The Tune Inn has dive bar cred in spades: Opened on Capitol Hill in 1947 and currently owned by the third generation of the Nardelli family, the Tune Inn starts serving breakfast and cold beers daily at 8 a.m. Old signs and taxidermied animals — most shot or trapped by the Nardellis — cover the walls, most notably a few mounted deer behinds. And yet there’s some debate in our office about whether the Tune Inn counts as a dive bar these days. Here’s our point-counterpoint. Tune Inn, 331 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.
It’s hard to hold misfortune against a place, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Before a fire smoked out the Tune Inn in 2011, the bar was a classic D.C. dive, a watering hole that felt seedy, claustrophobic and, with all the taxidermied critters staring down at you, slightly threatening. On Capitol Hill, where politicians keep a constant eye on their enemies old and new, the Tune Inn used to feel like the after-hours version of Congress: a place where it wasn’t always easy to separate the hunters from the hunted.
But when the owners refurbished the place, removing the drop ceiling, revealing a skylight, and adding retro-hip booths, the Tune Inn became the Georgetown boutique version of its former self. The edge was gone. The bar added more draft lines, including a craft beer or two. During a recent visit, I spotted bottles of Campari, Johnnie Walker Red and Black labels, even Belvedere vodka — which markets itself as “luxury.” Patrons at the old Tune Inn would have thrown that vodka at the nearest tourist in a fanny pack.
Then there’s the Internet jukebox and the two dudes who were controlling it one night with an app on their phone. They punched in Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” which is about as divey as a Ladurée macaron. They ostensibly played the tune for the gray-haired men at the end of the bar, but the longer Joel crooned about his girl “living in her white bread world,” the more I thought the young guys were just mocking the old-timers.
You know, maybe there’s hope for the Tune Inn after all.
First, a caveat: I’m a regular at the Tune Inn, to the point where the bartenders grab me a beer (Natty Boh) and a shot (Jim Beam) before I have a chance to sit down. (That’s a courtesy extended to all regulars, of which there are many.)
Now let’s be honest, the only reason we’re having this discussion is because of the June 2011 fire. When the Tune Inn reopened, five months later, it was lighter and cleaner, and you could get craft beers on tap.
What didn’t change is the Tune Inn’s soul: people such as the late Captain James, a former Marine who held court and told stories at the front of the bar, or the mix of politicos and military veterans, tourists and off-duty cops, all watching the Nats game and chowing down on jalapeño poppers and mozzarella sticks. Interns huddle in groups and crank pop music on the jukebox.
Service is by turns efficient and nonexistent, the chatter is loud, and I’ve seen bartenders vault the bar to separate customers who’ve had a few drinks. It’s also probably the only watering hole on the Hill without a cocktail menu, and definitely the only one with chandeliers made of deer antlers.
Guy Fieri featured the deep-fried burger and other bar food on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in 2010, and I still wince at the “Guy’s favorite!” logos next to particular items on the menu. But I figure that we’re three blocks from the Capitol, and there are bound to be tourists who heard about the place from “Triple D.” If their dinner visits subsidize my $3.50 beers and show them that Washington isn’t as stuffy or pretentious as they’ve heard, so be it.