The New York Times Sometimes Stumbles Through Washington Like a Visiting High School Student

By Jack Limpert

The New York Times has posted a story, “The Dish on the Washington Power Dining Scene,” that reads like something written by a Wisconsin high school student visiting DC and discovering that two ambassadors from small countries were seen dining at an expensive DC restaurant and that must be power dining in the nation’s capital. That may be power dining in Milwaukee but in Washington those two ambassadors are on the power scale just below a couple of reserve lineman from the Washington Redskins.

Washingtonian food editor Jessica Sidman quickly countered with a post saying “Power restaurants aren’t real. Stop talking about them.” Sidman says, “Every so often, some news outlet trots out a story about DC’s ‘power dining scene’ and pretends to be amazed that a CNN anchor, the vice president, and a Republican senator might have all eaten in the same place at different points in time. The New York Times is the latest culprit to fall for this cliche….”

She concludes: “If your definition of a power restaurant is that the clientele includes bold-face names, practically every restaurant in DC is a power restaurant. Good luck naming an establishment around that hasn’t had a visit from some congresswoman, ambassador, Supreme Court justice, or White House staffer. Michelle Obama has basically eaten the entire city. These people happen to live in DC, and they like to eat out—just like the rest of us.”

No more power restaurants? As a longtime Washington editor, I enjoyed those places. They were where a journalist could stop and chat with political power brokers (not elected officials so much as those who helped get them elected), with well-connected lawyers and lobbyists, with bold-faced names in business, sports, and the arts, and with other journalists. Lots of story ideas came out of those conversations.

The first Washington power restaurant was Sans Souci, a French place near the White House, The Monocle was big on Capitol Hill. Rive Gauche in Georgetown.

I had one memorable lunch at Sans Souci with humor columnist Art Buchwald. I wanted him to write something for the Washingtonian and we kicked around ideas and finally I asked, “Why don’t you write a funny obituary about yourself?” He agreed and I probably said he’d get paid $1,000. When the deadline came and went, I called and asked how the piece was coming. “Great,” he said. “I sold it to Playboy.” Probably for $3,000.

Duke Zeibert’s on Connecticut Avenue was the big power place from the late 70s to early 90s. After Duke’s closed, then the Palm.

I always thought the key to power dining was a greeter or maitre d who understood the DC power game and would seat people accordingly.

At Duke’s there was the front room where power players dined and Siberia, the back room where Duke sent everyone else. Lawyer Ed Williams was a  front room regular along with Art Buchwald and Ben Bradlee. Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke had a table and Duke would know if Jack was showing up. You only sat at that table if Jack wasn’t coming.

Once I was having lunch at Duke’s and Kelly McGillis, who had starred with Tom Cruise in Top Gun and Harrison Ford in Witness, came in—she was in a play at Arena Stage. Duke put her in Siberia. I waved Duke over, told him who she was, and he went back and led her up to the front room.

Duke knew who almost all the big players were in politics, the media, the law and lobbying, the arts, and sports. You’d didn’t go there for the food, which was okay, but to see power players and to table hop. That made having lunch there useful in terms of connections and what was going on behind the scenes.

A power lunch story: In 1979, publisher Philip Merrill bought the Washingtonian. At Duke’s one of the regulars was Bob Strauss, a Lyndon Johnson pal who was big in the legal world and Democratic politics. He was famous for greeting people he knew with friendly insults.

At Duke’s one day I saw Strauss, stopped at his table, and told him that Phil Merrill had bought the magazine and we’d probably be coming over for lunch and would he come by and insult me. He said sure. About a week later I was at Duke’s with Phil and Strauss came by, said hello, and told Phil, “Everybody hopes you can find a better editor than the guy you’ve got.” Lots of smiles and handshakes. Sort of what power lunching was about.




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