The Tune Inn Is America

WASHINGTON -- Some people don't want to admit it, but Washington, DC is America, too. There are many ways to prove that proposition. For example, we have Little League teams, Fourth of July neighborhood parades and our own weird kind of hot dog called a "half smoke." But the most convincing evidence of our Americanness is that we cherish a beat-up old bar called The Tune Inn, only three blocks from the Capitol on Pennsylvania Ave.

If you are a political junkie and follow the news in Washington you know that the Beltway world came to a screeching halt this morning when news broke that there was a fire at The Tune Inn. The Huffington Post was on this story like white on rice, only faster. We have a great on-scene story with reactions and video on the site. We know what is important around here.

Luckily, it was just a kitchen fire, albeit a serious one. The back of the place was badly damaged and the front window was smashed to smithereens; but the place survived, and will reopen in a month. Thank God and the DC Fire Department.

Just what is it about The Tune Inn that is so important?

First, the location: in the middle of a not-too-fancy stretch of storefront row-house restaurants, bars, convenience stores, dry cleaners and bank branches that serve the swarm of staffers who work on the Hill and live nearby. At lunch time, the sidewalks are crowded with people wearing Hill ID badges. It's on the "House Side" -- meaning the South side -- of the Capitol; there is a House-style informality and bustle. At night, the bars take over, but there is nothing fancy about them. No velvet rope lines, no bouncers, no glitter.

The Tune Inn itself is a throwback: a narrow place with a high, pressed tin ceiling, a long bar, and old wooden booths in the back. There is a juke box that used to exclusively play Country and Western, and that remains behind whatever musical era we are currently in. The walls are covered with neighborhood, sports, political and kitschy memorabilia, none of it particularly lofty. The same family has owned the place since 1947, and it still looks pretty much the way it must have in 1947. You could imagine Hank Williams (who used to be on the juke box) sitting at the bar. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who liked to polish off a bottle of Bordeaux at lunch, usually did so up the street, at a slightly fancier place. I never saw him at The Tune Inn.

Maybe he was unsettled by the deer. The most memorable pieces of junk on the walls of The Tune Inn are the taxidermist-created hindquarters of two deer, one of each gender, strategically and instructively placed over the door of the appropriate rest room in the back, opposite the booths. I can personally attest to the sense of philosophical reflection engendered by the sight of an ass on the way to the men's room. Back in the day, when I lived on the Hill as a reporter for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, the waitresses were surly and the beer cheap. The servers are nicer now, and the beer is more expensive.

But that is about all that is different. Back then there were usually one or two seedy-looking, broken-down characters at the bar, sitting alone, oblivious. Those guys are still there, last time I checked, which was a few months ago.

In the summer, the chipper interns and young Hill staffers dressed in softball jerseys invade the place. They hail from all over the country, and wear the names and colors of the office of the member of Congress they work for. They have their bats and gloves and friendly smiles. At such moments The Tune Inn especially looks and feels like it could be anywhere in America, on any Main Street or college town. Norman Rockwell could paint it, even the old coots.

And for me there is a personal reason why I love the place. Had it not been for The Tune Inn, I might never have met the woman who became my wife. I was working for The Courier and attending Georgetown Law School (on the other side of the Hill) at night. One night after class I was having a beer with two friends in a back booth when one of them suggested that I call a woman he knew who had been a reporter but who had just started Georgetown Law full-time. It made sense that we should meet.

I got the name and the number. We've been married 27 years.

So I can't wait for The Tune Inn to reopen. That booth was not damaged in the fire.