Last Call for Nathans, and a Piece of D.C. History

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Monday, July 13, 2009; 12:00 AM

It was, like so many other nights at Nathans, a lively and somewhat drunken scene.

An ambulance and TV truck camped outside the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW, Georgetown's busiest intersection. Some guy in the packed bar fell off one of the remaining stools -- the rest have mysteriously disappeared since word got out that the 40-year-old restaurant was shuttering last night.

Proprietor Carol Joynt weaved through the crowded dining room, greeting favorite customers and apologizing for not having the full wine list. "If it were like this every night, we wouldn't be closing," she said. "It used to be like this every night, but it's not like this anywhere anymore. Close, and they will come."

The restaurant business is notoriously fickle, and most come and go with little fanfare and fewer tears. But occasionally, one defies the odds and becomes part of D.C. history. Nathans was first opened in 1969 by Howard Joynt and two partners; Joynt quickly bought the place outright and presided over a thriving Georgetown scene filled with Washington celebs bellying up to the bar. "It was strictly a watering hole," said commercial real estate broker Tom Papadopoulos. Think "Cheers," he said, but with "champagne and cocaine" in the '70s and '80s.

The colorful owner lived large -- on unpaid taxes, as it turned out. He died suddenly in 1997, leaving his fourth wife, Carol, the restaurant -- plus an enormous tax bill and a battle with the IRS. The stunned widow, suddenly a single mother of a 5-year-old son, tried to sell the place, but there were no takers. So she became Washington's most glamorous saloon owner, luring neighbors, college kids and well-connected media friends from her former life as a television producer.

Attorney Kimani Little, 32, arrived last night to find that his friends had been holding court at the bar since 2 p.m. "It was a natural growing-up place," the Georgetown grad said. "You can come here and have a good time, but if you're dancing and acting wild, people will look at you. It's for people who can hold their liquor."

In theory, the tavern should have thrived. "It's one of the top 10 locations on the East Coast -- you can't get much better than that," Papadopoulos said. "But when things start to go bad, it just snowballs." Nathans was cozy and clubby and never really worked, money-wise; Joynt was always borrowing, begging, flying by the seat of her pants. Another hurdle: After decades in the food wilderness, D.C. became a town filled with excellent restaurants and sophisticated patrons -- leaving her tables half empty. "Nathans has never been known for its food," said Ben Hiatt, former chairman of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

The fact that it stayed open for the past 12 years is because of Joynt -- an indefatigable charmer who never gave up and cheerily turned her personal saga into public drama: She battled with her landlord, invited famous friends to her Q&A lunches, started a tell-all blog and became a press agent and personality in her own right. (Did we mention she's writing a book?) Then, after finally negotiating a lease extension, she abruptly announced she was closing the doors this month -- and launched a public appeal for $22,000 owed to the city.

It never hurts to have rich friends. Jim Kimsey, who first walked into Nathans 40 years ago, gave $3,000 and bought the etched glass window. Ted Leonsis, Ann Compton, Howard Fineman and Harry Shearer, among others, gave checks. Richard Holbrooke and Al Hunt dropped in Saturday night, and some guy drove a Ducati motorcycle into the bar (a first) and put the pictures on Facebook. Seemed like old times.

Update on Former Miss Virginia Tara Wheeler

When we last heard from Tara Wheeler, we were coming to terms with the fact we weren't going to have a bald Miss Virginia.

The beauty queen pledged to shave her head if she could raise $500,000 for pediatric cancer research -- a deliberately high mark set by Miss Virginia pageant officials, who don't take radical coiffure lightly. Despite Wheeler's energetic efforts and a burst of national media attention, she fell significantly short of the fundraising goal. Still, she promised that once she ended her reign, she'd cut it all off anyway in solidarity with sick kids who lose their hair to chemo.

Last month, she crowned a new Miss Virginia -- Caressa Cameron, who, like Wheeler, was originally Miss Arlington -- and . . . well, Tara, you've still got your hair!

"The plan," she told us, "is to shave it in September" to mark Pediatric Cancer Month and find every possible money-raising opportunity. Meanwhile, with her pageant days over, Wheeler is now looking for jobs as a sportscaster. A bald anchor? Almost as good.

Custody Deal?

Michael Jackson's mother and ex-wife have joined forces to hash out a custody agreement for his three children. A Los Angeles judge granted Katherine Jackson and Debbie Rowe one week to broker an out-of-court settlement. The pop star's will named his mother as his choice for the children's guardian; Rowe -- the biological mother of Prince Michael, 12, and Paris Michael, 11 -- was not named in the will and has not indicated if she will seek custody. The hearing is scheduled for July 20.

"I sat next to a Republican senator once at dinner and he had his hand on my inner thigh the whole time. I was like, 'Ewww, get me out of here.' "


-- New York Times columnist David Brooks on Washington's "loss of dignity" Friday on MSNBC. In an effort to be less "dignified and stuffy," a wound-up Brooks told us more than we needed to know about this town's lonely "emotional freaks" -- but not the identity of the groper, when it happened or why he didn't remove said hand from said thigh.

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