and carrying a flag and a framed photo, which he props up on the bar. Another regular buys Easter hats for all his female friends and holds Easter-egg hunts in the bar.

Nardelli says the Tune Inn is the “Cheers” on Capitol Hill. It’s a place where everybody knows your name, unless you’re working for the Judiciary Committee.

Sad news at the Tune Inn
Tune Inn owner Lisa Nardelli has had both a happy and sad 2006. She became a new mother in the spring, and her father and “best friend,” Tony, died June 19 after a long battle with cancer, a few weeks after Lisa had her baby.

“I stayed beside him as much as I could,” she says. “He really loved a party. He was so much a part of the Tune Inn. I ran it for 10 years, but he was always there. He was my best friend.”

Tony had inherited the Tune Inn from his father, “West Virginia Joe,” who bought it in 1955. Lisa, who shot the deer that Esquire so admires, says that her grandfather loved to hunt and she suspects some of the Inn’s famous animals were trapped in his back yard in Wheaton, Md. 

“At the funeral the Irish priest had me bring the baby up to the front,” Nardelli says. “I’m happy my father had a few weeks to enjoy baby Anthony.”

Her father’s life was celebrated recently with a festive party at the Tune Inn.

Location & hours
331 1�2 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E.
202) 543-2725
Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-2 a.m.; Friday- Saturday, 8 a.m.-3 a.m.

O’Donnell is a freelance writer living in Rochester, N.Y.