Cheers to 85 Years: Martin’s Tavern

By Gary Tischler and Robert Devaney

Change is everywhere, even in Georgetown, with its brick sidewalks, college and church spires, old mansions and row houses — the Potomac River going on its steady way. But look around: there are new stores, new commercial enterprises and new restaurants.

Then there’s Billy Martin’s Tavern, our rock, founded in the year Prohibition ended and still in the same spot, thanks to the same family.

“Restaurants are in my blood,” says Billy Martin Jr., the fourth to be part of the Georgetown landmark, which opened in 1933. He started work at the tavern, owned by his father, Billy Martin, in 1982. On his first night, he bartended. Previously, his mother Lila had him cooking for two and a half years at her restaurant in Florida, where he washed dishes, acted as host and more.

“I love restaurants, love bartending, love meeting people and love cooking,” he says. The waiters, at first leery of Billy’s kid, gave him high marks when he saved an evening by pitching in to cook when two cooks called in sick. “‘Just don’t tell my dad I cooked,’ I told them,” he recalls, preferring to be up front in the main room with its booths, Tiffany-style lights and original mahogany-top bar. “They all shook my hand.”

This fourth Billy Martin bought the business in 2001 — he was under the impression he would inherit it — with a little help from his friends, whether Ambassador John Upston, Jeff and Rosalyn White or a loan from bankers Curt Winsor and Mike Fitzgerald. He speaks of his mentor Bud Doggett with affection. Ambassador Marion Smoak, witness to the famed Kennedy marriage proposal in booth no. 3 in 1953, just celebrated his 102nd birthday at Martin’s.

Following his great-grandfather, from Galway, Ireland, his bootlegger and hall-of-fame athlete grandfather and his father — a boxer and also owner of the fancier Billy Martin’s Carriage House — the now 58-year-old looks more forward than back, while promoting Martin’s unique Washington history. Revenues have increased in every year of his ownership except for 2009, from under $2 million to $5.5 million last year.

He takes credit for reviving the brand. “Before these years, people asked ‘What is Martin’s?’ or asked ‘Is that place still open?’ We put Martin’s on the map,” he says.

When you go to Martin’s Tavern, time, if it doesn’t actually stop, certainly recedes. It’s almost 1933 — or 1943 or 1963 or 2003 or last week — all over again. The classic tavern at 1264 Wisconsin Ave. is securely planted on the corner of N Street, complete with brown doors, awnings and windows that seem alluring, like the gateway to a secret place.

Martin’s is no secret, but it has the feel of one, depending on the visitor. If you’re a brand- new customer — say a tourist, a Georgetown University freshman or an intern for a new member of Congress — you’ll feel like an explorer who’s made an important discovery. If you’re a Georgetowner or a regular customer, it’s like Old Home Week every breakfast, lunch or dinner, drinks afterward.

Come in this week or whenever, and you’ll be part of year 85 at Billy Martin’s Tavern,which encompasses a lot of history, a lot of presidents, a lot of Georgetown itself. Try to get the legendary booth where JFK proposed to Jackie. There is a lingering memory of political power brokers leaning over bourbon or scotch and steak, whispering plans to each other, be it Democrat or Republican.

Here Gen. William “Will Bill” Donovan met with others from the Office of Strategic Services. There are booths for Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush, Harry Truman and other luminaries. And, today, you’re just as likely to see Chris and Kathleen Matthews as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton.

The food is often described as hearty or classic American, but it goes beyond that. It is not so much predictable as reliably excellent, with the menu making a journey through eggs Benedict, Guinness mussels, burgers, steaks, fries and crab cakes all the way to Welsh rarebit and shepherd’s pie. The best-seller? Locally raised beef. Billy’s favorite? Lamb pops, lobster risotto or steak. (We like the Tavern Treat.) It is all served with an overlay of history, ambiance and friendly service — authentic, not affected or stagy. The servers and bartenders, like their predecessors in earlier generations, are personalities, willing and able to mine veins of specialized knowledge.

The fourth Billy and his wife Gina have two children: Lauren and William (the fifth Billy Martin). “I want my kids to work on outside businesses. They have worked here,” he says, though he will welcome them back “when the time comes.”

Meanwhile, he is involved in the local restaurant association and on the board of the Georgetown Business Improvement District and other business groups. He was a leader in the opposition to Initiative 77, the voter-approved referendum to raise the minimum wage of tipped employees, in stages, to match that of non-tipped employees in the District. “Our payroll would jump $500,000,” he says.

Today, Martin’s remains a refuge for locals from the ravenous daily news cycle, from the swamp, from the tumult and the noise. As restaurants and institutions go, it is like an old friend, steadfast in its rewards.

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