It’s Monday morning at Chatter restaurant in Friendship Heights, and reporter-turned-radio-host-turned-podcast-host-and-restaurateur Tony Kornheiser is working the crowd.
“Pictures later if you want them,” he says during a break to the group assembled at the restaurant he co-owns to hear him tape his eponymous talk show. He repeats this phrase, “if you want them,” and gets a hearty laugh. “I personally wouldn’t want them,” he says.
Getting a picture taken with the man known by listeners as “Mr. Tony” is one of the perks of attending a live taping of The Tony Kornheiser Show, which formerly aired on ESPN 980 but is now available exclusively as a podcast. He also tosses out prizes to the audience, including, for example, ties that a listener in Japan sent to the show. Someone else recently sent a box of Omaha Steaks.
Like a good standup comedian, Kornheiser is generally quick to compliment the size of the audience (“We have lots of people here,” “It’s a big crowd”), even if on one of the days he proclaimed the room crowded a waitress said it was actually a bit light.
On a recent Monday, however, she said a crowd of 20 had waited outside the restaurant, now known as Chatter but formerly known as Chadwicks and then as Chads, to get a seat before the show began at 8 a.m. There’s no “one coffee minimum,” but guests are generally encouraged to order from a breakfast menu and to sip and nibble at communal tables while they watch and listen to the show from behind a glass window.
Kornheiser partnered with local celebrities Gary Williams, Maury Povich, and philanthropist Alan Bubes to buy the place. Each of the partners had a different reason for buying in, Kornheiser said, but his goal was to create a podcast studio. Right now, the studio turns out his show—which focuses on sports and media and politics and the ins and outs of his life—as well as a podcast about movies hosted by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday and local broadcast legend Arch Campbell and Between Innings With Dan Kolko, a podcast about the Washington Nationals. Soon a few more shows will begin taping in the studio, something Kornheiser hopes will be “the proverbial win-win situation” for Chatter by attracting a spate of new customers.
About a month-and-a-half into the tapings, Kornheiser pronounced himself pleased with how it’s going. His listeners, known in show parlance as “Littles,” have come for breakfast and a show at Chatter. They sit quietly while the show is taped and laugh at jokes made by Kornheiser and his rotating cast of co-hosts and guests, which features his son Michael and several prominent journalists, including some from his days at the Washington Post. While his personal brand is curmudgeonry, Kornheiser seems to really get a kick out of interacting with his audience in person. He appears to feed off their earnest enthusiasm for the show.
Some visitors are locals who work in Friendship Heights and come before heading to the office, but others travel far and wide to be there.
“Unbelievable!” Kornheiser said. “We had a guy from Botswana. It’s just unbelievable.”
Les Nunnery, on a two-week vacation from Swanscombe, England, posed for a photo with Kornheiser before darting out of the restaurant. A welder by trade, Nunnery said he’s been listening to the show for more than 10 years. “I listen during the day under me helmet,” he said. The person who followed Nunnery to the grip and grin was from Annapolis, which seemed to slightly disappoint Kornheiser. “Annapolis isn’t England,” he said.
“It’s been kind of a bucket list kind of thing,” said Marc Bergman, who came with his wife and daughter from Cincinnati. “I have a pathetic kind of bucket list,” he said with a smile. Bergman, like the other “Littles” in attendance, isn’t ashamed to be a superfan and isn’t embarrassed to be thrilled just to be in the presence of Kornheiser. “It made my vacation,” he said. Bergman had Kornheiser sign a book and asked him to make it out to “my best friend.”
A local listener, Ghana Blankson of Baltimore, took a picture with Kornheiser and told him it was the happiest day of her life. When asked by a reporter why she said that, she replied, “’Cause it is.”
These superfans have built a community based on their shared passion for the show, and they even have little inside jokes—like referencing the cheese counter at Calvert Woodley, La Cheeserie—that signal membership in the “Tony Kornheiser Show” fanclub.
“They make connections to each other,” Kornheiser said of his fans after a show. “They make direct connections. It’s amazing to me.”
Arranging a trip to Chatter has become a popular gift for the supportive partner of a Tony Kornheiser Show superfan. A woman from Arkansas recently called in advance to tell the restaurant it was her boyfriend’s birthday, and they got to sit inside the studio in a small seating area reserved for distance travelers and those who have made special requests.
The Goodhart Family made the three-hour drive from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to be at the show. Jeremy Goodhart said he got up at 4:40 A.M. for the trip, and he and his wife, Janelle, had the challenging task of getting their young son Mason up and out the door to make it in time for the show. (Mason, as a treat, would also get a trip to the National Zoo, they said).
“I wanted to surprise my husband with an early little Father’s Day ‘let’s see Tony for breakfast,’” Janelle said.
Now, Kornheiser knows that these out-of-town visitors aren’t generally schlepping to Friendship Heights just to see him. “They’re in Washington for something else but they make it a point to come to this, which is good,” he said.
There’s a lot of work to be done on Chatter, and during a recent show repairs were being made on the other side of the restaurant. The restaurant is old, but as long as the show is running, it will be taped at Chatter, Kornheiser said. “It’s not like a touring repertoire company,” he said. “This is it. This is where we do it. This is it.”
Correction: This post originally misspelled the Goodhart family’s last name.