- Martin’s Tavern offers comfort food, classic cocktails, and a speak-easy vibe in Georgetown.
- The old-school watering hole opened in 1933, just as Prohibition was coming to an end.
- Visitors today can share a meal in the booth where John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier.
The sounds of classic crooners mingle in the air with the hearty aromas of old-school comfort food.
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In 1933, just as Prohibition was coming to a close, former MLB player William Gloyd “Billy” Martin, with the help of his father, opened Martin’s Tavern at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and N Street in Georgetown. (Martin was no relation to the five-time manager of the New York Yankees by the same name.)
Georgetown is a unique historic neighborhood along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., with brick streets and high-end shops, restaurants, and hotels. Its notable residents have ranged from Francis Scott Key and Alexander Graham Bell to Julia Child and Elizabeth Taylor. I went to college nearby, and have enjoyed many, many fun days and nights there.
Ninety years later, Martin’s Tavern is still on the same spot, two blocks from the modern bars and boutiques clustered around the central corner of Wisconsin and M.
With its wooden bar and booths, worn tile, and Tiffany lamps, it has a speak-easy vibe, and a Sinatra-style elegance, elegance with an edge. It reminds me of the Coq d’Or bar at the The Drake hotel in Chicago — but with see-and-be-seen window seats.
It’s the oldest family-owned restaurant in the District, with a fourth-generation Billy Martin now at the helm. It has a homey, Cheers-like atmosphere, where strangers chat casually with one another at the bar.
The restaurant offers its own twists on 20th-century standards, like Billy’s Beef Chili and Ty Cobb Salad. The menu even features a “Comfort Foods & Sides” section, with classics like London Broil and Shepherd’s Pie.
And it’s celebrating its 90th anniversary with specials during October on three classic cocktails: the French 75, the Last Word, and the Sidecar. I’m not a gin drinker, so I can’t comment on the first two, but the citrusy Sidecar is fabulous.
The Web site boasts that every president from Harry S Truman to George W. Bush has eaten at Martin’s Tavern. Legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn mentored a young Congressman named Lyndon B. Johnson there. Richard Nixon liked Grandma Martin’s Meatloaf.
But the restaurant’s main claim to fame is that, on June 24, 1953, John F. Kennedy proposed matrimony to Jacqueline Bouvier in Booth #3. He was a 36-year-old up-and-coming Senator from Massachusetts. She was an almost-25 former debutante who’d chosen “Not to be a housewife” as the ambition printed in her high-school yearbook. She worked as Inquiring Camera Girl (yes, that was really her title) for the now-defunct Washington Times-Herald and had just returned from London, where she’d covered the coronation of fellow 20-something Queen Elizabeth II. The couple married less than three months later, on September 12, in Newport, Rhode Island.
Visitors today can reserve the “Proposal Booth”. It’s in a great spot with a window facing N Street, where the young couple would live for a time.
Not all the Tavern’s history is so celebrated. During World War II, Soviet spy-master Elizabeth Bentley met her contacts there. Then she flipped, and testified against some of them at their trials and before the House Un-American Activities Committee. On the other hand, William Donovan, director of the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA, also met with colleagues there, and developed intelligence-gathering plans that helped the Allies win the War.
If you’re in the mood for up-to-the minute creative cuisine, check out one of Washington’s 126 Michelin restaurants. If you want old-school comfort food, a sense of history, and the chance to sit in Jack and Jackie’s Proposal Booth, go to Martin’s Tavern.
What to Know before You Go
to Martin’s Tavern
Martin’s Tavern is located at 1264 Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown.
Parking in Georgetown is doable but difficult. Street parking is tight. There are plenty of garages. When necessary, I park at the Georgetown Park mall on M Street.
Martin’s Tavern does not require reservations, but I recommend them if you’re planning to go in the evening during a busy time or want to reserve a special table like the Proposal Booth. In addition to the cozy main dining room, there is seasonal seating in a closed-off section on the brick sidewalk. There is also a small back room called “The Dugout”. There are lots of stools at the bar.
Busy season is during September-December, when the political class is between summer and Christmas breaks.
Business casual attire is fine.
Excellent hotels within walking distance include:
I fell in love with travel on a trip to Mexico when I was nine years old. Since then, I’ve travelled the globe from Israel to El Salvador. I’ve skied the Swiss Alps and hiked national parks like Acadia, Zion, Shenandoah, and Virgin Islands. I’ve marvelled at masterpieces in the Prado, the Uffizi, the Huntington, and the National Gallery of Art. I’ve stayed in a cabin on a mountaintop in Norway and on a kibbutz along the Sea of Galilee, and been kicked out of the Ritz at the Place Vendôme. I’ve taken cooking classes from New England to the Caribbean, and watched a chef prepare traditional shakshuka in the kitchen of his restaurant in Tel Aviv. I weave historical research and my personal experiences together in writing this blog. I hope you find it helpful. Read more …