“The place needed to be an escape,” said Tony “Tony T.” Tomelden, the manager in the early years. Among the laminated guidelines he displayed for visitors: “You’re not as important as you think you are.”
To the outside world, the nation’s capital will never be confused with Fun City, not with its masses of politicians and policy mavens whose idea of a stimulating few hours often involves C-SPAN.
Yet, within a tableau of blue suits, tasteful scarves and somber pronouncements, there was the Capitol Lounge, a safe house for Washington’s tightly wound to unspool with alcohol-induced abandon.
After 26 years, more than a few hangovers, and a pandemic that decimated its business, the Capitol Lounge is closing Sunday, an exit that has triggered a rare outpouring of bipartisan grief.
“A lot of people are reeling from this,” said Perry Fowler, a lobbyist who lives in Austin but spent eight blurry years as what he described as a “Lounge luminary.” He achieved that status in a Stetson and cowboy boots, while smoking and throwing back any number of Jack Daniels.
Somewhere in all that haze, Fowler managed to meet Blair Westbrook, the woman he would marry. They became one of the many couples whose courtship stories inevitably include a passage that could be entitled “The Lounge Years.”
“It’s something in the air!” explained another regular, recalling in an email that he met his own wife “over a Bud Light, a cigarette and five dollars at the jukebox.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity because his office — as Washington as Washington gets — forbids employees from talking about non-work-related matters.
Yes, even their favorite bars.
But he did add that he and his wife’s collection of engagement photos included one taken at the Lounge.
“You go through different stages of life, and you can always come in here because it’s still here,” said Alyssa Hinman, 30, a House staffer and regular who showed up the other night for a last drink with a friend.
For new arrivals on Capitol Hill, the Lounge has served as a kind of Ellis Island, as one patron put it, a gateway to Washington where they could drink and eat burgers and wings on the cheap, play pool, watch football and relax in a room named for Richard Nixon.
The parade of customers mainly included lobbyists, reporters, House interns and staffers with forgettable titles — a director of this or a deputy of that — the significance of which diminished as the inebriated hours wore on.
“You fit in with a T-shirt and jeans and a pool cue or the suit you were wearing from work,” said Ari Fleischer, a regular before he became President George W. Bush’s press secretary. Referring to Republican and Democratic patrons, he said, “There was no distinction once the sun went down.”
The crowd also included off-duty police officers and firefighters and a 15-member Flamenco band that arrived one night after performing at the Kennedy Center. Ringling Brothers’ circus acts showed up after their lobbyist — this is Washington, after all — invited them.
“If I have to smile one more time, I’m going to kill someone,” a man told Tomelden, who discovered that his unhappy customer was a Ringling Brothers clown.
One night, before becoming engulfed in scandal, “House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey fell asleep at the bar. The bartender called the Lounge’s owner, Jimmy Silk, for guidance.
“Wake him up,” Silk said.
When Spacey asked for a cheeseburger, the bartender gave him directions to another bar.
Ivanka Trump attended a private holiday party in the “Nixon Room” last year. When she asked for a vodka gimlet, the bartender — unaware of whom he was serving — poured her his cheapest brand.
“He turned white as a ghost when I told him it was Ivanka,” Silk said. “We all laughed.”
Unlike other famous Washington addresses, the Lounge has not been a stage for headline-hogging scandals. But Jessica Cutler, the former House staffer who blogged about her sexploits under the pseudonym “Washingtonienne,” once wrote that the Lounge was “an easy and convenient place to pick someone up on the way home from work.”
Over the years, Silk said, Lounge employees have happened upon “three members of Congress” after fundraisers engaged in the type of interpersonal relations that would likely concern their constituents back home.
“I’m not naming names,” Silk said, his seen-it-all tone suggesting that such is life in the bar business.
Joe Englert, the longtime maestro of D.C.’s nightlife who died in August, opened the Lounge in 1994, a pre-Internet era when spontaneous gatherings required showing up. “In lieu of 40 phone calls, you defaulted to the Cap Lounge,” said Sean Spicer, President Trump’s former press secretary who was a House staffer when he was a regular. “We’d start at the Lounge and figure out where to go from there.”
Then and now, the Lounge’s decor was dominated by political ephemera, a collection that included a poster of Nixon beneath the words, “Now More Than Ever.” Another: “Mayor Barry: Making a great city even greater.”
A 2005 fire — the first of two the Lounge survived — damaged many items. But Englert scoured eBay for replacements to display when the bar reopened months later.
In case anyone would forget, the Lounge’s signage also included hand-scrawled reminders of “No politics, we don’t care,” a dictum driven by a need for customers to return. “When we first opened, we almost didn’t make it,” Tomelden said. “We needed any butt in the seats. We needed Democrats and Republicans.”
Inevitably, there were moments that challenged the Lounge’s rule, such as the hours after President Ronald Reagan’s funeral when patrons brawled with a dozen or so boisterous men who arrived wearing T-shirts reading, “One Last Shot for the Gipper.”
Or the night Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. A Democratic lobbying firm that had taken over the bar vanished by 11 p.m. without uncorking their champagne. They were replaced by dozens of exuberant Trump supporters, a handful of whom spoke harshly to the Lounge’s Latino employees.
“I heard, ‘You’re no longer allowed in our country,’ ” Silk recalled. “Security told them to leave.”
The Trump era has helped shape the Lounge’s cocktail menu, including drinks such as “Stephen Miller’s Hair Affair” (“gin, tonic, St. Germain, and no remorse”); and “The Presidential” (“vodka, orange soda, tremendous bigliest thing ever”).
The Lounge’s future seemed limitless until the pandemic. After shutting down in March, it reopened in June, first on the patio then inside. Its maximum capacity — 250, normally — was 45 seated guests. The staff was cut from 25 to 10.
When he announced the Lounge’s closure in early September, Silk’s phone rang so often he turned it off for six hours. There were 75 texts when he turned it back on. “People were grieving like they had lost their grandmother,” he said.
As he drank a few of what would be his final beers the other night, Chris Boesen, 49, a lobbyist and longtime regular, said he hopes that the Lounge will be reborn when the virus ends. “Where else can you go to see all the Nixon s---,” he said.
At a table outside, Nick Pearson, 38, ate a last supper of 25-cent wings. When he started going to the Lounge 15 years ago, the wings were a dime. He said he would miss the bartenders and servers and all those people he has met.
“There is so much here that’s not centered around politics,” Pearson said. “This is not ‘House of Cards.’ ”
By then, he had not yet cried over the Lounge’s impending closure. But there was still time for that, he said, as he sipped his drink and ate another wing.