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Capitol Hill’s Tune Inn Hits Its Own 50-Year Mark

Roll Call isn’t the only Capitol Hill institution celebrating a 50-year milestone this summer. The Tune Inn, one of the city’s most beloved dive bars, is marking 50 years in the hands of the Nardelli family.

It was five decades ago that a young coal miner from West Virginia began working at the Tune Inn. Joe Nardelli, the youngest in an Italian family of nine children, moved to Washington, D.C., during World War II. Known around town as “West Virginia Joe,” he eventually got into the restaurant business and took over management of the Tune Inn in the summer of 1955. Five years later, he bought the bar at 331 Pennsylvania Ave. SE from his debt-plagued boss.

The Tune Inn, remarkably unchanged after all this time, is now owned and operated by Nardelli’s son Tony and granddaughter Lisa.

Walking in the place, you could easily feel you’ve stumbled back in time to a small town far from the hubbub of Washington. Rugged men, hunched over the bar, take pulls from longneck beers as smoke curls lazily around their heads. Only the morning sun streaming through the cluttered front window belies the actual time — it’s only 10:30 in the morning. Shift-workers make up a good deal of the Tune Inn’s clientele, so beer with breakfast doesn’t raise any eyebrows here.

In addition to the time-warp feeling, there’s an innate sense of familiarity upon entering the Tune Inn. “It’s a bar that always reminds everybody of the bar they grew up with,” Tony Nardelli explained.

Among the dusty guns and rusted trophies crammed on the walls, dozens of stuffed deer heads, fish, birds and other creatures — some too old to identify — gaze watchfully over the room. (A few have lost heads or wings during vacuuming incidents.) Many of the animals are from Nardelli family hunting trips — Joe Nardelli was an avid hunter — and others were donated by patrons over the years.

On a recent visit, Lisa Nardelli proudly pointed out her first deer — and just as proudly her first mounted deer butt. Hanging over the bathroom doors, a trio of deer butts has become a sort of Tune Inn trademark, as well as a playful reminder of Joe Nardelli’s irreverent sense of humor.

“He was the personality of the place,” said Tony Nardelli, reminiscing about his father and his impact on the Tune Inn. For Joe Nardelli, running the bar was no chore, he said. “My father always said it was like going to a party everyday.”

Lisa Nardelli, who practically grew up at the Tune Inn, recalled her grandfather’s favorite drink: a concoction of VO whiskey, Drambuie and Wild Turkey. “It was all mixed up, no ice, just neat … nasty,” she laughed. “He was always the first one for a party.”

Where Everybody Knows Your Name
In a town that thrives on change, the Tune Inn is a constant its patrons count on. The menu, which offers breakfast all day, has hardly changed over the years. And the customers haven’t much either.

“The clientele has been the same for the last 50 years, only the faces have changed,” Tony Nardelli said.

Open 364 days a year, from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. on weekdays and until 3 a.m. on weekends, the bar is a home away from home for many. “We know all the customers’ names, we know what they drink, we have it on the bar when we see them walking in the door, and you just don’t find places like that anymore,” Lisa Nardelli said.

The Tune Inn even offers its customers a big turkey dinner with all the trimmings every year on Thanksgiving. “It’s like a big family … a really strange, eclectic, mixed up, f—ed up kind of family,” Lisa Nardelli joked.

She even met her husband at the Tune Inn, despite swearing she would never date a customer.

An integral part of the Tune Inn family — and personality — are the waitresses, who often stay for years, if not decades. They are the type of strong and sassy women, with names like Bertha, Bonnie and Nelly, caricatured in countless movies. Their service comes with sides of tough love and sage advice, and most customers know it’s wise to stay in their good graces.

Part of that is checking self-importance at the door. The Tune Inn is about as far from pretentious as an establishment can be. And considering most people at the bar couldn’t care less who you work for — a rarity in this most political of cities — it’s understandable that high-profile figures seeking an anonymous escape would be drawn to the Tune Inn.

Then-Attorney General Janet Reno used to come in regularly for a burger, discreetly clad in a baseball cap and jeans with security detail in tow. A framed note from Reno hangs near the back of the bar that reads: “Thank you for the best hamburger in town.”

The roster of big names who have paid a visit to the Tune Inn also includes Joan Cusack, and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who came in during the filming of “All the President’s Men.”

When Jimmy Carter was president, his son’s favorite hangout was the Tune Inn, according to Tony Nardelli.

As for today’s politically connected patrons? Lisa Nardelli was politely mum.

And then there’s a new generation of young Hill staffers drawn to the Tune Inn’s divey character. As symbols of blue-collar America became hip with the 20-something set in the past few years (as evidenced by the popularity of trucker hats and Pabst Blue Ribbon), the Tune Inn stands out as the real deal — an authentic dive bar stubbornly unaffected by trendiness and fads. And that’s precisely what makes it so appealing to today’s young patrons.

The Test of Time
Before the Tune Inn moved in, the narrow building housed a candy shop around the turn of the century. A black-and-white photo of the storefront at that time now hangs over the bar.

After Prohibition ended in 1933, the location housed one of the first bars to open in the District, according to Tony Nardelli. About five years ago, Lisa Nardelli unearthed a forgotten set of stairs in the basement, just below the bar, that had been covered with drywall. She said that right after Prohibition, bartenders used the staircase to bring up one bottle of liquor at a time because of the tight restrictions on alcohol.

The bar wasn’t known as the Tune Inn until 1947, and since then, it has weathered neighborhood ups and downs and even an attempt on the owner’s life.

Joe Nardelli was shot six times in the late 1970s while being robbed in a parking lot near the Tune Inn. He made a full recovery, even though doctors weren’t able to remove all of the bullets. “He was a tough old bird,” Lisa Nardelli said.

He was so close to so many people, Tony Nardelli said, that a man supposedly broke out of jail just to come see if he was all right after the incident. “He attracted all types,” Tony Nardelli laughed.

In many ways, the Tune Inn’s history has mirrored the District’s. The neighborhood was much rougher when Joe Nardelli first took over the bar, which was then often referred to as a redneck joint. “It was nothing to have three fights a day in the place,” Tony Nardelli said.

Business picked up during the construction of the Rayburn House Office Building in the ’60s, when workers from the site would come over for a meal and drinks, and in the ’70s, the Tune Inn often had a line stretching out the door, Tony Nardelli said.

In 1983, Joe Nardelli had the foresight to buy the building, giving the family more certainty about the Tune Inn’s future in what was then an unpredictable neighborhood.

Tony Nardelli said his family has watched the area change around them and struggle for an identity over the years. The Tune Inn “was always a neighborhood bar without a neighborhood,” he said.

And today, with a new baseball team in town and a renewed interest in Capitol Hill as a neighborhood, business is once again looking up. “The Nationals coming to town is a real bonanza,” Tony Nardelli said.

He credits “perseverance and loyalty to the business” for the Tune Inn’s longevity. “When my father passed away it never crossed my mind to sell the place,” he said.

The bar seems in capable hands with Lisa Nardelli next in the line of succession. Her father said she’s naturally suited for the job, having inherited a good deal of her grandfather’s spirit. “She reminds me a lot more of my father than I do,” he said.

And Lisa Nardelli is happy to continue the family legacy. “I’d like to have it for my kids,” she said.

“West Virginia Joe” passed away nearly six years years ago, but it’s clear that his memory lives on at the delightful dive he handed down to his family. The Tune Inn is not your typical city bar, and that’s just the way people like it.

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