“See, like that one, there!” Idol calls as a suited young man scurries past him, bulging backpack nearly hitting Idol in the eye.
“What’s in there?” Idol asks, gesturing at the backpack. “All they do is get their bosses coffee!”
It’s summer in Washington, which means it’s intern season: thousands of them descending on the Hill, crowding into the Metro and taking over happy hour. Specifically, happy hour at Front Page. You’d think, with all the new cocktail bars and rooftop beer gardens sprouting up around the city, that the intern scene would spread out a little. But 30 years after its opening, they keep coming back to the same Dupont spot. Stop by Front Page on a Thursday after work, and you’ll see a couple hundred of them drinking $2 Coronas and munching on free tacos.
“I’m here almost every other week,” consulting firm intern Joe Chappell says as he adjusts his messenger bag and sprinkles shredded cheese on his taco. “Sometimes with friends. Sometimes because I forgot to make dinner.”
On the other hand, Matt Donnelly, an intern from the National Institutes of Health, is here for the first time. Actually, he doesn’t really know why he’s here. He floated in with a big group from the office. “I was promised free food,” he says.
When you’re working for peanuts, free food is a big draw. Nearby, a group from the nonprofit organization Search for Common Ground has claimed a table for their first “official unofficial” intern outing. Grayson Meyers was put in charge of choosing the venue, because she interned at the State Department last summer. Her first thought? Front Page. “It’s a classic,” she shrugs.
Someone turns up the music. A large pile of backpacks has started to form on the left side of the dance floor.
Back in the summer of 2000, Dave Hancock, then a State Department intern himself, used to go to the bar two, maybe three times a week. “Even though you’d make fun of Front Page, you’d still go to Front Page,” Hancock says. It was kind of loud, kind of cheesy, sure. Lots of guys in pink polo shirts and khakis. “But you just kept going back there, because the group kept going back there.”
He also remembers leaving a shoulder bag in the bathroom. Really, it’s this bad: On Friday mornings, Front Page might resemble a college dormitory lost and found. “They leave backpacks; they leave packets of information about their internships,” says Kristi Kohut, the restaurant’s events director. “Last week we found a single shoe. How did that person get home?”
Brian Fishbach, a Hill intern in 2006, recalls being at Front Page every week. He has a vague memory of a flyer floating around the George Washington University campus, where he was staying for the summer, drawing him in. He thought it was a bit crowded, full of “white-button-down douche bags.” By the time he returned to the District for a full-time job, he had moved on. But as an intern? “It was close. It had cheap beer,” he says.
Today, though, interns have lot of options. It seems like there’s a new place popping up every day, in Adams Morgan or Columbia Heights or Shaw. Yet 10 years after Fishbach got over Front Page, the interns are still coming. Why?
For starters, the bar’s owners know what they’re doing. Dick Heidenberger, who opened the restaurant back in 1987, started seeing interns come in about two decades ago. “You can eyeball these guys right when they come in,” he says. “And they’re on a budget.” Around that time, he had an idea: Offer free tacos and $1 Coronas on Thursday nights, spread the word, and young, deal-seeking bar-goers will bring their young, deal-seeking friends. Though Front Page eventually jacked up the Corona price to $2, the deal hasn’t exactly caught up with inflation. Still, it’s worth it: Interns drive in other customers — and not just on Thursday nights, either.
About seven years ago, when happy hour competition started getting fierce, Heidenberger knew he had to step up his game. So he started making the tacos with pork from a whole roasted pig, displayed just a few feet away from the dance floor.
Today, of course, it’s all about getting the word out. Kohut reaches out to intern networking groups and universities that host students over the summer, promoting Front Page as a happy hour spot. On an average Thursday night, she says, you can find at least three intern meetups at the bar.
The effort has paid off: Heidenberger’s son, Alex, now one of the family restaurant business’s managing partners, says that business goes up at least 20 percent over the summer.
Heidenberger loves interns. “It’s like perfect innocence, meets a little bit of alcohol,” he muses. And they’re pretty funny to watch, especially when they try to pick up dates. “It’s like an unguided missile,” he says fondly.
Speaking of unguided missiles, it can get kind of awkward when your friends go to the same spot every week. Whenever Kalyani Grad-Kaimal, now a full-time employee at the nonprofit J Street, returns to Front Page, she runs into someone she met when she was a fellow at the nonprofit. “The last time I was here, this girl I had been dating was just sitting there,” Grad-Kaimal says, pointing to an adjacent table. Encounters like that are one reason she and her friends have mostly moved on to buying six-packs from Whole Foods instead of going out. But she couldn’t resist returning to Front Page for the first day of her best friend’s fellowship.
On a Thursday night, it seems like the only non-interns at Front Page are a couple traveling from the New York area. They’re here for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and it was the closest place to the hotel. “The noise is pretty bad,” says one of them, wrinkling his nose at the intern crowd. “But the food’s good.”