Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Clinton walked into a bar. This is no joke. The bar is Martin's Tavern in Washington, and it serves an above-average pot roast.
This isn't the only bar patronized by American presidents, of course. Curious about others, we visited more than a dozen East Coast places that lay claim to a presidential past. Half history lesson, half goose chase, our journey took us to a number of joints that walk a fine line between celebrating their past and wearing presidential celebrity on their sleeve -- and those that achieve that balance deserve a visit.
MARTIN'S TAVERN Serving first families and everyday Georgetown denizens since 1933, Martin's boasts visits by every United States president since Harry S. Truman, except for the nation's current one, all before they were commander in chief.
Mismatched Tiffany-style lamps hang above an original mahogany bar. Weathered wooden booths envelop patrons dining on President Richard M. Nixon's favored meatloaf or President Truman's preferred pot roast. For a uniquely Martin's experience, visitors can sit in the Rumble Seat, the one-seated, one-sided booth No. 11, where President John F. Kennedy regularly took breakfast and read the paper while in Congress. The Proposal Booth, booth No. 3, is curiously one of two tables we encountered on our trip that is named as the site of Kennedy's engagement to Jacqueline Bouvier. "We're not going to say it didn't not happen here," was the fourth-generation owner Billy A. Martin Jr.'s circuitous account of the proposal.
If the dining room is packed, retreat to the "dugout room," a cozy cavern where President Lyndon B. Johnson sipped his favorite cocktail, Scotch and soda, while conspiring alongside House Speaker Sam Rayburn in booth No. 24. Today, Martin's seats fewer politicians. But that didn't stop Mr. Martin from urging Teresa Heinz Kerry to bring in her husband, Secretary of State John Kerry, for a taste of tradition leading up to the 2004 presidential election.
"It has always been good luck," Mr. Martin said. As for Mr. Kerry, he never did make it.
1264 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington; (202) 333-7370; martins-tavern.com.
THE TOMBS Not far from Martin's is this discreet Georgetown cellar, where President Bill Clinton, as a Georgetown undergraduate, joined classmates for beer and burgers, steps from his M Street dorm. In his autobiography, "My Life," he identifies the Tombs, a bunker of a bar beneath Georgetown's swanky 1789 restaurant, as a former haunt. Pitchers hang above a large square bar, awaiting refill from a bow-tie-clad, student-aged staff. Barside engravings pay homage to a lineage of barkeeps. President Clinton would no doubt approve of the current scene, where a good meal can still be had for under $15, and Georgetown students continue to take refuge from the city above.
1226 36th Street NW, Washington; (202) 337-6668; tombs.com.
THE ROUND ROBIN BAR AT THE WILLARD INTERCONTINENTAL At this hotel -- the self-proclaimed Residence of Presidents -- folklore has Ulysses S. Grant coining the term "lobbyists" as a label for those who loitered after him in the Willard's lobby (never mind references to the verb "lobbying" from before the Willard opened its doors). Order a drink in the lobby, as those supposed petitioners did near Grant, and watch the post-theater crowd parade in.
1401 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington; (202) 628-9100; intercontinental.com.
OFF THE RECORD AT THE HAY-ADAMS Our last stop in the District was a secluded alternative to the more flamboyant Willard. Overlooking 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the 144-room Hay-Adams hotel was the home of President Obama and his family in the weeks before he took office and may be the closest most people can get to sleeping in the White House. However, in a quiet basement lounge, visitors might find a future leader of the free world just trying to unwind. The bar is Off the Record, and John Boswell, a veteran bartender there, has served every president since Gerald R. Ford, before or after they became president. Its crimson, button-backed benches tuck into the walls to afford clientele sanctuary in which, as the bar's Web site puts it, they can "be seen and not heard."
Mr. Boswell, the affable and tight-lipped weeknight bartender, would reveal not a single utterance he's heard in 16 years at the bar. He wouldn't even say how many presidents he's served in the bar itself versus the hotel at large. But Mr. Boswell did offer some reminiscences. He recalled the "sweet" sight of George H. W. Bush and his son, then the governor of Texas, at the bar, going largely unnoticed. President Clinton would duck in between fund-raisers at the hotel above, Mr. Boswell recalled, sipping sauvignon blanc barside. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was said to be a more frequent visitor when she was serving in the Senate, but you didn't hear it from him.
Amid the dark red walls, political caricatures and low lighting that have kept this bar's White House crowd shrouded in mystery, finish the day with an apropos Presidential -- a vodka martini with blue-cheese olives. "We like to stick to the classics," Mr. Boswell said. "John McCain doesn't want a razzle-dazzle martini."
800 16th Street NW, Washington; (202) 638-6600; hayadams.com.
IRELAND'S OWN PUB A short ride outside Washington, in Alexandria, Va., is Ireland's Own, an Irish pub where, in Smithsonian fashion, the former owner Pat Troy created Reagan's Corner -- a reverent tribute to President Ronald Reagan's surprise St. Patrick's Day visit in 1988. Ireland's Own displays photographs of that spontaneous visit, now also memorialized on YouTube. Mr. Troy sold the restaurant in 2012, but the artifacts remain. Reagan's table setting from that day is encased in glass, complete with autographed meal ticket and the silverware used on that day.
111 North Pitt Street, Alexandria, Va.; (703) 549-4535; irelandsownpub.com.
"21" CLUB As you pass the wrought-iron gates, don't let the jockeys deter you: New York's "21" is not a private club. The Bar Room of this former speakeasy, with its hallmark red-and-white checkered tablecloths and a toy-filled ceiling (including a model PT-109 contributed by President Kennedy), has a register that reads like an eighth-grade history book. Every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, save our current one, has been to "21."
For a different atmosphere, sit at table No. 120 upstairs, and you'll rest where Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Clinton did before you (George W. Bush visited while he was governor).
President Reagan described the atmosphere in a 1953 love letter to Nancy Reagan, recounting a solo evening at "21," where he ordered a 1947 Pichon-Longueville that he deemed "tasty." In a tough field, Nixon holds the title of most frequent presidential guest, said Avery Fletcher, "21" 's marketing manager. In fact, the place still has two bottles of his wine left in its private stock.
21 West 52nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 582-7200; 21club.com.
THE TAP ROOM AT THE BEEKMAN ARMS In the Hudson Valley, the former Bogardus Tavern, now known as the Beekman Arms, claims to have hosted the likes of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton (it opened in 1766). The Beek, as locals call it, claims to be the oldest operating inn in the country and is the centerpiece of Rhinebeck, N.Y. From its porch, the story goes, Franklin Roosevelt concluded every gubernatorial and presidential campaign, not far from his home in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Steps away but years before, the inn suggests, Vice President Aaron Burr's and Alexander Hamilton's feud was fueled amid fiery discourse, although members of the Aaron Burr Association and the Rhinebeck Historical Society say this is dubious. Duck inside the low ceilings of the Beek's communal restaurant and bar for a pint or two and some butternut squash soup.
6387 Mill Street (Route 9), Rhinebeck, N.Y.; (845) 876-7077; beekmandelamaterinn.com.
PARKER'S RESTAURANT IN THE OMNI PARKER HOUSE HOTEL In Boston, at Parker's Restaurant, we found another table claimed by its owner to be where John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier -- 441 miles from the table at Martin's. Sitting at corner table No. 40, we wondered how it could be that he proposed in both places, while still others suggest he proposed by telegram. Unlike Martin's table, the purported proposal spot at Parker's has a low profile: unmarked, it looks out inconspicuously over an arabesque dining room.
Engagement confusion aside, Boston's Parker House Hotel is still an appropriate stop on a presidential pub-crawl. Here, at what is said to be the oldest continuously operating full-service hotel in the United States, Kennedy had a bachelor party and also announced his bid for Congress -- although not on the same day. The Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh once baked bread for a living at the Parker House. Today, visitors can enjoy two great bars and, of course, the signature Parker House rolls.
60 School Street, Boston; (617) 227-8600; omnihotels.com.
CHARLIE'S KITCHEN It turns out Mr. Clinton wasn't the only recent president to search out a good burger and cheap beer during his study breaks. In Cambridge, Mass., George W. Bush spent time earning his M.B.A. and relaxing at Charlie's Kitchen, a Harvard staple that also claims visits from President Obama during his time at the school.
"Everybody goes to Charlie's," said Helen Metros, who at 83 has been waiting tables there for 54 years. She recalled slinging burger specials to Mr. Bush and countless other political names. "Some students can be know-it-alls," she said, but Mr. Bush was "always a gentleman." On the main floor, Charlie's has tables with distinctive red-and-black tops and the aura of a classic dive. Head upstairs for a more barlike feeling and a jukebox featuring local bands like Hallelujah the Hills. Jaap Overgaag, the manager, said that people try to persuade him to move to a digital jukebox, but he's resisted since the smaller local acts would be excluded. Try the double cheeseburger.
10 Eliot Street, Cambridge, Mass.; (617) 492-9646; charlieskitchen.com.
THE EIRE PUB Just outside Boston, in Dorchester, Mass., we found the Eire Pub, an unlikely political battleground in a predominantly Democratic town. President Reagan made a surprise visit on Jan. 26, 1983. The owner, John Stenson, who was warned two minutes beforehand, now displays pictures of himself greeting the presidential limo that day. Nine years later, Mr. Clinton stopped by during his 1992 presidential campaign and declared the Eire reclaimed for Democrats. Now, this once male-only "gentlemen's prestige bar" refers to itself as the "presidential choice." Mr. Reagan was served a Ballantine. So was Mr. Clinton, but he went one step further and, to the surprise of the crowd, jumped behind the bar to serve drinks.
"When politicians go to Washington they can lose track of the people that put them there," Mr. Stenson said. "They go to bars to re-energize themselves and see where the public is coming from."
Should President Obama or others need to re-energize themselves while in Dorchester, the Eire opens at 8 a.m. daily.
795 Adams Street, Dorchester, Mass.; (617) 436-0088; eirepub.com.travel
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.