Just two blocks away from the Eastern Market Metro station in Capitol Hill, a dive bar has dished out the best of American food classics for more than six decades.
The Nardelli family opened Tune Inn in 1947, serving up greasy diner food favorites from burgers to breakfast meals and attracting customers from politicians to hungry tourists mesmerized by its history – the spot even has the second-oldest liquor license in the city dating back to the repeal of prohibition. Right off Pennsylvania Avenue, the restaurant has sincere wait staff and no frills – its charm is in its rugged atmosphere and come-as-you-are attitude, keeping loyal regulars coming back for decades.
Old neon signs that spell out “Tune Inn” and “Breakfast Anytime” cover the brick facade of the restaurant and illuminate the outside sidewalk at night. Inside the constrained narrow space, 10 booths are split between a pair of side walls behind a long bar to the left of the entrance.
Taxidermied animals, vintage beer advertisements and sports memorabilia line the wooden panel walls. The decor is reminiscent of an old man’s hunting cabin in the Appalachian forest, pretty impressive considering its urban centrality. Dusty hunting rifles and heads of stuffed wild hogs, boars and deer are mounted throughout the restaurant, complimenting the large antler chandeliers that dimly light the restaurant. My friends and I arrived on a Saturday at 1 p.m. and seated ourselves in one of the black leather booths by the back of the room.
The all-day menu was divided into appetizers, burgers, sandwiches and breakfast dishes accompanied by salads, soups and sides. Tune Inn has quite an eclectic and grotesquely American burger menu consisting of a “Smoky Mountain” burger with ham, Swiss cheese and BBQ sauce, “The Fireman” made with mashed pork scraps and “The Hangover” with sausage patty and fried egg. All cost $16.
With large appetites, we first contemplated appetizers like jalapeno poppers ($11), wings ($14) and gravy fries ($10). We decided to split the “Mac Wedges” ($12) – fried mac and cheese balls in the form of triangles. Eight of these deep-fried wedges came out hot and oily in a red basket on red and white checkered paper and served with a side of ranch dressing. About the size of a McDonald’s hashbrown, the wedges were cheesy and perfectly crispy, almost reminiscent of the Kraft mac and cheese we grew up eating but with the added edge of a warm breaded crunch from the panko breading.
For my entree, I ordered from the sandwich section, which had all my favorites like the Philly cheesesteak ($15), classic Reuben ($15) and BLT ($13). I settled on the “Joe’s West Virginia” sandwich ($15), which I presumed to be the signature dish of the restaurant, holding the name of its former owner Joe Nardelli, also known as “West Virginia Joe.” The sandwich consisted of grilled rye bread with thinly sliced homemade roast beef topped with American cheese and the “house sauce.”
Cut diagonally, the crisp and warm rye bread added acidity that combined with the sweet, tender and high-piled roast beef for a complex flavor profile. The sandwich tasted like a Smoky Mountain take on a classic Reuben, losing the typical sauerkraut and subbing in roast beef for corned beef. The melted American cheese and house sauce emulsified, making the sandwich more decadent and creamy. The sauce, the star of the sandwich, was slightly sweet and tangy, overall a more zesty and flavorful version of thousand island dressing. Without it, the sandwich would be too dry. The dish was incredibly savory, and I could immediately feel its weight in my stomach, the perfect choice if you’re absolutely ravenous.
After finishing our meal and sitting back in our seats completely satisfied, my friends and I spent the next 10 minutes observing the carefully curated clutter of trophies, framed photos of police officers and caricatures of bartenders that cover the walls and shelves of the restaurant. Upon exiting, the sunlight strained our eyes as we were transported back from a far-off hunting cabin back to the busy hubbub of D.C.
Tune Inn is the perfect spot to step out of the oftentimes over-the-top D.C. food scene and indulge in simple American classics, all in the busy Capitol Hill neighborhood.
This article appeared in the April 13, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.