Thursday, October 13, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Through a glass, darkly: the prized "Hani Masri" table, with excellent views of the action, already reserved for Wednesday luncheon.
by Carol Joynt

The reports of the alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir are alarming, and the details have received attention in capitals round the world. A detail that got the attention of Washington, in particular, was that the accused co-conspirator of the plot, Manssor Arbabsiar, reportedly considered killing al-Jubeir with a bomb in a Washington restaurant.

Saudi Embassy photo of Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.
Those in the know here immediately assumed it could be only one place: Café Milano.

Staff at the restaurant yesterday virtually confirmed the connection, even though they said al-Jubeir had been in only a few times of late. On the other hand, doubters buzzed: “Do we really believe all this?”

The local media, and even the FBI, missed the point when they said the targeted restaurant was popular with members of Congress. Well, yes, Senators and House members dine there, but Milano is also popular with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, and former President Bill Clinton, and his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

I’ve seen the Bidens there on at least two recent occasions, and likely there are other visits that were off the radar. They prefer to sit outside. Is that at the discretion of the Secret Service, which finds the terrace area easier to secure? Inside could be less controllable and thus a preferred target for a suicide bomber.

But that’s the case with any restaurant.
"Milano," as the locals call it, on Wednesday at the luncheon hour.
Routine town car arrival at Cafe Milano.
Wednesday, 12:30 pm, at Cafe Milano.
Milano's General Manager, Laurent Menoud, welcomes the French Embassy's chief press counselor, Luis Vassy.
Irony: at the Cafe Milano bar, CNN reports on the assassination plot that according to speculation could have involved Cafe Milano.
Love it or hate it, or somewhere in between, Milano is Washington’s singular hot scene. And one of the reasons is the Euro mix, making it especially popular with what used to be called the “international set,” which includes a lot of Arabs. But, notably, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has also dined there when he’s in town.

There’ve always been rumors of Palestinian connections, due to one of the reported investors, and it seems that any visiting Arab-nation dignitary has at least one meal there – usually in a bespoke pin striped suit rather than the traditional robes he may have worn earlier at an official event. Generally, the Arab women come separately. Regardless, western mufti is better for blending in with the colorful crowd of famous-for-DC types, legit power, plumped up divorcees, diplomatic wives, Hollywood glitz, Georgetown fixtures, party girls and boys and the occasional wide-eyed tourists.
The terrace at Cafe Milano. The far table is popular with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill.
Cafe Milano's treacherous but terrific "Naked Martini."
As with any power spot, there’s a most-sought-after table, #100, conferring the kind of status only a location queen could appreciate. It is in the corner of the main room, by the window opposite the entrance. It’s a perfect perch for seeing and being seen.

Over the years, at that table I’ve spotted a range of boldface individuals who wouldn’t want to sit anywhere else. For example - Saudi Prince HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal, nephew of King Abdullah; Washington businessman Hani Masri, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and estranged White House “gatecrashers” Michaele and Tareq Salahi. Some people call it the “Hani Masri table.” Two other frequent patrons: the late Viola Drath and Albrecht Muth, her much younger husband who is in jail and accused of her murder.

On Wednesday, Alexandra de Borchgrave and Kevin Chaffee anchored table #100, in a room that was probably busier than usual due to mentions of Milano in speculative assassination plot stories in the Washington City Paper and The Washington Post. A server said, “as I left for work today my spouse warned, ‘Now, don’t get blown up.”
Cafe Milano owner Franco Nucchesne with Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal. The next day the Prince was at Milano for lunch, in a business suit. (photo: Tony Powell)
Would it be easy to bomb a Washington restaurant? The simple answer is yes, especially if the bomber is ready to give his or her life. Few have any security. For the few that do, it amounts to bouncers, and while they can be intimidating it’s unlikely they are trained in state of the art anti-terrorism tactics.

Most dignitaries bring their own muscle. On any given day or night there’s usually a limo or a team of SUVs parked outside where they dine. When he’s at Café Milano, Biden arrives in a caravan of black vehicles, all of the SUV variety, including his own transportation.
A typical scene outside the front door: busy, busy.
Inside Milano's "Placido Domingo Room." The popular Risotto at Cafe Milano.
On any given night, the bar action at Milano.
When I owned Nathans, which was at the prime Washington corner of Wisconsin and M Streets in Georgetown, I occasionally wondered about its vulnerability to a suicide bomber, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nathans customers included many members of Congress, but also notably the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. Did we have any special security? No. Anyone could walk in the door at anytime.

Café Milano is on Prospect Street, in a busy commercial Georgetown block that offers a stretch of cafes and bistros. It’s a popular pedestrian promenade. Hopefully, in the next few days we will receive more details about the targeted restaurant, and put the mystery to rest, but for now Washington assumes what it assumes.

The Foreign Ministry of Iran, however, called the terror plot allegations a fabrication and "politically motivated" to distract the American public's attention from the Occupy Wall Street protest movement and general economic woe.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

Carol Joynt's memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.