I cannot quite work out whether boarded windows on arguably the most prestigious corner in the most powerful city in the world hint at promise to come or forlornness for the passing of what had been.
And what had been was a focal point of Georgetown: Nathans. The bar and restaurant on the corner of Wisconsin and M Street seemed to have been there forever, and for many regulars and others anchored in Georgetown, it was a neighborhood staple.
“Happiest day of my life when it finally closed,” said Carol Joynt, the last owner. I was not sure what to expect her to say of Nathans closing almost two years ago now, but a hand slapping “all clean” was certainly not it.
Joynt is no longer the owner of Nathans. She is no longer the successful booker for CNN’s Larry King Live. She is no longer even a career journalist (although she does write a society column for a New York online mag). And if you take her at her word, she would walk away tomorrow from this neighborhood that she helped define and that, in no small way, has defined her.
She points to the last page of her memoir she is promoting with every bit of her acquired media skills as professional booker and rolodex-builder. “Moving On,” she noted. Her next home could still be DC, she admits, but it could just as well be any other city where she takes a job.
So this is what it is to watch an era pass—the era that Joynt and late husband Howard Joynt defined from the top rung of Georgetown society. It was an era that Carol defines as one of local culture, small unique shops and local restaurants. “It had its own flavor,” she said.
And Nathans anchored the corner of the main drag. Howard first ran Nathans, then Carol. However, she said, “It began to end with the building of the mall [The Shops at Georgetown Park], and then all the chain stores.”
“Georgetown unique” gave way to brand-name chic. Nathans gave way to perhaps the Apple store as the place to be in Georgetown. But you won’t see Carol fretting over the loss of her restaurant, “Owning Nathans was a nightmare I would not wish on anyone.”
Joynt has a reputation for being tough, and she needed every ounce of it to get through everything that happened upon the early passing of her husband. Her memoir recounts twenty years of the bruising, painful slide from living the good life to beating back the IRS after her husband left her to pick up the pieces of his sins . But even in freefall, Joynt brought her own brand of media to D.C., creating the signature Q&A Café, first at Nathans, and now at the Ritz Carlton down the street, where Georgetowners can pay to eavesdrop as Joynt talks with many of the biggest names to sweep the media. From television news anchors to the inimitable Salahes, Joynt still has the pull to get A-listers to come to her, but that pull may still be the memory Nathans.
It is clear as she sits at Leopold’s Restaurant, casting looks at a haughty waiter as only a restaurant owner can, that Nathans was hardly her last act. It was Nathans, not she, that stopped breathing. In that, her memoir is an allegory to the slow death of that era when the legacy bar’s and private clubs were the place to be. It was the old Georgetown.
And Joynt is clearly caught between that past and the future, in one breath severing the importance of Georgetown to her identity, and in the next diving deep to conjure up that time, defined by the Control Board and D.C.’s halting steps to be an adult city.
It was a time when, at Nathans, everyone knew your name. And everyone in Georgetown knew Carol Joynt.