For three decades, Portner's at 109 S. St. Asaph St. was an Old Town institution, the place to be seen for power lunches or happy hours.
Sam Donaldson came in every Sunday around noon for Eggbeater omelettes after taping ABC's "This Week with Sam & Cokie," and New York Times bestselling author Richard Miniter penned three books on the war on terror at a booth near the bar, while taking overseas calls from Afghanistan and feeding his dog Boxer scraps from lunch.
It was that kind of place, full of lore and legend. But toward the end -- which came suddenly on May 31 -- the bar sat empty many nights and the dining room was sparsely populated.
Locals howled about the pricey $14 martinis and $36 steaks, and pined away for the days when legendary bartender Harry Williams (who worked 19 years and 11 months at Portner's) called them out by name when they walked through the door, their drink perfectly stirred by the time they hit the bar stool.
Alexandria-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group is now running the place, which reopened July 15 as Columbia Firehouse. Gone is the out-of-town attitude and the $14 martinis. In its place is a warm, inviting atmosphere not unlike the old Portner's.
"I grew up coming here with my parents as a kid," said restaurant manager Chris Mickey, a Bishop Ireton graduate whose father once managed Union Street Pub. "It's a timepiece."
Built as the Columbia Firehouse in 1883, Mickey said that the recent makeover works to preserve much of the old millwork and nostalgic environment which characterized both Portner's and Bookbinder's.
"We casual'd it up a bit," Mickey said. "We took out the booths, put up some fresh new wallpaper and we removed the 25-foot fake palm tree which made the place look like a hotel lobby."
Back at the oak-paneled bar are Harry and John, who between them served up three decades of collective good cheer at Portner's bar. "It's great to have Harry back to where he belongs," said a longtime regular, realtor David Samson of Old Town. "They'll definitely get some of the old magic back."
Michael Babin of Del Ray, the creative brainpower and leadership behind Neighborhood Restaurant Group's breathtaking and unbroken streak of dining successes locally (think Del Ray's Evening Star Cafe, Arlington's Tallula and EatBar, and Old Town's Buzz Bakery, Rustico and Vermilion), said Tuesday that he had put a lot of thought into recreating some of the old magic of Portner's.
"We're focusing on the highest quality of ingredients and local sourcing of our menu items," he said. "This is a real institution that we're committed to preserving and making successful."
Babin, a known eye for good talent in the kitchen (Vermilion's chef Tony Chittum won Chef of the Year last month at the Rammys) has picked Orlando Hitzig as his executive chef, after star turns at Vidalia, 701 and Old Town's Blue Point Grille.
His newest neighborhood restaurant will offer two distinct, chef-driven dining experiences.
Downstairs, the 120-seat dining room now offers a casual menu with a focus on modern American comfort food, small plates and sandwiches, such as dry-rubbed and smoked chicken wings with buttermilk blue and firehouse BBQ sauces, Maryland crab cake with jicama slaw and Dijon aioli, the firehouse burger -- using Angus beef -- and a Virginia bouillabaisse.