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"A lot of people will be wandering around for the next few weeks until they're open again," he says.
Owner Lisa Nardelli, wearing a blue tank top bearing the Tune Inn logo, finally arrived to survey the damage to the bar. Her grandfather opened the place in 1947, and everyone expects her three young children will someday be its proprietors.
She re-emerged about 20 minutes later, looking shaken but relieved. No one was hurt, she says, and the blaze didn't spread to her neighbors on either side — the Hawk 'n' Dove to the west and Roland's Grocery to the east. She and her husband, Tom, a D.C. homicide detective, plan to pay employees their regular wages while the bar is closed.
Nardelli says she'll give whatever perishables are inside to the Hawk 'n' Dove, and Paul Meagher, the general manager of the next-door bar, says he plans to offer whatever shifts he can to the Tune Inn's staff so they won't feel the pinch of missed tips.
The kitchen will be gutted and replaced, and the smoke damage cleaned. Another reason to feel grateful: The flames didn't destroy any of the memorabilia.
"A lot of our customers bring things in, so it really feels like their home away from home," Nardelli says.
Across town, as news of the fire spread, Washingtonians dusted off their own Tune Inn memories.
Fowler West, a lobbyist with Clark and Weinstock, recalled taking the woman who is now his wife on a first date there. Now, their meeting is part of family lore. Back in 1976, West was the staff director of the House Agriculture Committee; Ann Paine worked for one of the panel's members, then-Rep. Dawson Mathis (Ga.).
He asked her to lunch. She expected a senior staffer like West would take her to a swanky restaurant, and she dressed accordingly. Instead, he took her to one of his favorite haunts, the Tune Inn, where she gamely ate a burger. And although she clearly didn't take it as a slight, she's never let him forget it — three children and 35 years later.
"We were a real Capitol Hill romance," he says.
Many recalled a longtime surly waitress who harassed her customers, much to their delight. Others remembered the strange taxidermy, including a deer's hindquarters, on the walls, some of it donated by customers, some hung by the Nardellis (Lisa says she shot some of the prizes herself). They hailed the burgers and the "West Virginia" sandwich, a concoction of roast beef and a secret sauce.
The Tune Inn looms large for West and others, and it also has a place on the national stage: It's on Esquire magazine's list of best bars in America, and it was featured on the Food Network show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives."
And on Wednesday, a few blocks away in the Rayburn House Office Building, Chairman John Mica convened a meeting of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to adopt legislation overhauling the Clean Water Act.
But before the panel got down to business, the Florida Republican asked for a moment of silence — for the Tune Inn.