The new old Tune Inn
By - Fritz Hahn
Friday, Nov 25, 2011
It was inevitable that the reopening of the Tune Inn would draw crowds - and complaints from regulars that the hipsters and "trendoids" were keeping them waiting in line outside their favorite Capitol Hill dive bar, which had been closed for almost five months after a serious kitchen fire.
But two weeks later, things seem to have settled down. I've popped into the Tune Inn at weeknight happy hour and to watch football, and managed to grab a seat both times. It's fresher and cleaner than I have ever seen it, from the wood-paneled walls to the new chrome-and-black booths and bar stools. The dingy drop ceiling, damaged in the fire, has been removed, exposing old beams and the building's original brick walls, as well as a skylight.
Owner Lisa Nardelli used the bar's closure as an excuse to do some updating - Fat Tire, Flying Dog and other microbrews are now on tap, alongside PBR. (You can still get Natty Boh in cans to accompany large shots of Jameson.) Despite the new kitchen, the food is as bad for you as ever: patty melts, fried okra, all-day breakfast. The menu seems geared to newcomers; regulars probably don't need to see an image of Guy Fieri next to the West Virginia sandwich or a beer-battered burger to order them. And you can now buy Tune Inn T-shirts and coffee mugs behind the bar.
After work, I'm willing to bet that the average age of the customers at the bar was late 30s. Many people knew the bartenders and managers by name. And when my pint glass was empty, the bartender grabbed it, filled it and put it back in front of me without being asked.
Things are truly back to normal.
The ancient deer heads are back on the walls at the Tune Inn, just in time for Friday's grand reopening. A huge stuffed black bear -- shot by owner Lisa Nardelli's husband on a bow-hunting trip to Canada -- is again holding a beer can behind the bar, alongside a stuffed squirrel. A chandelier made of antlers hangs from the ceiling, and a deer's hindquarters -- shot by Nardelli's late father, Tony -- is mounted over the men's room door.
After a June kitchen fire shuttered it for nearly four months, the taxidermy-friendly Capitol Hill bar has restored almost all of its celebrated decorations, but diehard fans will notice a few differences.
"We saved all of the memorabilia with the exception of my granddad's two deer [rumps], which were over the ladies' room door," says Nardelli.
Much of the restaurant's interior -- old beer signs, black and white photos, the animal heads -- suffered smoke or water damage, Nardelli says, adding that she had "a $10,000 bill at the taxidermist" to freshen up the decor. Smoke also got into the plaster panels of the drop ceiling. When it was removed, it exposed a much higher ceiling surrounded by exposed brick -- a relic from the building's earlier days as a tailor shop -- and a skylight, making the one-room bar feel airier and brighter.
Among the other additions: New dark wood paneling "like it was when I was a kid," says Nardelli, 37, the third-generation owner of the bar, and new retro-styled chrome-and-black-vinyl booths and barstools. The gleaming bar counter and the original back bar look like new, thanks to a carpenter's repairs.
But the changes go beyond the cosmetic. There are now eight draft beers, including New Belgium Fat Tire, Flying Dog In Heat Wheat and Abita Turbodog. But customers can still order pitchers of PBR and Yuengling -- and, of course, Natty Boh in cans. (Check out the old National Bohemian "Tune Up at the Tune Inn" sign.) Nardelli says she's happy about the upgraded microbrews -- this was a place where you could get a pint of Busch for $3.50 -- but "we're still a beer-and-a-shot place."
The kitchen will still be turning out West Virginia-style favorites: patty melts, cheeseburgers, fried okra and the all-day breakfast. On weekdays, the stove will be manned by Eddie Peterson, formerly the chef at the Hawk and Dove next door, and one of six employees making their way over from that bar, which closed earlier this month for an extended makeover. "They were our neighbors for 44 years," Nardelli explains. "[Peterson] is going to be making his specials Monday through Friday. But most of the menu is exactly the same" and the menus prices are the same, too, she says.
"We might look a little different, but we'll feel the same."
And that, she says, was the goal of the renovations. "I did it in a way I know my granddad and my dad would have liked."
-- Fritz Hahn (Nov. 2, 2011)