EVERY PRESIDENT from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush has stopped into Martin's Tavern (1264 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-7370), 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.
CD RELEASE PARTY
If you need to wind down after a busy week, the answer can be as simple as a trip to Capitol Hill. Skip the bars full of interns and happy-hour madness and head for Mr. Henry's (601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-546-8412), where trumpet player Kevin Cordt and his quartet (bass, drums and guitar or vibes) have delivered vibrant, Blue Note-inflected jazz for more than nine years. The small, second-story room looks more like a reception hall than a club, but the music is great, there's no cover, decent food and cheap drinks.
"It started as a hobby thing, because I waited tables [at Mr. Henry's] for six years first," Cordt says. "The upstairs used to be Dot's Spot, which is where Roberta Flack got her start. It's a great live-music room, and has been for many years. They'd been doing live music on Thursdays and sometimes Fridays and Saturdays, so I asked if we could do something on Fridays, just coming in and playing."
Cordt isn't the flashiest player on the scene -- his tastes run toward the soulful, melody-driven school of Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan -- and he surrounds himself with excellent session players who excel in this style of straight-ahead jazz. That's why it's surprising that he has taken so long to release his first CD, "Live at IOTA Club and Cafe." "I just kept saying, 'I want to wait until I'm really confident and feel like that's where it is,' but I'll never be there. I'll always want it to be better," Cordt says. "So finally it was like, 'Well, here's a good live session. Let's burn it.' "
Most of "Live at IOTA" was recorded in December at a family-friendly concert with Last Train Home, another band Cordt regularly performs with. A gaggle of children always shows up at these semi-regular shows, so Cordt decided to add "If I Only Had a Brain" to the set. "I thought it would be great for the kids, but I noticed the parents were really into it, and the kids were like, 'okay.' " he laughs. "Maybe if it was from 'The Little Mermaid' or something."
Cordt has been staying busy outside of the jazz scene these days, keeping up a steady diet of performances and tours across a variety of genres. Among his credits are recordings of alt-country and Americana tunes with Last Train Home; indie rock with singer-songwriter Jenny Toomey; ultra-chic '60s lounge electronica with hipsters Thunderball; theatrical rock 'n' roll with the over-the-top Spottiswoode and His Enemies; roots rock with the New York-based band Tandy. Last week, he laid down a track with the funky jam band Eddie From Ohio.
Not bad for a guy who, by his own admission, was "the worst classical snob growing up," ignoring rock and FM radio for "classical music that had great trumpet parts, like Mahler, Stravinsky and Prokofiev," and followed his trumpet-centric studies at the University of Michigan with 31/2 years in the Air Force's Ceremonial Band. He only picked up a basic jazz chord book a few years before his first show at Mr. Henry's, but he's proved a quick learner.
The Kevin Cordt Quartet marks the release of "Live at IOTA Club and Cafe" with a special show at Mr. Henry's on Sunday. Admission is free; music begins at 7. Cordt is on the road Friday with Spottiswoode and His Enemies, but members of his quartet perform at Mr. Henry's from 8:30 to midnight.