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Fire damages Tune Inn bar on Hill

By Susan Kinzie and ,

The smashed glass and police tape stretched across the front of a Capitol Hill bar drew a series of anxious regulars Wednesday, who lingered to stare at the shards of the cursive neon Tune Inn sign that formerly glowed over the legendary watering hole at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourth Street SE, in view of the Capitol dome.

For more than 60 years, the bar has served as an egalitarian dive for politicians, police officers, neighbors, lobbyists and barflies.

There were detectives and off-duty firefighters, an elderly couple with their dogs, a congressman and a few people looking as if they’d had a rough night, all asking when the Tune Inn — a perennial on Esquire Magazine’s “Best Bars in America” list (No. 39 this year) — would reopen.

“It’s family,” said manager Markie Lydon.

The Tune Inn is dusty and dark, its walls covered with long-dead animals and antlers dangling ball caps and its bathroom doors offering observations political, philosophical and obscene.

Some nights, a group would show up after a black-tie event, bare shoulders and pearls blending in with people hunched over a whiskey at the bar, Hill staffers arguing politics, a Vietnam vet reading history, guys watching a Red Sox game, a young couple sharing a plate of fried okra.

Why did they come?

“Because it’s the Tune Inn,” said longtime bartender John Clark, known as Currly.

“Janet Reno used to come in and have breakfast,” Lydon said. “A guy that’s a ditch-digger is sitting next to the attorney general of the United States. In there, there’s no titles, no nothing. It’s family.”

Customers were white, black, old, young, scholarly, rowdy. People fell in love there; people staggered home from there.

It’s one of the only non-pretentious bars in the city — surprisingly, given its location so close to the Capitol, said Nate Handy, 30, captain of a dinner-cruise boat on the Potomac River. “It’s like a country bar in the city.”

James Forward, 68, has been a patron for 30 years. He has often seen the bar’s staff raise money to help people, and he said customers have volunteered to help clean up. “We had our house burn down,” he said. “Our house.”

The fire started in the kitchen and spread to ductwork above, said Pete Piringer, a D.C. Fire Department spokesman. The cause of the blaze is under investigation, but Piringer said it appeared accidental. Damage was estimated at $75,000 to $100,000.

There was some smoke damage, but the bar area escaped extensive damage, said Lisa Nardelli, the Tune Inn’s owner.

“Hopefully, we can start just serving drinks in a week or so,” said bartender Matt Manley.

“The Tune Inn will get a tuneup,” said Thomas Webb, a D.C. homicide detective married to Nardelli, whose grandfather bought the restaurant in 1947.

Some regulars were worried: Would they dust in there? Paint?

“They should leave the smoke damage just to keep the room a little darker,” Manley said.

“We should leave the window open, smashed,” he added, still joking, “and serve drinks to people out front. There are people standing around out there. They’re mourning.”

© The Washington Post Company