There will be no Fannie Mae Pub.
The Post Pub, a venerable Washington watering hole, will stay “Post” even after the newspaper it pays homage to moves away next month and the Federal National Mortgage Association sets up shop catty-corner from one of downtown’s last dive bars.
“We’re going to miss The Post, but we won’t change,” said Bob Beaulieu, 67, a D.C. native who has owned the pub at 15th and L Streets since 1976.
Still, the move will mark the end of a symbiotic relationship between pub and publication that goes back more than 50 years. Journalism, the city and neighborhood nightlife have all changed dramatically from the days when pressmen used to cross the street for a quick one between editions.
“They would get their shot and a beer and stand in the front window for 20 minutes to watch the hookers walk by,” Beaulieu said. He pointed through glass that now features a Fat Tire beer sign, an update meant to keep pace with the craft-brew tastes of changing times. “There was a time when The Post was my biggest customer by far. It’s not now, but we’ve had a good run together.”
Generations of Posties have made the short walk to — and sometimes the shakier walk back from — the bar that shares not only its name but its typeface. These days, the new-media techies who pop over for a Diplomat burger (now $9.95 vs. $1.95 five decades ago) at lunch are more likely to have a Coke than a drink, Beaulieu said. But plenty of still-working reporters have parked in the same dark booths, sitting in the same neon shadows to conduct interviews, swap gossip and take the edge off a rough night on the cops beat.
“We used to have a city desk guy write his story every night sitting right there,” Beaulieu remembered. “He’d write it in his notebook, then walk across the street to type it up.”
Former Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon said the pub served as his evening kitchen for decades, particularly as a single guy who didn’t cook. “I probably had 1,000 bowls of chili there in 30 years,” said Wilbon, now a commentator and host for ESPN.
Before Dana Priest was a Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter, she was a Metro writer who ended her days at the pub to talk stories and share newsroom dish. She took the man who would become her husband for a test beer “to see if he could handle it.”
“I don’t think he really understood the appeal, not being a fan of the smell of mold and smoke,” Priest said. “I never took him back there. It was for colleagues only.”
Indeed, Post reporter and now columnist Dana Milbank organized a series of happy hours in the months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “We called it the Coalition of the Swilling,” Milbank said.
Partly because of its unofficial Post tie, the pub has attracted a steady trickle of tourists over the years, some of whom ask Beaulieu if this was the dark and private place where legendary investigative reporter Bob Woodward met with “Deep Throat” back in the heady 1970s. During Watergate, TV news reporters used to do their stand-ups in front of the pub because of the knock-off Post-style lettering over the front door.
The owner said he has seen a few sources questioned under the beer sign lights — and White House spokesman Joe Lockhart used to maintain a table in the back during the Clinton administration. But the city’s most famous secret whistleblower wasn’t one of them.
“I never saw many of the bigwigs,” Beaulieu said. “I didn’t see Woodward, I didn’t see Ben Bradlee. Those guys did their drinking in fancier places.”
Woodward, still a Post staffer, said he did make the expected pilgrimage to what was then called the Post House a few weeks after starting at the paper in 1972.
“It was dark, late and everyone was drinking,” Woodward said. “I was covering night police. Frankly, I felt I had arrived, believing this was real newspapering.”
It’s still dark in the Post Pub and, during a recent happy hour, everyone was still drinking. (A draft Yuengling goes for $6 vs. a $1.25 draft Schlitz back in the day.) There were no notebooks on the bar, and there were more margaritas than martinis in view. The TVs were thinner, and Thai chicken salad now shares menu space with the long-serving Pub burger with onion rings.
But in its essentials, the place is a time capsule of a late-century drinking hole, from the Budweiser mirrors to the photo of Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen nursing his ruptured Achilles tendon, given to the bar by legendary Post photographer Richard Darcey.
“It really hasn’t changed at all over the years,” said Callan Swensen, a federal worker on the block who has been quaffing a post-work beer at the pub for the past 24 years. “When they banned indoor smoking, that was probably the biggest change since I’ve been coming here.”
Swensen finished his Starr Hill IPA. “I’ve stayed too long.”
But just then his bar mate, Brian Swayze, got a call on the house phone (his cellphone was out of charge), much like the days when regulars got so many calls the pub had a second line installed.
“Just like old times,” Swensen said. He called to the bartender, “Kathy, give me another.”
The Post Pub — in an L Street building that dates to the Civil War — has been slinging brews since the mid-1970s. It was hash slinging before that, as a Depression-era cafeteria and then a restaurant and bar starting in the 1950s.
About that time, its owners dubbed it the Post House in honor of the newspaper that had just moved into new digs a few yards away. In 1974, Trailways, which ran its own string of Post House restaurants at bus stations around the country, paid the owners to change the name to the Post Pub.
Downtown Washington was a grittier precinct in those days, lined with neighborhood bars, working girls, police officers and reporters. Peggy’s Place, a pimp hangout, was next door to the pub. The Grotto was around the corner, Stoney’s just down L Street.
The Post, which printed the paper on nine basement presses at the time, was essentially a downtown factory, providing the pub with hundreds of blue-collar customers ready to bend an elbow at break time. Eventually, Beaulieu was spending too much on furniture cleaning and had to ask the press operators not to come in without changing their inky clothes.
“The mailers [who assembled the parts of the printed paper] used to come in 15 or 20 at a time,” Beaulieu said. “We had to have a system for getting their drinks to them fast.”
After the ferocious pressmen strike of 1976, the pub was known as a union bar and replacement hires stayed away. “We’d go to the McDonald’s on 14th Street instead,” said Frank Abbott, who became a pressman and now manages The Post’s printing plant in Springfield, Va. “It was a good job, and I wasn’t about to risk it to drink a beer.”
It was the first of the changes that whittled away at the pub’s Post business. Losing the printing presses to facilities in Virginia and Maryland almost killed the pub. An edict handed down by Post managers in the 1990s to crack down on work-hours drinking was another blow, Beaulieu said.
“They’d come in to eat, but they wouldn’t drink anything,” he said.
The pub survived by expanding its menu and drawing in more of the government workers in the neighborhood. Now, most of its revenue comes from food, not booze.
But there is still a following that gathers in the glow of the big bar mirror each night, filing off the day’s edge with the beer and banter dispensed by longtime bartender Kathy Caparatto, one of 16 pub employees.
“It’s the kind of place that if you come from out of town, you’ll find a warm welcome,” said Swayze, a bartender himself at the nearby D.C. Coast restaurant, which just announced plans to close. “There just aren’t too many left like this.”
Peggy’s is gone, as is the Grotto. Stoney’s moved to P Street, where it sits next to a Lululemon yoga shop and across from a Whole Foods.
Beaulieu said he’ll hang on, at least till the lease is up in two years. He was relieved to learn that The Post was moving only four blocks away, to 1301 K St. It won’t be the short stumble of old, but even barflies can walk a third of a mile.
“I hope the die-hards,” he said, “will still make the trip.”