You are here

A Half-Century of Hill Bars

June 8, 2005
By John McArdle,
Roll Call Staff

Hangouts Changed With the Area

By the time the House Judiciary Committee formally launched impeachment hearings against then-President Richard Nixon on May 9, 1974, Stuart Long was already fairly certain that the Republican president was a political dead man walking.

In those days, Long was the owner of two of Capitol Hill’s most popular watering holes along Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast. One was Jenkins Hill, which since opening in 1973 had become the hip new hangout for Republican Members and staffers. The other was The Hawk ‘n’ Dove, in those days a staunchly Democratic hangout, which by the time of the Watergate scandal had been a staple of the Hill bar scene for seven years. For Long, a daily visit to his two taverns allowed him to keep the pulse of Hill politics.

“I’d go up to Jenkins Hill and everyone would be staring straight ahead, not talking, and then I’d come down to The Hawk ‘n’ Dove and everyone would be high fiving,” Long recalled. “You could tell right away that the Republican committee members didn’t like what they were hearing and the Democrats did.”

Such is the unique world of the Capitol Hill bar scene. Over the years, it has been a strange nexus of booze and politics where the attentive and sometimes just plain lucky bar-goer can occasionally catch history unfold over a pitcher of beer or a martini lunch.

But as the trends in political issues and party platforms have ebbed and flowed over the years so too has the trends in the Hill drinking culture. And as Roll Call celebrates 50 years as “The Newspaper of Capitol Hill” this month, no celebration of the past half century of Congressional politics would be complete without recognizing the Hill bar scene and the many pubs and taverns just blocks away from the Capitol Dome where much of the business of Congress also gets done.

A Different Crowd

In 1955, during the quiet years after World War II when Washington was returning to its Southern roots, Capitol Hill was a series of small neighborhoods intermixed with boardinghouses and struggling corner stores. Those who worked on the Hill mostly migrated to other parts of the city for nightlife activities. The bars that did exist, such as the Tune Inn — the oldest pub on Capitol Hill which holds just the seventh liquor license issued in Washington after the end of Prohibition — catered to a harder-drinking crowd.

According to a 1995 Roll Call column by Duncan Spencer, the paper’s “In the Neighborhood” reporter for many years, “In ’55, instead of bemused staffers who love ‘atmosphere,’ their clients were working stiffs getting the turkey gravy open sandwich for lunch, or beer drinkers of the old school, cracking a fresh pack of Luckies, ordering a beer and a saltshaker at 10 a.m. ... ‘The Avenue,’ the Hill’s main street in those days, was filled with gloomy silent bars. They were called ‘trucker bars,’ a code word for white or redneck. It was rare to see a black face, even though public accommodations had been desegregated long before.”

When Members did go out for a cocktail they often stuck to the House-side Congressional Hotel, or small restaurants like Mike Palm’s, LaRosa and Giovanni’s, all on the 100 block of Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast then known as “Ptomaine Row.” The area was bulldozed in 1970s to make room for the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress.

On the Senate side, The Carroll Arms Hotel (then located at First and C Street) was the most popular nightspot for Members and staffers. It was at the Carroll Arms that famed political satirist Mark Russell got his start, playing the piano and making up songs about his customers, many of whom happened to be politicians.

In 1960, Connie Valanos and his wife, Helen, opened The Monocle next door to The Carroll Arms, and the restaurant soon became a popular dining spot for those coming from Russell’s shows. Owner John Valanos, who has run the Monocle for the past 15 years, said he remembers Russell stopping by his parents’ restaurant some nights after his set to mingle with guests from his show.

“The Carroll Arms was a big bar scene in the early ’60s, after they closed that sort of propelled our after-work cocktails,” Valanos said.

There was no doubt that by the early ’60s the Capitol Hill neighborhood bar scene was growing in quality and quantity. In 1961, Roll Call instituted a strict advertising policy — which ran prominently on its “Here’s Where to Dine and Dance” page — to help Members and staffers navigate the many choices. It read: “The restaurants and night spots advertised in ROLL CALL have been patronized by Congressmen and Hill personnel and found to be above average. ... Any complaints should be directed to ROLL CALL. They will be investigated, and any establishments not meeting Congressional standards will be refused representation on these pages.”

Growing With the Neighborhood

In 1964, Henry Yaffe ushered in a new style of Hill bar with Mr. Henry’s (Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast). The “Victorian pub,” with its antique decor, catered to the college educated and white-collar crowd who labored away by day in Congressional offices. In 1967, Long, then just 25 years old, followed Yaffe with The Hawk ‘n’ Dove. After opening Jenkins Hill in 1973, Long eventually went on to open two other Hill hot spots, Duddington’s in 1974 and Slick Willies, which opened on President Bill Clinton’s inauguration day in 1993. While the other three bars have come and gone, Long still owns The Hawk ‘n’ Dove and even has 10 people on staff who have been with him for more than 25 years.

In his 38 years on the Hill, Long said he’s seen many Hill gathering spots rise and fall. Once-popular hangouts like The Neptune Inn and The Rotunda are now unfamiliar names to today’s crop of bar-goers. Those who have been around the Hill for at least a decade might fondly remember Nelson Head or The Bellevue Hotel’s Tiber Creek Pub — which offered its famous three-foot glass “yards of ale,” which developed somewhat of a cult following. In just the past half year, the longtime Hill favorite Mickey’s Patio on Eighth Street Southeast has been replaced by a new Thai restaurant.

“The neighborhood has changed enormously since we opened up,” said Danny Coleman, who founded one of the Hill’s most beloved Irish pubs, The Dubliner, in 1974. Coleman has seen Union Station develop from a mostly run-down train depot to a popular shopping and tourist spot and watched as more and more law firms and lobbying groups have filled up the office buildings surrounding the Capitol.

In recent decades, as Congressional staff sizes have grown and Hill offices bring in increasing numbers of young interns, Long said he’s seen his clientele shift to a younger crowd of mostly staffers. “We probably had more Congressmen out and around” in the 1960s and 1970s.

Valanos said he’s also noticed that Members aren’t seen out as much today.

“I think that Members have a lot of fundraisers and events they have to attend in the evening time these days, more so than they did back 20 years ago. Their time is stretched so that they don’t have as much free time to just go out and have a cocktail,” he said.

Lynn Breaux, who took over Tunnicliff’s Tavern across from Eastern Market in 1988, said that an increased level of paranoia among Members probably also keeps them from heading out for happy hour drinks like they used to. “If they have a drink, it’ll probably end up in the [Washington] Post, or if they smoke a cigar, heaven knows the ramifications.”

Breaux ran Tunnicliff’s — named for William Tunnicliff, the first person to open a tavern on Capitol Hill, in 1796 — for 13 years, before taking over as executive director of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. “When I first bought my place in ’88 there were not very many socially mixed hangouts, a couple, but not many. I may have been one of the first on the Hill to hire an African American bartender.”

And just as fashion trends have come and gone over the years, so too have drinking trends at Hill bars.

“By the late ’80s and ’90s it wasn’t politically correct anymore to have a three-martini lunch,” lamented Valanos.

“We used to pour 10 quarts of martinis a day for lunch in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Today you probably serve six martinis in an entire lunch period,” Long said.

Wines have also made a resurgence in recent years.

“We probably doubled our wine business in the last couple of years,” Long said.

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s it was a lot of hard liquor, wine was not so popular,” said Monocle Maître d’ Nick Selimos, who has worked at the restaurant since 1974.

And while much of the politicking that happens at Hill bars has certainly affected what happens in Congress, local bar owners also note that the relationship also works in reverse. Congressional legislation, from DWI laws to lobbyists spending restrictions to raising the drinking age to 21, have all affected the Capitol Hill bar scene.

“I do think the dynamics certainly have changed as the years go by,” said Breaux, who still lives on Capitol Hill right across the street from the Tune Inn. “I’ve loved watching the political and hospitality scene in Washington. ... There’s no question that we feed the powerful and that they do come into our restaurants and a lot of business is conducted in our restaurants, and I think that’s important.

“People will always socialize, thank goodness, instead of being isolated with their computers and their televisions. It’s not home, it’s not work, it’s the third place where you hang out and see people and where conversation eases the soul,” she said.

Washington DC