Martin’s Tavern, which opened in Georgetown shortly after the end of Prohibition in 1933, has become a landmark because of its ties to politicians and presidents, especially former neighborhood resident John F. Kennedy. Billy Martin Jr., the fourth-generation owner, says that tourists regularly visit from across the country and as far as Australia to see the “proposal booth,” where tradition has it that Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier. “Martin’s was a destination for its history,” Martin says. “How do you do that in a to-go world? You can’t.” So in addition to its to-go menu, the atmospheric pub is planning to ramp up its online presence with virtual tours and happy hours. “We want to give people that in-home experience, and make them want to come back” to see the bar in person.
It’s a similar story at the Vienna Inn, which is celebrating its 60th year of chili cheese dogs and cheap beers. The Little League trophies and old sports photos on display give this dive a timeless feel, but now, the focus is elsewhere. The Inn now offers delivery within a five-mile radius “which is something we’ve never done,” says marketing coordinator Nancy Green. Most orders are for pickup, which isn’t new, but “takeout’s never been popular at the Vienna Inn,” she says, “because everyone came and ate inside. It’s a gathering place.” Still, the Inn has adjusted to its new reality, offering “Build Your Own Chili Dog” kits and growlers of beer, and delivering sandwiches and lunchboxes to Inova Fairfax Hospital and first responders.
As coronavirus closures stretch on, we checked in on some of the area’s longest-serving restaurants to see how they’re dealing with the crisis. And amid all the worries, layoffs and pivots to new sources of income, there’s still some optimism. “Martin’s has been through a lot,” Billy Martin says. “My great-grandfather started the tavern during the Great Depression, and we survived. I’m hopeful we’ll get through this as well.”
No restaurant in Washington has been worried about more than Ben’s Chili Bowl. The U Street icon opened in 1958, and its chili-slathered half smokes famously survived the 1968 riots, Metro construction and gentrification. Some, including the owners, the Ali family, feared that an extended coronavirus-related shutdown might be the end of the soulful lunch counter, visited by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and former president Barack Obama, and loved by generations of Washingtonians.
The satellite locations on H Street NE, in Rosslyn and at Reagan National Airport all closed in late March, leaving the original to soldier on with delivery and takeout. While takeout has always been a feature at Ben’s — have you ever tried to get a seat on a Saturday night? — the business wasn’t the same. Thankfully, WJLA-TV reported that Ben’s finally received a Paycheck Protection Program loan in late April, after a month-long wait, which should allow for some relief. In the meantime, the grill is still on.
1213 U St. NW. Open daily for takeout and delivery. benschilibowl.com.
Tourists visit Martin’s Tavern because of its connections to JFK, Richard Nixon and other famous figures, but what keeps the family-run pub going, says owner Billy Martin Jr., are the neighborhood residents and workers who regularly gather at the bar, such as a group of Georgetown professors who had a standing get-together on Tuesdays. “People are supporting us with to-go orders,” he says, “but it’s not the same as being here and having that camaraderie.”
To that end, Martin says he’s looking into arranging a virtual happy hour in which regulars can order to-go food from Martin’s, and catch up over Zoom. It won’t be exactly the same, Martin admits, but “it comes down to how creative you can be in this world.” Meanwhile, Martin’s offers a to-go menu with regular specials, as well as grocery kits, with options ranging from meat and potatoes to yeast and toilet paper.
1264 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Open daily for takeout and delivery. martinstavern.com.
The area’s most famous crab house has overlooked Mill Creek for more than four decades. In good weather, a line of cars stretches out of the parking lot as Annapolitans and tourists wait for tables covered with trays of blue crabs crusted with orange J.O. spice. But these days, Cantler’s is more of a seafood market than a seafood house, with customers lining up to pick up freshly steamed crabs, or live crabs to steam at home.
On a recent weekend, the price for a dozen local blue crabs ranged from $35 (smalls) to $95 (extra large), with soft-shell crabs and clams also available. Customers can also order off the usual menu, with Maryland crab soup and fried chicken sandwiches, but if you’re going for the Cantler’s experience, you have to go for crabs. The restaurant doesn’t hold or reserve crabs, so they recommend calling to place an order when you’re on the way, especially if you want them steamed. Your deck might not have the same waterside views, but take heart: Cantler’s sells Orange Crushes to go, as well as six-packs of beer.
458 Forest Beach Rd., Annapolis. Open daily for takeout. cantlers.com.
The Old Angler’s Inn, which traces its history to the 1860s, enjoys an unrivaled location for nature-lovers, with easy access to the C&O Canal towpath and the Billy Goat Trail across MacArthur Boulevard. With customers no longer coming into the historic tavern for post-hike drinks, the Inn now serves food to go from its outdoor bar and firepit area.
The food isn’t fancy — on a recent Saturday afternoon, the choices included hot dogs, grilled chicken sandwiches and a burger topped with shredded cheese — but it’s a fine option for those who want to picnic in Great Falls Park, or families looking for lunch after an outing. The best part: Anyone familiar with Great Falls knows how hard it can be to find parking in this area. Old Angler’s will allow hikers to park in the restaurant lot for $10, with all money going to support out-of-work employees.
10801 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac. Open Saturday and Sunday for takeout. oldanglersinn.com.
The diner is the refuge of the night owl and the no-nonsense eater. Bob and Edith’s, which grew out of a 10-stool lunch counter on Columbia Pike, is one of the great ones. Normally open 24 hours a day, it’s where you go after a long night when you don’t want to go home, and the place for a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy to help your head the next morning. It’s the answer when you’re hungry but you don’t want to cook for yourself, no matter when your stomach begins to rumble.
But with bars closed and insomniacs staying home, things have changed: “The first shift to be taken away was the overnight shift,” says Teddy Enbubahre, the general manager at the Arlington restaurant. The restaurant’s hours were cut back to 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for takeout and delivery. But, he says, business has been increasing, thanks to Columbia Pike’s “very large and loyal customer base,” and hours were recently extended to 10 p.m. (The Alexandria and Springfield locations, which are still operating on the 7-to-3 schedule, may also extend their hours soon.) The big difference Enbubahre has noticed is that customers are always hungry for breakfast food. Before, he says, “people’s food choices correlated with the time,” but during the extended hours, “at 8 or 9 p.m., we’re sending out pancakes, where we’d expect to send out burgers and cheesesteaks.” 2310 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 5918 N. King’s Hwy., Alexandria; 6316 Springfield Plaza, Springfield. Open daily for takeout and delivery. bobandedith’s diner.com.
2310 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 5918 N. King’s Hwy., Alexandria; 6316 Springfield Plaza, Springfield. Open daily for takeout and delivery. bobandedith’s diner.com.
For decades, the Vienna Inn has been known for its chili cheese dogs, served in plastic baskets at booths with vinyl banquettes. Even the closure of the dining room can’t dent their popularity, says marketing coordinator Nancy Green: The biggest seller for takeout and delivery is the Build Your Own Chili Dog Kit, which comes with supplies to make five chili dogs — hot dogs, buns, onions, cheese and the house chili — for $16.50. “We had someone drive all the way from Warrenton to get a kit,” Green says with a laugh, though most customers travel shorter distances; some families ride their bikes to the restaurant’s curbside pickup.
But while restaurants are struggling, they’re helping, too. Shortly after the Inn switched to takeout, Green says, “We started getting calls from customers” asking about purchasing meals to be donated to first responders. “They wanted to help us, and they wanted to help the community.” The response, she says, has been tremendous: Each week, the Vienna Inn donates 50 or 100 meals at a time to Inova Fairfax Hospital, the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department and the Vienna Police, with thank you notes — a total of 1,363 have been delivered as of this week.
120 Maple Ave. E, Vienna. Open daily for takeout and delivery. viennainn.com.