Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Washington Social Diary

The menu at the White House Mess, and the box of M&M's available to guests on the way out the door.
By Carol Joynt

After a recent entertaining lunch in New York at Michael’s with DPC and JH, I returned to Washington comparing the scene there to the scene here and musing on whether Washington had a lunch to match that always packed dining room on West 55th Street. The Outsize Ego factor alone can overwhelm the senses. But respect is due; it’s remarkable what Michael’s achieves in patron wattage, good service and quality food. Although the truth is, like furs and jewels, what may flash admirably in Manhattan is often hidden under the table, or behind closed doors, in D.C. Unlike many cities, our powerful take lunch in rooms where a security clearance is needed to get in the door. Come to think of it, Michael McCarty might go for that.

Detail of the menu's front, featuring only the Presidential seal.
True to its nature, in this town the power lunch spots get ranked in hierarchical order. The top is the top, meaning the leading power dining room would be the White House “Mess.” The name belies its quiet authority, sitting as it does in the West Wing basement, under the Oval Office, and across the hall from the “Sit Room.”

The White House “situation room” if you get a peek, looks like a routine corporate conference room except for the screens and terminals that track global crises. The Sit Room is run by the National Security Council and is where Presidents go to monitor trouble – ours or someone else’s. When you go to the Mess, the Sit Room door is right there, a hand’s reach away. Although your arm would quickly get twisted behind your back if you did reach out and touch: the Secret Service may disappear into the woodwork at the White House, but they are everywhere.

The Mess is run by the Navy and looks like it’s run by the Navy, with a décor suitable for the brass on an aircraft carrier – handsome wood paneling, bits of nautical trim, ship paintings, and a dozen or so tightly packed tables with white cloths and modest flowers. It’s run like a country club where only senior staff can be members, book a table, and bring guests, and they get billed accordingly. There are no prices on the menu.
Some of the menu items at the White House “Mess.”
The food served on White House china is off a navy and gold trimmed menu that features sober heart-healthy fare like the “Harvest Fresh Vegetable Platter” and the “18 Acres Fruit Medley.” But there’s also a “West Wing Burger,” and the President’s favorite -- the “White House Signature Steak Lone Star Cowboy” -- a grilled center cut T-Bone with garlic mashed potatoes and “mushroom demi glace reduction.” Unh? Since when did cowboys do demi glace?

Oh well, few guests are there for the food. They are there to say they were there, and to perhaps overhear some sotto voce insider info from perhaps Vice President Dick Cheney, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, National Security advisor Stephen Hadley, or the President himself. That, and to leave with a the very cool small box of M&M’s bearing the Presidential Seal. If you are invited to the Mess for lunch, hope it will be a Thursday when the specials are Tex-Mex. (This is not a Bush thing. It goes back many administrations).
A rich Navy history of serving the President, recorded on the back of the menu.
Coming in second on the power lunch scale is the Senate Members Dining Room. It’s in the Capitol Building itself, lower level, and if you didn’t know the location you probably couldn’t find it, and it wouldn’t matter anyway because you can’t get in unless you are a Senator or the guest of a Senator. There are enough seats to handle all 100 of them should they show up at the same time.

As with the White House Mess, all the tables are visible to each other, though here more widely set apart. It’s a grand room, but not elaborate. The three-page menu has prices, though they’re reasonable due to being subsidized by you, the taxpayer. There’s the “Famous Bean Soup” at $6 a cup, the “Steamed Lobster Salad” at $28 a plate, and, of course, a burger, which in keeping with Washington’s need to overstate the obvious, is called the “All American Burger” to assure no one confuses it with all those other nationalities of burger. Regardless, it is 8 ounces of Black Angus with cheddar and fries for $15. The dessert menu is pie crazy, with Apple Crumb, Key Lime, and Pecan as options.
Clockwise from top left: The Senate Members Dining Room menu cover, and resting on a table for two; The Senate Members Dining Room is large, grand, but not overdone. Everyone can see everyone; Looking down on the tables is a Howard Chandler Christy portrait of John Nance Garner; Down this hall hides the Senate Members Dining Room; The "Washington Memorial Window" dominates the dining room. It was purchased for the Capitol in 1910 from Milwaukee glass window artist, Maria Herndi. The clock is for the buzzers and lights that let Senators know about votes on the floor.
A group of home state officials wait for lunch with their senator in the dining room's impressive lobby. The view from the lobby into the dining room, where the wait staff prepare for the day's service.
L. to r.: Outside the Senate Members Dining Room; you can't find it unless you know where it is; A marble stairway outside the dining room, only for Senators and Hill staff.
Something that’s unique to the Senate menu is a page explaining “Legislative Buzzers and Signal Lights,” sparing civilians a fright when they go off in the middle of the meal. For example, 1 ring, “Yeas and Nays;” 2 rings, “Quorum Call,” and on up to 5 and 6 rings, the latter indicating, among other business, “Recess During Daily Session.” Generally, however, there’s not a wild amount of buzzing and signaling during lunch, all the better to keep the focus on deal making. Oops. I mean, getting to know constituents better. 

There are other power lunches in town, but they, too, are private sanctuaries. There’s Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice’s private dining room at State. And Ben Bernanke’s elegant dining room at The Federal Reserve. And, fear not, the Supreme Court Justices are not forced to eat tuna sandwiches at their desks.
The subway like no other that brings Senators (and some visitors) over from their office buildings to the Capitol.
The subterranean subway tunnel. Sometimes, for exercise, senators actually walk from their offices to the Capitol, but more often they ride the subway.
Among the private clubs, The Metropolitan Club dining room is a certified hub of members-only, in-the-know elbow-rubbing and, for comfort, it looks much like the Senate members dining room with high ceilings, impressive art of old men and landscapes, and white table cloths and quiet service. It’s probably the last place on earth that still serves creamed crab on toast points with extra cream.

The top law firms serve a sort of power lunch. The private dining rooms at world class Williams & Connolly, on the ground floor of their 12th Street building, are full on power – the kind you hope to not need but nevertheless welcome when in need. These are in step with the firm’s lean and effective style. They are not lavish, only handsome, spare, and purposeful. At W&C, you won’t see your $1,000 an hour retainer fees wasted on non-essential decor. It’s all business; your business.
The Metropolitan Club: Members and their guests have the option of the elevator or the stairs up to the dining room. It is the sort of club where old leather chairs abound; There is a grill at ground level.
The Metropolitan Club membership ... from an earlier era.
Clockwise from top left: The library at the Metropolitan Club, where an elite member might relax before heading upstairs to the dining room for lunch; Some former club presidents; A surreptitious picture of the Metropolitan Club dining room, scene of many Washington power lunches (shot in the evening after closing).
The dining room's walls are hung with many serious pictures of men from an earlier era ... and the occasional landscape.
Not every Washington power lunch is behind a security checkpoint or closed door. There is an alternative -- and on any given day it could be as or more powerful than any other lunch in the city. That’s The Palm, on 19th Street in the “old” downtown. It has little serious competition. It’s one stop power dining. They all come - all political parties, all special interests, all sides of any argument -- the famous, the notorious, the husband and wife, the husband and not the wife, the tourists, the wannabes.

There’s one name to know at the Palm: Tommy Jacomo, who has the exalted title of “executive director” but is really the man at the gate, the door, the brains and heart of the room. Tommy deftly orchestrates egos and desires, seats friends near friends and foes at a safe distance, and keeps secrets with the effectiveness of an amnesiac. He has perspective, too.

Me: Is it true your ambition was to be a mob boss?

Tommy: Yeah

Me: Is running this room the same thing?

Tommy: Nah. This is better. Here I just get yelled at by customers. In the mob I’d get whacked.
Tommy Jacomo, the powerful man at the door of The Palm, site Washington's leading restaurant power lunch. Pickles and a hearty bread basket - the way lunch always starts at The Washington Palm.
The Washington Palm, where you'll always see someone you know - on the wall if not in the room.
There was a patron protest a while back when management tried to redefine Tommy’s role at The Palm. Well, that didn’t work. He’s as much the man to know as ever, and when making a reservation you might ask Tommy to seat you at the “Larry King table” or the “Robert Strauss booth.” The middle room is cool, but the back section with the booths is more, well, discreet and therefore more powerful.
Clockwise from top left: The bar at The Palm, quiet before the afternoon rush; The front room at The Palm. A room that's not too large and not too small, just big enough to see and be seen; The back of the Palm, with its few, private and coveted booths; A booth set for two.
Worth noting: When they are not doing business at The Palm, many of the same notable faces can be found next door at C.F. Folks, an old school counter lunch spot that features both a hands-on chef with a delicious made to order menu and an irascible owner, Art Carlson who is famous for chiding the pin stripe egos down to mortal size, and they lap it up. That’s power.
Clockwise from top left: On the days when Washington's power brokers aren't dining at The Palm, they often go next door to C.F. Folks, for a counter lunch served with salty attitude by owner Arthur Carlson; Art Carlson at the register at C.F. Folk's. Note the Ann Coulter doll, hanging by her neck in the background; Lawyers, lobbyists and other pin stripes are devoted to Folks' good, "home-cooked" counter lunch; The all-important C.F. Folks "mood meter."
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.