Martin's Tavern

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Restaurant Review

At Martin's, a Family's Fine Old Recipes

By Nancy Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

Martin's Tavern opened at Wisconsin and N streets NW the day after Prohibition ended in 1933, and since then it has been Georgetown's open secret as the best place for traditional American fare.

The trendiest dishes on the menu are artichoke and Taleggio fritters, buffalo burgers and grilled tuna salad. Otherwise the lunch and dinner menus are chock-full of standards such as liver and onions, meatloaf, Salisbury steak, pot roast, crab cakes, and corned beef and cabbage. Yet these old favorites don't taste stodgy or dated; they are as timeless and comforting as your best family recipes.

The dishes are basically Martin family classics. The original owners were William S. Martin, an Irish immigrant, and his son, William G. Martin, a Hall of Fame athlete at Georgetown University. Current owners William A. "Billy" Martin Jr. and his wife, Gina, are the fourth generation of Martins at the helm. Billy Martin, who started behind the bar in 1982, is the chef, though the kitchen staff members, who have been at the restaurant for an average of 14 years (one has been there for 28 years), know the recipes well.

Martin's, housed in a squat two-story building with small paned windows that line its facades, looks like an anachronism in the midst of chic boutiques and antiques stores. The main dining room is a mix of hard wooden booths, clothed tables and an 18-seat mahogany bar that stretches the length of one side. On most nights, Martin's is filled to capacity.

About half of the people who eat at the restaurant are regulars, and there is a long list of famous ones. John F. Kennedy used to eat in the little half-booth, known as the rumble seat, just inside the front door when he was a bachelor congressman and later a senator living two blocks away on N Street NW. He proposed to Jackie in booth No. 3. Richard Nixon favored booth No. 2. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Alger Hiss were regulars, too.

And though the history is intriguing, the food and camaraderie are the reasons Martin's has been packing them in for more than seven decades.

On a recent night, with the two televisions over the bar showing NCAA tournament games (thankfully, silently), Martin's had the feel of a private gathering of nations. Spanish was the language of the businessmen in the booth behind us, a Scottish brogue accented the talk at the table to our side, and across the room another group conversed in French. Most were tucking into crab or steak.

Petite crab cakes, perfect golden balls of lump and backfin crab, are a good way to begin any meal at Martin's. There is no filler, just enough binder to hold them together, and a refreshing orange-accented mayonnaise in which to dip them.

Another excellent starter is a cup of New England clam chowder, thick and creamy, with chunks of potatoes and clams. Oysters on the half shell are plump and briny, served simply with lemon and cocktail sauce.

Our main courses that evening -- mixed seafood Norfolk and sauteed liver and onions -- took me back to the 1960s, before restaurant offerings became so diverse. The sauteed seafood includes big lumps of lobster, lump crab, large shrimp and pieces of orange roughy, delicately cooked to their prime. Two large, tender pieces of calf's liver were golden brown on the outside and luscious on the inside and topped with long-cooked rings of onions and thick slices of applewood-smoked bacon.

Other standards receive the same fine touch. At some restaurants, a plate of corned beef and cabbage can be an overcooked mess; at Martin's it's a generous pile of not-too-lean brisket paired with a bright green wedge of steamed cabbage, slender carrots and boiled red potatoes. The eggs Benedict are served with salty slivers of good Virginia country ham, rather than the usual bland Canadian bacon. The beef is steakhouse worthy and cooked to order.

Brunch, served every day, is available until 4 p.m.

For dessert, bread pudding is the signature dish, dense and rich but not too sweet, even after it's drenched with a homemade bourbon butterscotch sauce.

One of the best things about Martin's is that there are so many choices, you could eat there once a week and never tire of the food. Some people do just that; manager Matthew Snee said he can often name six of every 10 guests in the room on Sunday nights.

Bar Review

Martin's, One for the Ages
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, June 11, 2004

Every president from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush has stopped into Martin's Tavern, a Georgetown watering hole that opened just as Prohibition ended. John F. Kennedy was a regular when, as a senator from Massachusetts, he lived two blocks down N Street. Madeleine Albright was a neighbor and still comes in for the restaurant's filling "comfort food." Mickey Mantle and Mel Torme were frequent guests when they were in town. Chris Matthews and Brit Hume still are.

But despite all this history, Martin's is not an expense-account restaurant, nor one that requires reservations well in advance. Stop in some night and see for yourself; through August, Martin's is running a number of specials in honor of its 70th anniversary.

Four generations of William Martins have owned this humble, single-story tavern, with its odd columns, cramped seats around the ends of the bar, and rear "Dugout" room -- a semi-private space reminiscent of a speak-easy. Fox-hunting prints and black-and-white baseball photos hang on walls colored by dark wood stain and decades of cigarette smoke. Tiffany-style lamps dangle overhead. The high-backed hardwood booths creak and groan when you shift.

"The tavern's been here 70 years, and we haven't changed much," owner William A. "Billy" Martin Jr. says proudly. "The paneling in here is all the same, the bar top's the same, the configuration's the same. I remember the light fixtures with etched glass from when I was a boy." He's fond of a trio of prints that belonged to the estate of President James Monroe; the family purchased them at auction decades ago.

Many area bars seek to emulate this homey, traditional atmosphere. But while other establishments seem to think character comes from some tavern decorator's supply store, Martin's gained it through decades of experience as Georgetown's well-worn and much-loved corner pub, serving mugs of beer and warming dishes of pot roast, crab cakes or steak with heaps of mashed potatoes and green beans.

Here's a quick family history: William G. Martin, a baseball star for Georgetown Prep and Georgetown University, opened the tavern with his father, William S. Martin, in 1933. The younger Martin had retired from professional baseball after a career that included stints on Boston's "Miracle Braves" of 1914 and playing alongside the legendary Olympian Jim Thorpe as a member of the New York Giants. William G.'s son, William A. -- known as Billy -- was also a star athlete at Georgetown and started working at the tavern after serving in the Navy during World War II. In 1982, Billy's son -- William A. Martin Jr. -- began bartending at the tavern and took over when his father retired to Florida. Now, he's the face of the house, full of stories passed down from his father and grandfather.

There's just one small problem.

"For all practical purposes, last year was supposed to be our 70th anniversary," William A. Martin Jr. explains. "Do the numbers: [The tavern] opened in '33 and this is '04, which makes it 71 [years in business], but [in 2003,] we had a lot of unseen repairs, stuff breaking down. This has been a good year, and we decided to have a party for our 70th anniversary."

In addition to an invite-only party for regulars, Martin decided on a set of summer-long specials that pay tribute to the celebrities -- famous and infamous -- who've added to the tavern's lore. The theme is "Drinks by the Decade."

"I talked to my dad and said, 'Who was drinking what when?' He pretty much gave me the whole list," Martin says. "It's not really that exciting. Years ago, it wasn't the Cosmopolitans and Sex on the Beaches and all that sort of thing. People were drinking martinis and Manhattans and Scotches on the rocks."

Even without bartending pyrotechnics, the list is a fascinating glimpse into Georgetown's past. The '30s are represented by an austere martini, dubbed the Spytini because "[convicted Soviet spy] Elizabeth Bentley used to drink martinis when she was here" meeting her contacts, Martin explains.

His father, who ran the tavern for more than 40 years, has told him how Lyndon B. Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn "would sit in the back booths fashioning plans for the government" in the '40s and '50s. The elder Martin says they used to drink bourbon Old Fashioneds (bourbon with a few dashes of bitters, a sugar cube and water), so that made the list, as did Scotch on the rocks, a favorite with the 1940s crowd like Air Force Gen. Carl A. "Tooey" Spaatz.

Wine is featured for the later decades -- chardonnay for Sen. Paul Simon, cabernet sauvignon in honor of the cartoonist Herblock, who used to convene with fellow artist Pat Oliphant in a front booth. All drinks cost $7.95.

Also on the menu: "Delmonico steak, because that's one thing we were known for when [the tavern] opened: top-quality steak. LBJ used to eat it here, four-star generals -- even during the Depression, [the dining room] was so full that people were tipping milk crates up on their sides to sit on."

Outside of weekends, Martin's usually draws an older crowd -- one that frequently knows the bartenders and servers by name. The music is odd, too, a mix of '80s and mid-'90s "oldies." But the happy hour is a great deal: $2 draft beers and a menu that includes large, rib-sticking Angus burgers with toppings for $3.95, as well as ho-hum bar food like potato skins. Arrive early to get a seat with elbow room.

Martin is proud of his family's legacy. Almost nothing on the block is the same as it was 15 or 20 years ago, let alone 70. It's a unique reminder of how Georgetown used to be, almost a museum. But unlike some restaurants, you won't find a single signed photo of Martin posing with Albright, Bush or John Kerry, let alone Kennedy or Rayburn. "We don't decorate the walls with pictures of these people [who have been into Martin's]," Martin explains. "We just have pictures of my family."

The future seems to be in safe hands. Martin's enjoying life as a restaurateur, and he's planning for the future. Maybe one day the tavern will pass to his son -- also named Billy Martin.