Owners Mark Menard and Mike Schuster recently reunited with old customers and employees when they celebrated the 10th anniversary of Trusty’s Full-Serve Bar. When they first decided to open a tavern on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, though, many thought they’d never succeed on a block full of boarded-up buildings. Trusty’s, known for it’s burgers, board games and bus bar, has since become a Capitol Hill institution.
Menard and Schuster also own Star and Shamrock and Barrel, and once operated the now-closed Pour House. Schuster is also involved with Compass Rose. Yet Trusty’s remains their favorite bar, thanks to the warm neighborhood vibe and loyal customer base. Ten years after opening, Menard and Schuster reflect on what makes Trusty’s so special.
Think back to 10 years ago before Trusty’s was here. What prompted you to open a bar?
MM: A young lady sold moon bounces out of here at the time, and it wasn’t doing terribly well. It wasn’t really a successful business for her and she wanted to find a way out of it. At that point, the Nationals were being talked about as potentially coming to RFK Stadium. The neighborhood was significantly different than it is now. But we saw a lot of potential, so we went ahead and did it.
I’m from Boston and Mike is from D.C., but he’s done a significant amount of traveling. He likes this particular type of bar and that’s the type of bar that I grew up in. Bars like this exist on every street corner where I grew up. So we wanted to bring that type of neighborhood bar to D.C. We wanted a bar that had a soul.
Can you describe how the neighborhood has changed since you first opened?
MM: The neighborhood was in the beginning of transition. There were still a lot of older folks who had been living here in the neighborhood. Most of the spaces along this commercial block were vacant. Since we moved in, slowly but surely, not just the neighborhood but the block itself has been transitioning. I think the neighborhood has really appreciated that.
What kind of challenges did you face opening the bar on a mostly vacant block?
MM: We took about a year and half to do the build out because this place hadn’t been a drinking establishment. There was lots of different licensing we needed and air conditioning and all that fun stuff that we had to put in. We immediately latched onto the Nats once they came to town. We immediately reached out to the neighborhood even prior to and there was a lot of good local support. It’s continued and as the neighborhood has grown, we’ve grown naturally and very organically...Trusty’s is truly a D.C. neighborhood bar. That’s a very rare thing these days. I don’t think there are many left, if there ever were any.
What was the atmosphere like when you first opened the bar? Was it busy right away or did people have to warm up to it?
MM: I would say we had a nice core neighborhood business right from the get-go because there was nothing else like this. 8th Street didn’t really exist at that point...Because of the Nationals, we made ourselves very well known to be the closest bar to RFK. We did the same thing with DC United. We still have that connection with DC United to this day. We scrapped and we made it work. We knew that going in. That was part of our plan.
We knew that opening the doors alone wasn’t going to be like opening the doors on U Street is now. We did a lot of things with the neighborhood and for the neighborhood. We met with people from the neighborhood prior to even opening up.
Trusty’s just occupied the bottom floor when you first opened. Why did you decide to expand into the upstairs?
MM: Well, the upstairs used to be apartments, but we decided to expand the bar and make it larger. Because we were successful on the bottom level and we felt like we could use the extra space, and it has been really awesome and very well received by the neighborhood. At first they were concerned... that Trusty’s was going to become everybody’s place. They had really embraced it as their own. We didn’t want it to lose its neighborhood appeal and its neighborhood feel.. We walked a fine line, but we did it with that in mind.
Has the first floor space changed at all over the years?
MS: Obviously some of the furniture has been upgraded, but the main decor is the same...We changed our sign a few years ago, things like that...We try to stay as pure to our original concept as we can because that’s kind of what was relevant. You know, keeping that neighborhood theme to it. There’s something to be said for a dive bar, but you can also have a clean dive bar. We try to kind of walk that line. We try to be simple sp everyone can come here. We have lawyers, lobbyists, and neighborhood guys, teachers and industry folks, you know, whatever. Everyone probably gets something different out of the place. It’s here for everyone and that’s the beauty of this place.
Could you describe your customer base a little bit more?
MM: It really runs the gamut. We’ve got a lot of people who live in the neighborhood, a lot of people who work in the neighborhood. We get people who actually think they have discovered"the place in their world, and there are people who actually take the metro over here.The metro was a big part of our decision to come here, but I would say the vast majority of our business is local.
MS: Yeah, it’s mainly D.C.-based. when there are people who travel from different parts of D.C. I think it’s because a friend of friend says, "Oh man, you’ve gotta come over here to Trusty’s." They hear it from someone who lives around here. Let’s talk about your drink selection.
What do you usually find people drinking in here?
MM: We have a fair number of good whiskies. We have a full bar. We have draft beer. we have bottled beer. we have canned beer. We have a ton of canned beer upstairs. But it’s not your father’s canned beer or my father’s canned beer anyway. Put it that way.
MS: We’re always looking for craft beer that we can sell at a certain price point and keep it accessible and priced a certain way for everybody. but there’s a ton of craft beer out there which is great...It’s not a big cocktail place.
The menu at Trusty’s is focused on grill food like burgers, cheesesteaks, and half-smokes. How it changed over the past 10 years?
MM: Honestly, not a lot. We’ve added to it and upgraded it, but that’s pretty much it...Basically to get a new menu item, someone has to request it , want it, and it has to be amazing.
MS: But having worked on different projects recently like at Barrel and Compass Rose and seeing how kitchens can operate in tighter spaces, there’s some things that we might try to tweak. But we still have to keep it very low-key and casual. There are some things we might be able to pull off in the next year or so.
MM: We’re making our own sausages at our other locations, so it’s possible. We might be able to start to bring that in here as well, along with our own bacon and that type of thing. It’s just taking things up a notch.
What have you learned since opening this bar?
MM: A lot. An immense amount...But I think what we’ve learned is that trusty’s is kind of unique. it’s kind of special. It’s very special to a lot of folks. When we were building out, we had to make sure we met with customers... They told us, "hey, we don’t want this place to change."...You know, it was just those kinds of quality concerns that people have. they consider this kind of like an extension of their own home. which is something I don’t think you find in a lot of places. Well, in a lot of bars anywhere but particularly here in D.C. because it’s such a transient city. There are people who were here five years ago who are no longer here but they’re welcome to come back, and they feel like they can come back. When we had our tenth anniversary, a lot of people did some back... A lot of them had moved just to the suburbs, but they popped in for it. They know they’re always welcome here.
MS: Overall, we really just want to thank everybody...It’s been great and it’s also been a privilege, you know, because this is our livelihood...t doesn’t always happen that you can have a place that both means a lot to you and can still be well-perceived to the patrons in a neighborhood that means a lot to you Really, it’s just an honor being in this neighborhood.