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Last Call for Nathans, and a Piece of D.C. History

The bar crowd last night at Nathans' closing. (Amy Argetsinger)

It was, like so many other nights at Nathans, a lively and somewhat drunken scene.

An ambulance and TV truck camped outside the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW, Georgetown's busiest intersection. Some guy in the packed bar fell off one of the remaining stools -- the rest have mysteriously disappeared since word got out that the 40-year-old restaurant was shuttering last night.

Proprietor Carol Joynt weaved through the crowded dining room, greeting favorite customers and apologizing for not having the full wine list. "If it were like this every night, we wouldn't be closing," she said. "It used to be like this every night, but it's not like this anywhere anymore. Close, and they will come."

The restaurant business is notoriously fickle, and most come and go with little fanfare and fewer tears. But occasionally, one defies the odds and becomes part of D.C. history. Nathans was first opened in 1969 by Howard Joynt and two partners; Joynt quickly bought the place outright and presided over a thriving Georgetown scene filled with Washington celebs bellying up to the bar. "It was strictly a watering hole," said commercial real estate broker Tom Papadopoulos. Think "Cheers," he said, but with "champagne and cocaine" in the '70s and '80s.

The colorful owner lived large -- on unpaid taxes, as it turned out. He died suddenly in 1997, leaving his fourth wife, Carol, the restaurant -- plus an enormous tax bill and a battle with the IRS. The stunned widow, suddenly a single mother of a 5-year-old son, tried to sell the place, but there were no takers. So she became Washington's most glamorous saloon owner, luring neighbors, college kids and well-connected media friends from her former life as a television producer.

Attorney Kimani Little, 32, arrived last night to find that his friends had been holding court at the bar since 2 p.m. "It was a natural growing-up place," the Georgetown grad said. "You can come here and have a good time, but if you're dancing and acting wild, people will look at you. It's for people who can hold their liquor."

In theory, the tavern should have thrived. "It's one of the top 10 locations on the East Coast -- you can't get much better than that," Papadopoulos said. "But when things start to go bad, it just snowballs." Nathans was cozy and clubby and never really worked, money-wise; Joynt was always borrowing, begging, flying by the seat of her pants. Another hurdle: After decades in the food wilderness, D.C. became a town filled with excellent restaurants and sophisticated patrons -- leaving her tables half empty. "Nathans has never been known for its food," said Ben Hiatt, former chairman of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

The fact that it stayed open for the past 12 years is because of Joynt -- an indefatigable charmer who never gave up and cheerily turned her personal saga into public drama: She battled with her landlord, invited famous friends to her Q&A lunches, started a tell-all blog and became a press agent and personality in her own right. (Did we mention she's writing a book?) Then, after finally negotiating a lease extension, she abruptly announced she was closing the doors this month -- and launched a public appeal for $22,000 owed to the city.

It never hurts to have rich friends. Jim Kimsey, who first walked into Nathans 40 years ago, gave $3,000 and bought the etched glass window. Ted Leonsis, Ann Compton, Howard Fineman and Harry Shearer, among others, gave checks. Richard Holbrooke and Al Hunt dropped in Saturday night, and some guy drove a Ducati motorcycle into the bar (a first) and put the pictures on Facebook. Seemed like old times.

By The Reliable Source  |  July 13, 2009; 1:04 AM ET
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As a former DC resident I did visit Nathans from time to time. However, I had heard all the scuttlebut about the debt and unpaid taxes.

This weekend I saw on the national news that Nathans had "fallen on hard times due to the economy...". No mention was ever made of the unpaid taxes, landlord disputes, etc. but that's what happens when you have friends in high places.

It was fun while it lasted.

Posted by: rlj1 | July 13, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

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