Martin’s Tavern: Cheers to 90 Years
By September 11, 2023 0 1171•
When someone or something marks 90 years, you take notice. When this 90-year-old place is full of history and legends, you know there are stories to be told. When this place is Martin’s Tavern — owned by Billy Martin IV — in the same place for 90 years, full of friends, food and fun, it’s time to celebrate a Georgetown tradition and a neighborhood favorite that’s up-to-date and has an international following.
The restaurant at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and N Street was opened in 1933, around the end of Prohibition, by former Major League Baseball player William Gloyd “Billy” Martin, along with the help of his father William S. Martin, who hailed from Galway.
William A. Martin, the third Martin in succession, was a Golden Gloves boxer and started behind the bar in 1949. He sold the business to his son — the Billy we know today — in 2001, after our current owner begin working at Martin’s in 1982. He had to pony up more than $1 million with loans from neighborhood businesses and supporters. His first year, the place grossed about $2 million; this year, he expects $9 million in gross revenue.
The Georgetowner sat down with the 64-year-old Billy Martin for a candid, insightful interview on Aug. 30. The result was a master class on how to be an authentic restaurateur and community leader. (You can listen to it soon at Georgetowner.com.)
What is most important to Martin — besides his tavern’s lucky spot in history and the nation’s capital — are his tenacious, professional staff and his excellent, ever improving menu. He said he could not have survived the pandemic lockdown without “a core of five staffers” — and financial support from the federal government. “The core management staff I have here give their heart and soul to this place,” he said.
Come in this week or whenever, and you’ll be part of year 90 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’s 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, JFK had breakfast after Mass almost every Sunday. Sam Rayburn mentored LBJ. 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, such as Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. And, of course, Madeleine Albright loved the place.
The food is often described as hearty or classic American. With consistent and very good cooking, the extensive menu makes a journey through eggs Benedict, Guinness mussels, burgers, steaks, fries and crab cakes all the way back to Welsh rarebit and shepherd’s pie. There are Lamb chops and lobster risotto, too. Lately, chefs have touted their braised short ribs — and new seafood combinations. (Curiously, waffles are not on the menu.)
Martin takes credit for reviving the brand after he took over. “Before these years, people asked ‘What is Martin’s?’ or ‘Is that place still open?’ We put Martin’s on the map,” he told us earlier. Today, he’s also aware that social media can trumpet his brand — but knows it’s even better to include stories and news about the community, he said.
This fourth Billy and his wife Gina have two adult children, “who love this business immensely,” Martin said. Daughter Lauren will get married on Nov. 11; son William (the fifth Billy Martin) is in the Navy. The father hopes they will work again at the tavern, perhaps before its centennial.
Also, as the business approaches its 100th year, Martin said the building housing his famous restaurant is “busting at the seams, constructed in the mid-1880s and that there’s going to be some TLC given to the building sometime, like many in Georgetown.” He speculated, “I may have to find a pop-up,” temporarily moving to someplace else on Wisconsin Avenue as the place is renovated. He worried which changes might have to be done to bring the building to code.
Meanwhile, Martin is involved in the local restaurant association and on the board of the Georgetown Business Improvement District and other business groups. He’s also a big supporter of the Citizens Association of Georgetown and Georgetown Ministry Center.
He has opinions, of course, about raising the minimum wage of tipped employees, in stages, to match that of non-tipped employees in the District. “It will be a challenge,” he said. And he worries about burgers costing more than $30.
As for the future of Georgetown, Martin admires how the residents, the businesses and the university “are so intertwined together … and we sit up on this little hill … [above] the river.”
With “great views, great history, great homes,” he said, “Georgetown is a very unique and special place to be … It’s on the upswing right now. There’s a lot of good things happening. … I see nothing but great things going forward.”
In the Oct. 11th Georgetowner — when the newspaper begins its 70th volume — look for a continuation of our conversation with Billy Martin.