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D.C. Dives: Tune Inn Thrives After Nearly Devastating Fire

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The Tune Inn Restaurant and Bar, located on the corner of Pennsylvania Ave and 4th St SE, just off Seward Square.
Trey Pollard
The Tune Inn Restaurant and Bar, located on the corner of Pennsylvania Ave and 4th St SE, just off Seward Square.

On the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 4th Street SE, just off Seward Square, sits the Tune Inn Restaurant and Bar. In many ways, this bar's history is a story about a family. Owner Lisa Nardelli's grandfather purchased the building in 1947.

"He was the first generation," says Lisa. "He worked here his whole life. My father then worked here his whole life. Now I'm the third generation."

Capitol Hill has changed significantly since Joe Nardelli set up shop. So it might surprise some to find a dive bar in an affluent neighborhood most famous for its marble-columned government buildings and picturesque row houses. But bar regular Don Kaniewski says Capitol Hill residents and the people who work here are no different from anyone else.

They love the Tune Inn's inexpensive food, lack of pretention, and welcoming atmosphere.

"This is a neighborhood establishment," explains Kaniewski. "This is the other Capitol Hill. This is a place where the community gathers. There are members of Congress, lobbyists, lawyers, and certified auto mechanics. We all come here."

This gathering place almost shuttered for good on June 22, 2011, when a kitchen fire caused widespread damage to the bar. Owner Nardelli was faced with a painful decision.

"Everyone kept saying 'Why choose to rebuild at this point? So much of the character is gone. So much of the personality. You won't be able to get a lot of that history back.'"

But to the delight of the community, she chose to rebuild and reopen. Bartender Matt Manley says he was surprised by the outpouring of support the bar received at the time.

"I had no idea that so many people would turn out and have a fundraiser for the staff and really pitch in to help clean it up and empty it out when we were initially getting all the things out [of the building]," recalls Manley. "I never thought regulars would show up and help out at their neighborhood bar, but they did. I was flattered by all of it."

With her renovations, Nardelli attempted to strike a balance between introducing new items and saving old ones, including the bar's oddball collection of taxidermy.

"We were able to restore everything that was on the walls. We painstakingly took down every single item," she explains. "Every dead road kill that was ever up on the wall we took down. We chemically treated, and we put in a climate controlled environment for the course of the fire restoration."

When asked in disbelief if she really did put that much work into saving stuffed deer, Nardelli replies emphatically "Yes. Lovingly. Painstakingly." They went to a taxidermist that does work with the Smithsonian", she continues with pride. "He's done such phenomenal work. They look better than they ever looked."

I toured the bar's new digs with John "Solly" Solomon, a former neighborhood regular who now owns and operates Solly's Tavern on U Street.

"I can't believe this new tin ceiling," says Solomon. "That's great, you know. That's a throwback there. Wood paneling. The pleather booths. But none of them have rips in them. They fixed all of those. No duct tape over them. Plenty of dead animals and antlers on the wall. Tons of pictures of the bar from way back."

"Do you know what else changed?" asks Solomon halfway through our conversation.

"The smoking ban," he replies. "Because the haze that used to be in here and the way that everything would yellow over time -- you don't have that anymore. It takes a lot longer for everything to look old."

Solly says that wouldn't be a problem for the Tune Inn. "I think it's just accepted now. You can replicate it by not dusting."

And Tune Inn regular Don Kaniewski isn't worried about the bar either. He says it's only changed superficially.

"The people never change," he says. "I mean they do, but the same attitude prevails. It never pretends to be more than it is. Breakfast anytime, off the corner on the square, and no matter who you are, you're always welcome."

D.C. Dives: Tune Inn


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