As nearly as can be determined, it all started when Joe Kennedy rented out a restaurant for a private dinner the night before his son's inauguration in 1961. The restaurant was Paul Young's on Connecticut Avenue, Its menu featured a bland mix somewhere between French cuisine and French fries, a combination usually described as "continental," presumably because the term doesn't specify which continent and therefore stretches from Lyons, the hometown of haute cuisine, to Kansas City, the capital of charcoal broiled steaks. Still Paul Young's was a brave venture in Washington, a world capital that was a very provincial restaurant town. There were fewer than one hand's count of even approximately French chefs.
Back then, important people went out to dinner frequently—but usually in other important people's homes. Joe Kennedy's private party marked the inauguration of Washington's restaurant era. The party made Paul Young's. It was the Kennedy restaurant. The Irish mafia also took to Duke Zeibert's, which was half a block closer to the White House. It was less in-between cuisines than Paul Young's, "You get a good drink and a plain honest meal and you always have," says one former Kennedy aide, now a Washington lawyer, who's been eating there for 15 years.
But the Washington restaurant era has not taken its dominant character from places like that of Duke Zeibert, a onetime waiter who worked, and many say gambled, his way up. What did it was the decided preference of Jackie Kennedy for French food. She had eaten at the Jockey Club, then and now a very expensive French restaurant heavy on the sauces. But it was too far from the White House, especially for lunch. Press Secretary Pierre Salinger started lunching at the Sans Souci. So did Art Buchwald whose opinion was definitely to be valued since he had spent years in Paris. Thus was born a Washington institution, the powerful and the prominent taking their lunch at the S.S., as some of them came to call it, "Never dinner, of course," Frank Mankiewicz smiles, "That's for the tourists."
Ever since Camelot there has been a continuing explosion of high-priced restaurants, largely Francophile. In 1970, Jean Pierre's pioneered the K Street strip. Today within four blocks there are five places where dinner averages $70 a couple. Two of them claim to be Northern Italian, which seems to mean French plus noodles. Eleven of the Washingtonian magazine's 20 "Blue Ribbon Restaurants" did not exist before 1970. The clientele continually expands just beyond the table space allotted. This annual Washingtonian restaurant guide now defines an inexpensive meal as one costing $25 to $35 dollars for two.
Dining out has become a Washington ritual. "Let's have lunch sometime" is as frequent, as casual, and as meaningless a phrase as "see you soon," Even the private dinner party at night is giving way to the restaurants. At dinner parties you have to sit next to someone you may not know or don't like and table talk is a boring task. The large, lavish parties have become increasingly the preserve of exotic foreign lobbyists like Tongsun Park, South Korea's former fixer in Washington—or of the Ambassadors, among whom the star is Ardeshir Zahedi, who hosted 2000 at the Iranian embassy last October to celebrate the Shah's birthday.
People in Washington define themselves by the restaurants they choose. House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who succeeded in 1952 to John Kennedy's congressional seat, remains loyal to Paul Young's. So does another party regular, onetime Democratic National Chairman Bob Strauss. But the real old line restaurant is Duke Zeibert's. Larry O'Brien eats there and Kenny O'Donnell always returns and the labor leaders are steady customers. Duke's remains an in place for "honest American food." It is the restaurant of professional athletes. It has Runyonesque touches: at the next table over from Edward Bennett Williams you might spot a godfatherly character wearing what a friend of mine describes as "a full Cleveland": white tie, white belt, and white shoes.
Duke's patrons are full of lore about the famous. Congressman Gene Keogh of Brooklyn, the sponsor of the Keogh pension plan for the self-employed, ate regularly on other people's tabs. It's said that the farthest he ever got in signing his own name was the "g" in Eugene. Once he was trapped at a table in Duke's with a group of guests he had invited. None of them grabbed for the check. Keogh solved the problem by running across the street to the Mayflower Hotel bar, where he found a lobbyist and brought him back to Duke's—"to meet some interesting people," Keogh explained—and to pick up the check.
The difference between John Kennedy's Irish mafia and Jackie Kennedy's Francophiles has endured. The Duke's types tend to look down on the patrons of the new French restaurants on K Street. "They send the waiters to Berlitz for 2 weeks to learn an accent," one meat and potatoes man sneers. (In fact, some Frenchsounding waiters are illegal aliens, busily serving, among others, the Senators and Representatives who write the immigration laws.) Lobbyists and lawyers dining à la client aside, the diners along K Street who are paying for their own meals tend to be liberals. They're not as tight with their money, which is why they have less. The important question is: What is the hot new restaurant?
Le tout Washington (a term from "Ear," the Star's sprightly gossip column) is awaiting signals from the Carter people about what changes in restaurant fashions they intend to institute. One early policy decision: they don't lunch at the Sans Souci, "for symbolic reasons," one of them says.
One man or one event can still make or break a Washington restaurant. Henry Kissinger catered a party for the (Communist) Chinese legation at the Yenching Palace and suddenly it was the Chinese place. It redecorated, raised prices, and reduced portions. Similarly one man, at least, could hurt a restaurant. Ever since Richard Nixon dined publicly at Trader Vic's while President, it has been more declasse than ever for adults to eat there unaccompanied by a child, preferably under 16.
The Montpelier Room of the Madison Hotel, certainly the most expensive dining experience in Washington, attracts a certain clientele that tends to be Republican. Major oil companies with natural subsidiaries rent suites in the Madison for their lobbyists for approximately $80,000 a year; the cost can be factored into the natural gas rate base, so the consumers pay the rent and the Montpelier Room tabs that can easily soar, with wine, to $60 or $70 a person.
If you're wondering about the quality of Washington food, then you've missed the point. Some of it is actually good, even excellent, if overpriced; the Guide Michelin would have awarded one star of a possible three to lean Pierre's, the New York Times reported several years ago. (Only one other restaurant outside New York would have had a star, the Times asserted.) Perhaps Jean Pierre took the star with him to Le Lion D'Or, but that, too, is essentially beside the point. The point is psychic nourishment. A restaurant is a badge of identity. You are where you eat. More important than the food on the plate is where you sit, and that can be a Byzantine matter. In Duke Zeibert's and Jean Pierre's, a front table is a sign of status, but in the Sans Souci it's Siberia.
At any rate, Washington's appetite for restaurants with toney atmosphere and high prices—whether they serve steaks, tarted-up hamburgers, California-style leafy mixtures or attempts to scale the heights of haute cuisine—seems insatiable. There is a place in Georgetown that has an ice cream counter with the best hot fudge sundae in Washington. You used to be able to go to the counter, order a sundae, and take it to a table. One afternoon in May, however, the sundaemaker pointed to a rostrum near the counter and a man standing behind it. To get a hot fudge sundae, she explained, "you'll have to be seated by the maitre d’.”
This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977, issue of the magazine