Capitol Lounge, unofficial living room for Congress, to close down in September

It survived two fires and scores of debate nights, but not COVID

A view of Capitol Lounge in 2010. The watering hole will close for good on Sept. 20. (Tom Williams/Roll Call file photo)
A view of Capitol Lounge in 2010. The watering hole will close for good on Sept. 20. (Tom Williams/Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 10, 2020 at 1:31pm, Updated at 4:59pm

Capitol Lounge, a divey home away from home for Hill staffers for more than a quarter-century, will close its doors for good this month.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts to report that our last day of service will be Sunday, 9/20,” reads an announcement posted to the lounge’s Twitter account on Thursday. “It’s been a great 26-year run.”

A sports bar for the suit-wearing crowd, Capitol Lounge served decades of aides working in the congressional office buildings nearby, plying them with wing nights, watch parties, jukebox music, and the lingering smell of bygone cigars.

Both current and former lounge-goers greeted the news with dismay. “This hurts in a big way,” tweeted veteran political commentator Doug Heye, who once worked as a staffer for then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

“This is just tragic. TRAGIC,” tweeted strategist Rory Cooper, another Cantor alum. “Asking my wife if I can buy a bar.”

Dana Radojevic, front right, and other guests attend a watch party for the last presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at Capitol Lounge in 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Like many restaurants across Washington, the lounge has struggled to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, which has dealt a devastating financial blow to the food service industry.

“The cost to continue operating in this environment is just overwhelming,” said owner Jimmy Silk, adding that sales are down 90 percent from this point last year.

Capitol Lounge has been through tough times before. A fire broke out in 2005, gutting part of the interior and damaging the extensive collection of campaign posters and other political memorabilia hanging on the walls, even melting the glass in the frames.

It took months to reopen. “There’s an emotional value here that can’t die, that won’t go away,” owner Joe Englert told Roll Call at the time. “Even if the bricks are different, this place will never change.”

A bartender from Capitol Lounge, dons a tee shirt making fun of a fire that shut the bar down. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Two years later, another fire hit, but this time the damage was minor

Through it all, the lounge held onto its motto: “No politics. No Miller Lite.” The ban on political chatter, though, was destined to be broken. While regulars saw the lounge as a place to let down their guard and escape from the office — “like a lot of people’s living rooms,” then-bartender Tony Tomelden said in 2005 — it was seamlessly embedded into life on the Hill. Just a couple blocks from the Cannon House Office Building, it was a short walk away for staffers of all kinds.

DCFD members asses fire damage at Capitol Lounge in 2007. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Its reputation as the quintessential Hill hangout, crawling with insiders and interns alike, once earned it a spot on Roll Call’s list of “most promising scandal locations.”   

“This has arguably the highest per-capita population of Hill aides off campus, all drinking heavily on a nightly basis at 229 Pennsylvania Ave. SE,” Roll Call wrote in 2013.

It has been a season of loss for Capitol Lounge. Founding owner Englert, who opened several other nightlife spots across Washington in the 1980s and ’90s, died in August at the age of 59.

While another watering hole near the Capitol, Tortilla Coast, announced this summer it would permanently shut down due to the financial hardships of the pandemic, the owners quickly walked back that decision, citing an outpouring of support and calling for a “margarita miracle” to continue boosting their business. 

As for Silk, the remaining owner of Capitol Lounge, he said he’s keeping an open mind. He won’t get rid of the kitschy political collectibles that line the walls, in the hopes of one day reopening in a new location. But the current situation is untenable because of the uncertainty created by the pandemic, he said, including social distancing requirements in the District that have limited indoor seating. 

“It’s hard to put a number on what would save the lounge if 12 months from now we’re still not allowed to seat guests at the bar sitting next to each other,” Silk said.