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Fire Sparks Tune Inn Memories

Like so many memories gathered from atop barstools, some of the best nights at the Tune Inn are lost to the ages and to the Pennsylvania Avenue bar’s famed pitchers of cheap domestic brew.

But those stories that persist seemed more precious Wednesday morning, as a grease fire ripped through the kitchen of the watering hole, a hangout of a weird tribe of firefighters and police officers, Members of Congress and interns, lobbyists, veterans, retirees, journalists, and waitstaff from other neighborhood bars.

All are drawn by the joint’s good jukebox, decent burgers and kooky, beat-up décor — which is probably too grandiose a term for 50-plus years worth of accumulated taxidermy, posters, badges and ephemera that line the bar’s walls.

The fire destroyed the kitchen, causing what D.C. officials estimate is about $75,000 in damage, although the owner hopes to reopen in as little as a month.

Until the extent of the damage was known, regulars worried that they had lost what some call their home away from home. Many more people who cherish their own Tune Inn stories feared that the touchstone for their recollections — of friends, first dates and co-workers — would become another vanished landmark.

Hours after firefighters extinguished the blaze on Tuesday morning, as glass shards sparkled on the sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue and the acrid smell of smoke wafted, waitstaff and regulars huddled near the yellow tape circling the storefront.

Noelle Sment happened to be driving by and pulled over in alarm. Sment, who works at the nearby Tortilla Coast and has been hanging out at the Tune Inn for the past 20 years, give or take, quickly got a report on the morning’s fire from one of the waiters.

She hopped out of her truck to get a closer look — and a few hugs. Firefighters had smashed the front windows, and the iconic neon lettering that spelled out the bar’s name lay in tangled bits on the ground.

“We’re family here,” she says, wiping a tear. “It doesn’t matter what you look like or what you do — we don’t talk about any of that. It’s just family.”

Two older men stood nearby watching the parade of insurance agents, commercial cleaners assessing the smoke damage and curious onlookers.

One of them, Dennis Feeney, is a retiree who counts himself among the most regular of regulars. His friend, who identifies himself only as “Cappy,” is a retired bartender himself.

Feeney is going on a long-planned vacation for a few weeks, so he won’t be without a hangout, but he knows some of his compatriots aren’t so lucky.

“A lot of people will be wandering around for the next few weeks until they’re open again,” he says.

Owner Lisa Nardelli, wearing a blue tank top bearing the Tune Inn logo, finally arrived to survey the damage to the bar. Her grandfather opened the place in 1947, and everyone expects her three young children will someday be its proprietors.

She re-emerged about 20 minutes later, looking shaken but relieved. No one was hurt, she says, and the blaze didn’t spread to her neighbors on either side — the Hawk ‘n’ Dove to the west and Roland’s Grocery to the east. She and her husband, Tom, a D.C. homicide detective, plan to pay employees their regular wages while the bar is closed.

Nardelli says she’ll give whatever perishables are inside to the Hawk ‘n’ Dove, and Paul Meagher, the general manager of the next-door bar, says he plans to offer whatever shifts he can to the Tune Inn’s staff so they won’t feel the pinch of missed tips.

The kitchen will be gutted and replaced, and the smoke damage cleaned. Another reason to feel grateful: The flames didn’t destroy any of the memorabilia.

“A lot of our customers bring things in, so it really feels like their home away from home,” Nardelli says.

Across town, as news of the fire spread, Washingtonians dusted off their own Tune Inn memories.

Fowler West, a lobbyist with Clark and Weinstock, recalled taking the woman who is now his wife on a first date there. Now, their meeting is part of family lore. Back in 1976, West was the staff director of the House Agriculture Committee; Ann Paine worked for one of the panel’s members, then-Rep. Dawson Mathis (Ga.).

He asked her to lunch. She expected a senior staffer like West would take her to a swanky restaurant, and she dressed accordingly. Instead, he took her to one of his favorite haunts, the Tune Inn, where she gamely ate a burger. And although she clearly didn’t take it as a slight, she’s never let him forget it — three children and 35 years later.

“We were a real Capitol Hill romance,” he says.

Many recalled a longtime surly waitress who harassed her customers, much to their delight. Others remembered the strange taxidermy, including a deer’s hindquarters, on the walls, some of it donated by customers, some hung by the Nardellis (Lisa says she shot some of the prizes herself). They hailed the burgers and the “West Virginia” sandwich, a concoction of roast beef and a secret sauce.

The Tune Inn looms large for West and others, and it also has a place on the national stage: It’s on Esquire magazine’s list of best bars in America, and it was featured on the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

And on Wednesday, a few blocks away in the Rayburn House Office Building, Chairman John Mica convened a meeting of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to adopt legislation overhauling the Clean Water Act.

But before the panel got down to business, the Florida Republican asked for a moment of silence — for the Tune Inn.

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