After brunch bites and mimosas at the Urban Chic Trina Turk trunk show on Saturday, I waddled down to Billy Martin’s Tavern to relax and have even more brunch with my friend Emil, previously known as the King of Hearts from our Madhatter brunch, and his friend Renzo, who was in town visiting from New York.
The pair had shown up to the fashion-and-pastries event, somewhat puffy-faced and red-eyed, still reeling from the night before. Regardless, they were there because Cori Sue had beckoned, and they proudly made a hungover statement as two of only three males attending the event.
Martin’s was Emil’s suggestion, given our proximity, and we hopped down there after a quick pit stop at Hugh & Crye to show Renzo their shirts. It was a beautiful Saturday on Wisconsin Avenue, not a cloud in the sky. Martin’s happens to be one of Emil’s favorite watering holes: He loves its old-Washington-world ambiance, its history, its cocktails and its food. And he was shocked beyond belief that I had never brunched there.
He had a point: Martin’s Tavern is a rather unassuming building on the corner of a trendy part of Wisconsin Ave., but it has stood there, and for the most part has remained unchanged, for about three quarters of a century. It’s a family-owned business: Four generations of Billy Martin’s have owned the place (so far). Every president from Truman to Bush II has eaten there. JFK proposed to Jackie there. Madeleine Albright stops by often and has her own booth named after her. The place has history, to be sure, and you can feel it as you walk in.
We settled into a small and rather uncomfortable wooden booth, and looked at the menus in the darkened pub under stained-glass Tiffany lamps. Emil pointed out Booth No. 1, a small wooden booth with only one seat, where JFK used to sit as a Senator after going to church on Sundays to read the papers during brunch. There are all sorts of hunting-lodge things on the wall. Horse heads and framed pictures of ducks. It’s like Old Ebbitt Grill. But real.
There’s even a little room in the back, nicknamed the Dugout, that looks like three tables inside a train car. All wooden paneling, dimly lit. Legend (and a handy little crib sheet on the menu) says Lyndon Johnson would go there with his staffers and political rivals and decided which bills would become law. The bar stretches the length of the main room. The restrooms are up a flight of extremely steep and narrow stairs in the back of the restaurant, with enough “Watch your step” signs to satisfy any health inspector.
I ordered a wildflower champagne cocktail, which was sweet. I didn’t even realize it had a flower in the bottom of the glass until I drank most of it. And then I ordered a top-up of just champagne, which watered down the syrup nicely.
Emil ordered the Bloody Mary, which I had a sip of and loved. I don’t typically like Bloody Marys. They have to be really amazing and perfect, the right blend of spicy and tomatoes and thickness for it not to be too weak or too overpowering. And this one hit the right spot.
Renzo got the Dark and Stormy, which looked like an unmixed iced tea but is instead Gosling’s Black Seal Rum and strong Gosling’s ginger beer. It’s an acquired taste, a Northeastern drink with a yachting tradition, brought by sailors from Bermuda way back when. It’s somehow fitting that it’s a signature cocktail in this bar, and it has a kick to it.
We got the shrimp cocktail to start. Five jumbo shrimp on a bed of lettuce, red sauce on the side. They were ice cold and refreshing. We all noted how surprising it was that the seafood here was actually decent.
I got the Martin’s Benedict, which was a crab benny. The English muffins were fresh and toasted nicely, and the egg was perfectly cooked. I only wished there would have been more crab meat. They were a bit stingy on the crab meat. The Hollandaise sauce was good, but nothing out of the ordinary or particularly flavorful. It came with a side of cubed potatoes that were rather greasy.
Emil had the steak and eggs, which was cooked to order. The dish came with toast and two eggs, sunny side up. He said it was nicely cooked and the eggs were perfect, with the right level of runniness.
Renzo got the Tavern Treat, which sounds like something truly magical. In fact, it was another benedict, sort of, but with different types of seafood. It didn’t have the poached egg, but it did have Hollandaise sauce and sautéed mushrooms. He got a bit more seafood than I did, and I was jealous. He ordered it with Brussels sprouts on the side, but the dish was served with fries, so he sent it back.
The plate arrived back after five minutes with the requested Brussels sprouts, but by that point the entire dish had gone cold, so he sent it back. Ten minutes later, the dish came back out, completely fresh and piping hot. While he didn’t get to eat with us, he did enjoy the plate.
The Bitches say: B- So historic and charming, a rare example of true classic Washington ambiance and fare, but unfortch the food is not the most gourmet, and the service got it wrong.
Billy Martin’s Tavern
1264 Wisconsin Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC 20007
Martin’s Tavern is open Saturdays and Sundays for brunch.