Old Ebbitt Grill was Saved by Its Beer Stein Collection

1980s photo of Old Ebbitt Grill interior from Historic American Buildings Survey. (Source: HABS DC-315, Library of Congress)
Old Ebbitt Grill in the 1980s. (Source: Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS DC-315, Library of Congress)

The Old Ebbitt Grill, located on 15th Street NW across from the Treasury Building, has deep roots in D.C. history. The restaurant’s website bills it as “the oldest saloon in Washington,”[1] and it has served presidents, royalty, Washington luminaries, movie and television stars, and military heroes. The scope of historic names on the Ebbitt’s guest list rivals that of any public establishment in America.

Since William Ebbitt bought the Frenchman’s Hotel on F and 14th Streets NW in 1856 and renamed it the Ebbitt House, what we know of today as the Old Ebbitt’s Grill has been relocated, redecorated, torn down, rebuilt, resized, sold, and bought several times. It reached its darkest days in 1970, when the IRS threatened to close down the floundering restaurant for five years’ back taxes.

The Old Ebbitt Grill was originally the house restaurant at the Ebbitt House Hotel, which was torn down to make way for the National Press Club building in 1926. The restaurant’s décor was saved and the Grill opened as its own entity around the corner at 1427 F Street. Business was good for many years, but by the end of the 1960s, the Ebbitt was in hock.

On June 6, 1970, the IRS announced that it was giving the Ebbitt’s owners 10 days to pay the business’s $10,995.15 tax bill dating back to 1965. When June 16 came and no payment arrived, the IRS shut the doors, and to the horror of many longtime patrons, the Ebbitt went on the auction block.

The Ebbitt’s rich history meant that it had collected its share of historic items. “If the public sale takes place, it will be an antique collector’s dream,” wrote Washington Post reporter Alex Ward. “Among the trappings are a 200-year old clock that still runs on its original wooden wheels, an ornamental bear that belonged to Alexander Hamilton, a pair of decanters dating to 1575 and one of the most valuable collections of steins in the country.”[2]

It was the beer steins that drew Stuart Davidson and John Laytham to the auction. Davidson and Laytham were the owners of the successful Clyde’s in Georgetown, which opened in 1963. They put their bid in for the steins and the mahogany bar, which they hoped to bring back to Clyde’s.

After a round of bidding on the various items up for grabs at the Ebbitt, the tally came to $6,639, far short of what the IRS needed to recover its taxes. All the bids, including those by Davidson and Laytham, were thrown out, and the entire establishment was put up for auction. The Clyde’s owners acquired the Old Ebbitt Grill for $11,250.[3]

Longtime customers and lovers of history were concerned that the building would be demolished and redeveloped, but Davidson assured them that the restaurant would stay, and that he wanted to reopen the Ebbitt as soon as the liquor license could be changed.

The Old Ebbitt Grill reopened on October 13, 1970 with a more modern look and playing rock music for a younger crowd. “It’s like coming home and finding the old place all fixed up,” one long-time customer said at the time, “We were hearing rumors that the hippies were going to take over the place, but it’s just as nice as ever -- except a bit noisier.”[4]

Footnotes

  1. ^ See Old Ebbitt Grill website: http://www.ebbitt.com/about/history
  2. ^ Alex Ward, “U.S. Order Shuts Old Ebbitt Grill, Claims Owner Owes $11,000 in Taxes,” Washington Post, June 6, 1970, p B1.
  3. ^ Michael Kernan, “Old Ebbitt Auction,” Washington Post, June 17, 1970, p. C1.
  4. ^ Quoted in Tort Zito, “Reopening Day: New Shine for the Old Ebbitt,” Washington Post, October 14, 1970, p. B1.