Tune Inn’s friends turn on the cash flow at benefit for damaged bar

At least one Friday night Capitol Hill fundraiser was not your typical big-ticket, sparkly affair.

It was a 20-bucks-at-the-door, beer-served-in-the-can, come-as-you-are party to benefit the Tune Inn Restaurant and Bar. The famously unpretentious pub at Fourth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE was damaged last month by a kitchen fire, and proceeds from Friday night’s event raised money for its staff. The seven-hour affair was held at the nearby American Legion Post 8.

Waves of well-wishers kept cramming into the hall, so many that Michelle Morton, one of the bartenders, said she was “overwhelmed.”

“I knew the turnout would be good, but . . .” Her voice trailed off as she looked at the over-
capacity crowd that spilled onto the sidewalk in front of the Legion post at Third and D streets SE. When organizers scheduled the event for 3 to 10 p.m., “I was afraid it was overly ambitious,” Morton said. “Now, I’m afraid I might break down and cry.”

A few bouquets of black-and-white balloons decorated the hall; the banquet tables offered buffalo wings and nacho chips. Four local bands took turns competing with raucous laughter and loud conversations as regulars, and former regulars, treated Friday night’s party like a reunion.

Chander Jayaraman, who organized the fundraiser, is among the latter. When he moved to the District in 1995 from Kansas City, a friend told him, “You need to find this place called the Tune Inn.” Over the years, Jayaraman found a community — and a wife — there. It didn’t matter that he’d stopped hanging out at the bar several years ago; when he heard about the fire, he had to help.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) might have been the biggest celebrity in the house. He arrived with his predecessor, former council member Sharon Ambrose, who said her children were patrons and former employees of the Tune Inn.

Lisa Nardelli, 37, the third-generation owner of the bar, said Friday’s event was simply “amazing” and will be a huge help to the hardest-hit people on her 16-member staff, about half of whom are waiters and bartenders with below-minimum-wage salaries who rely on what they usually earn in tips.

Nardelli said her goal is to reopen on Labor Day. Because the fire was contained to the kitchen, she was able to save most of the bar’s memorabilia. As a result, she said, the reopened Tune Inn “will feel the same, but it might look a little different.”

Jayaraman, who works for a nonprofit, said he didn’t have much trouble rounding up more than $10,000 in goods and services from other Capitol Hill businesses for the fundraiser. An eclectic array of items was raffled and auctioned off, including naming rights for booths in the bar, during the course of the evening.

The top item was the booth that seats six. “I hope to get a grand for that,” Jayaraman said a few minutes before the bidding began. Instead, after a brief battle among about a half-dozen people, the booth went for $2,200.

The white-haired man in a green-and-white polo shirt who won the bid declined to give his name. He said he represented “the St. Patrick’s Day crew. We come in once a year on St. Patrick’s Day and sit in that booth.”

The crew started this tradition in 1981 with five guys. Last spring, 58 people came. Nardelli confirms this story but also declines to identify the benefactor. The plaque above the booth will read: “The St. Patrick’s Day Crew.”

A less shy Diane Scott whooped and waved her red ticket stub when her number was called by Jayaraman. Scott won a poker set. She doesn’t play poker, but she didn’t buy $20 worth of tickets to win a prize, anyway.

“I go to the Tune Inn every weekend for breakfast,” she said, adding that she’s also friends with one of the bartenders. “They’re family, and we take care of fam­ily.”

By family, she means the Capitol Hill neighborhood, “not that big white building at the end of the street,” she said, pointing the direction of the Capitol. A consultant for IBM, Scott is working on a project in North Carolina, and flew in for Friday’s party. She came straight from the airport.

Jayaraman estimates the event raised more than $30,000 and attendance was “close to 700.” They auctioned off seven other booths in addition to the six-seater, which generated $6,000 combined. Additional fundraising efforts will be announced on the Web site friendsoftuneinn.org.

Although the regulars insist that the Tune Inn is just a neighborhood joint, the 60-year-old establishment’s clientele has included members of Congress and big-time lobbyists, and it regularly makes Esquire Magazine’s “Best Bars in America” list.

Big deal, said Casey Frary. Anybody who comes into the Tune Inn putting on airs “will get laughed at.”

What matters, said Frary, 29, a regular since she moved to the District in 2004 right after college, is “Can you drink and can you B.S. really well?”

Vanessa Williams is a deputy national editor at The Post and edits the She The People blog. She has covered and edited local and national politics for the paper. Contact her at Vanessa.Williams@washpost.com.
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