The Capitol Lounge, a bar long popular with Hill staffers, was reduced to a blackened mess of charred benches, burned ceilings and singed photographs yesterday after an early-morning fire.

More than 100 firefighters responded to the 6 a.m. call at the lounge at 231 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, said D.C. fire department spokeswoman Kathryn Friedman, and they extinguished the blaze in less than 10 minutes -- but not before the interior was heavily damaged.

"Everybody loves the food. Everybody loves the atmosphere. It was a real friendly place," said Michael Holmes, one of the head chefs, who said he had worked there for 10 years.

"I built that kitchen myself. It's gone -- ruined," he said over the pounding of the sledgehammers that bar employees were using to break apart the scorched furniture they had dragged onto the sidewalk.

Several regulars gathered around to reminisce. With half-price pizza on Mondays, 10-cent chicken wings on Tuesdays, 25-cent tacos on Wednesdays and an abundance of affordable happy-hour beer, the bar drew neighborhood devotees and Hill staffers, said patrons and general manager Simon O'Hare. The owner, Joe Englert, was out of town and could not be reached.

The bar was a great place to "watch people walk by, talk to people, see the same people every time," and Capitol Hill "staffers would come out here in flocks," said Sean Mitchell, who said he stopped in Sunday for some wings and beer. Often, especially during big sports events, the bar was packed shoulder to shoulder, Mitchell and Holmes said.

The Capitol Lounge was known for its brunch, the best on the Hill, according to Holmes, who presided over the countless seafood omelets, huevos rancheros, crab cakes and burgers as well as the standard brunch fare. The staff was willing to whip up special requests, as well. On weekends, O'Hare said, a machine churned out homemade doughnuts.

The fire, Friedman said, was caused by a smoldering cigarette in a trash can and was ruled accidental. Although the Capitol Lounge is in a rowhouse, firefighters were able to prevent the flames from spreading to neighboring buildings.

The second floor of the structure was vacant, and the third floor had two residents, Friedman said. Both used the fire escape, were uninjured and should be able to return to their apartment, which suffered minor damage, according to Friedman. The basement, which is part of the bar, suffered water damage but was not destroyed, Holmes said.

The ground floor, where the blaze originated, was hit the hardest. The night before, patrons rested on red vinyl benches and ordered beers on tap from solid wooden bars under a ceiling salvaged from a railroad car. People gathered to shoot pool, watch sports or simply talk in a laid-back atmosphere with old-fashioned decor. Soccer scarves from around the world adorned the walls. So did local and national political memorabilia, especially posters and pins from the Nixon era.

"Everything in there was older political stuff and stuff from D.C. It can't be replaced," said Scott Clark, a bar patron. Clark began coming by the Capitol Lounge in his marketing job for Budweiser, which counts the Capitol Lounge as one of its biggest D.C. clients, he said. But he liked the bar enough to stop for a while when he came by several times each week, Clark said.

O'Hare, the general manager, said he hoped the bar would be fixed up and reopen. "That's the plan," he said.

Then he returned to the grueling task of smashing sooty furniture and raking up ashes.

One customer calls the Capitol Lounge on Pennsylvania Avenue a place to "watch people walk by, talk to people, see the same people every time." A fire official says the bar fire began with a cigarette smoldering in a trash can.