Monday, March 30, 2009

Washington Social Diary

In Nathans "back room" revelers celebrate the pub's 40th anniversary.
By Carol Joynt

This is the story of a small business miracle: the little pub that could. It’s called Nathans and March was its 40th birthday at the corner of Washington’s most prominent commercial crossroads – Wisconsin and M Streets in Georgetown. Forty in restaurant years equals about 2000 in human years. At their best restaurants are personal and customers feel a piece of ownership. Nathans is like that, but even the most casual patron will volunteer how restaurants are a bitch to run and most new arrivals die within a few years. Some add this encouragement: “It’s a miracle when a restaurant succeeds.”

Yes, I know. I own Nathans and observe the miracle every day.

Nathans is a two room saloon and dining room on the street level of a three-story brick Civil War-era building that was, back in the 19th century, both a jail and a brothel. Inside it’s a drinker’s dream, the back bar stacked high with just about every known brand of booze, the top beers on tap, and a fading varnished bar top that runs the length of the room. There are wooden barstools, a shiny brass rail, polished teak floors, dark navy walls adorned with antique sailing and lacrosse memorabilia, checked table cloths, brass ceiling lamps, and floor to ceiling windows with a view of the passing parade.
Virtually everybody who's anybody in DC (and beyond) has walked through this door at Nathans in the years since it first opened in 1969. Nathans front door is open for mid-morning to late night every day of the year.
The dining room, known to regulars as the “back room,” is compact and cozy: dark wood, red leather banquettes and booths, the walls adorned with the photographs of Pulitzer-winning photojournalist David Hume Kennerly. There are beguiling photos of Presidents Obama, Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Ford and Nixon; Bobby Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Fidel Castro, Leonid Brezhnev, Dick Cheney (driving a bumper car), George Harrison and the cast of Seinfeld. It’s a room suited as much for romance as business, and family meals, too.

I take credit for very little of this as I am, if there ever was one, the accidental saloon owner. Nathans was started in 1969 by my late husband, J. Howard Joynt III, and two partners, a hunt country swell named Charlie Mathieson, and an Armenian bookie who called himself “Nathan Detroit” – thus the name “Nathans” on the awning.
Nathans, with a reflection of the old Riggs Bank gold dome across the street. Yes, that is a bullet hole near the top; another story for another time.
I love the way my husband got into the business. He was the quintessential WASP bad boy in a bespoke suit - a tall, captivating and handsome scion of wealth, privilege, prep schools and a little bit of the Ivy League. Think Cary Grant crossed with Jack Nicholson. Howard’s father was a top Washington patent lawyer, his parents were world class collectors of 18th Century American decorative arts, the family lived in a period house in Alexandria, Va., owned thousands of acres on Maryland’s Eastern Shore solely for duck and goose hunting, and stayed regularly at The Carlyle while doing the January auctions.

As a young man in the 1960s, Howard’s true north was New York’s Upper East Side, the 2nd and 3rd avenue bar scene, and especially P.J. Clarke’s. This prompted his father to sit him down – after a couple of failed office jobs – and say, “Son, you are 30 years old. You need a permanent job. You seem to like to spend your time in bars, and so you might as well own a bar.”
Howard Joynt was often his happiest at the helm of a sailboat.
Mr. Joynt bought Howard a third of Nathans, and soon thereafter bought out Charlie Mathieson (his wife wanted him out of the saloon business) and Nathan Detroit (who had a sizable gambling debt.) Howard took the reins of Nathans and gave Georgetown a sophisticated and sexy bar, where the logo was a Dom Perignon bottle posed with a Rubrum Lily, the food highly acclaimed Northern Italian, the bartenders all rock stars, and the scene molten with bold facers, passing celebrities, Washington’s moneyed and social set, ladies for hire, gangsters, and everybody else. From the 70s and well into the 90s, for better or worse, it was the epicenter of sex, drugs and rock n’roll in Georgetown, though with an uptown veneer. It was the last of the saloons to remove the polished brass plaque advising men must wear jacket and tie.

I met my husband in 1977 and for the two decades we were together regularly told him how happy I was not to be involved in his business. It seemed harrowing to me. I was a network news producer, and even though that could be a nutty career at times, it was a flatline compared to the highs and lows of the restaurant business. However much visible success there was in the public parts of Nathans, Howard would come home with stories of office woe. God-awful calamities happened daily, often related to theft, lawsuits, shakedowns, but especially the challenge of making money. The good news is his father would swoop in with the funds needed to knit up the short fall, whether the amount was $5,000, $50,000 or $500,000.
Nathans in the late night hours. The top floors, which were a brothel in the 19th century, are now home to fortune tellers, a popular tailor, and tuxedo rental shop, all Nathans' tenants.
Then Mr. Joynt died, and the subsidy disappeared. Howard had to run Nathans like a real business, but since it was never set up like a real business that was impossible. The lease, for one thing, was preposterous. Being a pirate prince, Howard found it easier to run it like a saloon. In other words, apply a few larcenous shenanigans to the finances. Clueless as ever, this was not revealed to me until I was called into a lawyer’s office two weeks after Howard’s sudden death in February 1997. It seemed I’d inherited a saloon as well as a multi-million dollar federal tax fraud case.

All I wanted in widowhood was to take care of our grieving 5-year-old son, myself and hold onto my job as a senior booker and producer for CNN’s Larry King Live. I liked my job, my executive producer, Wendy Walker, and working with Larry King. We were a good team. Network television for me was a natural habitat. Nathans was a roiling broth of danger. Now I was responsible for it and 55 employees who eyed me skeptically as merely the “wife of.” I should have run to Florida, but I didn’t. I stayed and fought for vindication and survival.
Nathans' bar and famous homemade chips; Chef Loredonna Alessandrini Luhrs, daughter of Nathans original chef, Giueseppina. Lore grew up working in Nathans kitchen after the family arrived from Italy.
When she reviewed Nathans under my new watch in 1998, Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman said, “restaurants have stories, too.” That’s certainly the case with Nathans. For me, it’s been dark comedy and high drama. I’ve never had my husband’s natural grace, charm and bawdy humor, all well suited for a saloon. But then, I didn’t have the same ride. After a long year of defending myself, I settled with the IRS. Recognizing I had nothing to do with what previously went on at Nathans, or with Howard’s personal finances, they granted me “Innocent Spouse,” status. Then I spent another year getting the city to give me Howard’s liquor license, which involved heavy lobbying and testifying before committees. A bill on my behalf was passed by the City Council, signed by the Mayor and approved by Congress.

From the get go I tried to sell the place, but something always got in the way. First, the legal hassles. Then, the streets exploded. Literally. Manhole covers blew out of the sidewalks in front of Nathans, not just once but week after week for several weeks. The city started a lengthy public works project to overhaul Wisconsin and M Streets, and Nathans front door was compromised by every phase of the project, cutting business down by almost half. In 2001, the September 11th terrorist attacks caused another stunning setback. When stability was restored, prospective buyers of the business hated the lease. Two years ago the five landlords said they planned to boot us for a new tenant. When that didn’t happen they said they planned to boot us and sell the building for $18 million. Then the crash hit in November, no buyers stepped up, and in late December the landlords said they would consider keeping Nathans as a tenant.
DC Mayor Adrian Fenty with Carol Joynt. Not only is he a Nathans regular, but he's known to drive by in his Smartcar to pickup carry out roast chicken dinner for wife Michelle and their children. CRJ welcomes the audience to a taping of "The Q&A Cafe."
All kinds of notables appear to be interviewed by CRJ at her "Q&A Cafe," which started at Nathans in 2001 and airs on local cable television. Here's a familiar face, DPC.
The combination of a wretched economy and hardball lease negotiations (it’s up April 15) were reason enough to have a big fat party to celebrate Nathans 40th anniversary, which we did a week ago. We went public rather than private. For $75, any one could attend and enjoy a long and loose cocktail hour in the bar, a dinner of Nathans classics in the “back room” – our house made potato chips, the Nathans salad, our signature lobster fettuccini, steak, dessert from Georgetown Cupcake – and, the main event, an open microphone to tell their Nathans stories.

I admonished the packed house to make them as “R” rated as possible, and more about Howard’s era than mine. The stories were sentimental and sweet. Many patrons told how they met their husband or wife at Nathans. A former bartender, Mike Kelly, departed from the romance trend to recall a St. Patrick’s Day in the sepia past, fueled by a liquid all-nighter, when he and Howard carpeted the entire bar with fresh green sod. They’d bought it at dawn at a nearby sod farm, covered the floor, and told the delighted customers it was flown in direct from Ireland.

A friend emailed me the next morning: “It was like an Irish wake for Howard. No wonder you married him.”
Debbie Weil and husband, Sam Harrington. Michael Kelly, who worked behind Nathans bar in the rollicking 70s and 80s.
The younger generation, Spencer Joynt, son of Howard, with Courtney Prillaman. Nancy Taylor Bubes, who named her firstborn son Nathan, with David Deckelbaum.
Jayne Sandman and Adam Mahr. Pamela Sorensen with Jim Kimsey, who recalled his first visit to Nathans fresh out of the Army and Vietnam. He was in a crisp new suit and the men at the bar wore "mutton chops and bell bottoms."
Jeff and Claire Harvey. Martha Joynt Kumar (Howard's sister) with her husband, Vijay Kumar.
Lynly Boor and Tom Quinn, who recalled many late and liquid nights at Nathans. Olga Boikess and Katherine Tallmadge.
Meg Thompson, on the right in the blue and gold scarf, sits where her husband proposed to her - booth #26, also known as the "Seinfeld" booth. Marilyn Thompson and Debi Gasper.
Gil Pimentel and Kathyrn Kross. Daniel Smith and Lloyd Grove.
Michael Horse, Shelly Wright, and Ann Fragale. Alan Bubes and Nathans senior server, Cristina.
Torie Clarke, husband Brian Graham, and Lorraine Voles peeking over the flowers. Michael Higgins, with his daughter, Maureen.
Debbie Weil and Sam Harrington. Former Nathans bartender Michael Kelly raises a glass to the pub's 40 years.
Hillary Howard and Dave Statter. Mac Lovell and Nancy Rolls. Mac wrote a poetic ode to Nathans.
Nathans bartenders Virginia and Yedda. Joe Findaro, Francesca Craig, and Pat McArdle.
Donna Shor and Ed Brenner. Holidae Hayes and Josep.
Gil Pimentel, Kathryn Kross, Lynly Boor, and Scott Sforza. Lloyd Grove and Pamela Sorensen.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.