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It’s a little before 9 p.m. on Friday night, and Tune Inn, the popular and unpretentious Capitol Hill bar, is packed.
Patrons jam into the narrow walkway in front of the L-shaped bar, making it impossible to take a step without nudging someone. In the back, every table is taken. Out front, on the bar’s small front patio on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, 15 people wearing coats and hoodies sit at tables or stand around on a cool late fall night.
It’s the kind of crowd you might expect at a local sports bar if the Washington Football Team was about to play in the Super Bowl, or if the Nationals were playing in the deciding game of the World Series. But the Tune Inn isn’t a sports hangout, and no local team is competing for a championship. The crowd is there for Stephanie Hulbert-Sargent’s last shift after 10 years behind the bar.
During her decade at “the Tune,” as regulars affectionately call it, Hulbert earned a reputation as a competent, personable bartender who could efficiently carry five beer bottles in her hands and remember your favorite drink, even if you hadn’t been a patron for very long. She also took charge when she needed to bounce unruly, disrespectful customers from the bar.
“This bar has been an institution, but institutions fail,” says Brett Sheats, a 42-year-old Capitol Hill resident who was on hand for Hulbert’s final last call. “She’s kept the place going for 10 years. Look at this place,” he says, pointing to the packed bar. “She’s extremely good at her job, she cares about the community, and she brings the hammer when needed.” Sheats says he wishes he’d had “a platoon of Stephs” when he served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. “The war would have been over a long time ago.”
Hulbert-Sargent is leaving to pursue a dream she’s had since was a child—launching her own restaurant. The new venture, A Presto! Italian Foods, is named after her maternal grandfather, Angelio DelPresto, and her vision is steeped in family tradition. She grew up in northern New Jersey in an Italian family that valued food. Both of her parents cooked great meals, and passed their love of Sunday dinners to Hulbert-Sargent and her sisters.
“I always knew I wanted for people to enjoy my food in a comfortable setting, listening to great music and sipping red wine,” she says. “My grandfather loved Sunday dinner. He loved the ravioli, he loved the conversation. And I loved my chair right next to him.”
When her grandfather died in 2017, Hulbert-Sargent decided that she would one day start her own restaurant and name it after him. That year, she started doing pop-up dinners at District Space in Brookland, which no longer exists. The pandemic forced Hulbert-Sargent to put her A Presto! plans on hold until recently.
While working at Tune Inn, Hulbert-Sargent forged a friendship with the owner of Sushi Capitol, located one block west at 225 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Can Yurdagul, is letting her use his space for pop-up dinners on Sundays when the restaurant is closed. The first one is scheduled for Dec. 12 and will occur every Sunday after that. Beginning in January, customers will be able to order food for delivery using DoorDash Wednesdays through Sundays. A Presto! will also offer catering. Reservations and orders can be made online. Hulbert-Sargent will simultaneously search for a permanent brick-and-mortar home for the restaurant.
The menu will feature items named after family members like Poppy’s Italian salad and Momma Sue’s meatballs. Hulbert-Sargent describes the salad as a charcuterie board with cheese on top of a salad with peppers and parmesan.
“My mom’s meatballs are special and delicious,” she says, hyping up another other signature dish. “If you can’t cut through a meatball with a fork, what are you eating?” She also promises an outstanding red sauce, the equivalent of the gravy for her family’s Sunday dinners. “For those who have seen Goodfellas, it’s a real thing—stir the sauce,” she says.
Before joining the staff at Tune Inn, Hulbert-Sargent worked in health care and in the hospitality, catering, and event-planning fields. As she transitions from bartender to restaurateur, she says she’ll pull from her experience at Tune Inn.
“It should be a rite of passage for all individuals to work in the restaurant industry,” she says. “You learn how to respect people, you learn how to read people, and you learn people’s idiosyncrasies and how to react to them. But, most of all, you learn how to be a better person. I will always take with me how the Tune taught me to be a more patient and a better person, albeit still difficult at times. I learned the industry will kick your butt, then kick it again and again, but you have to be strong, stand up, and move forward.”
She’ll carry colorful memories with her from her time at Tune Inn like when the bar next door, Hawk ‘n Dove, reopened under new management in 2013. “All my closest friends who were bartenders and servers there came over to Tune to cap off a night of a successful re-opening,” Hulbert-Sargent says. “I greeted them all at the door with hugs and I remember stepping back when a handsome fellow was going in to hug me and I did not know him. All of my friends said, ‘How do you two not know each other?’” That man, Paul Sargent, is now Hulbert-Sargent’s husband.
On the night of Hulbert-Sargent’s final shift, well-wishers kept coming for the send off. Someone gave her a bottle of Champagne, the owner of another bar handed her a dozen roses, and a group of women who build furniture brought her a cutting board.
As the 3 a.m. closing time neared, Hulbert-Sargent climbed atop a chair behind the bar to address her fans. Multiple people captured the moment on video. She thanked her fellow bartender, Matt Manley, who showed her the ropes when she stood behind the bar for the first time a decade ago. “I love you all, I thank you all,” she said. “You all make the Tune Inn what it is. So please keep coming back, please still be here. I will be on that side (of the bar) drinking with you. It is a wonderful place.”