Harry P. Zitelman, 93; Colorful Co-Owner Of Bassin's Restaurant

Television weatherman Willard Scott pulls a mock holdup of Harry P. Zitelman at the sprawling Bassin's Restaurant, which drew politicians, journalists, government workers and actors from nearby theaters.
Television weatherman Willard Scott pulls a mock holdup of Harry P. Zitelman at the sprawling Bassin's Restaurant, which drew politicians, journalists, government workers and actors from nearby theaters. (Family Photos)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Harry P. Zitelman, 93, who introduced sidewalk cafes to Washington as the outgoing co-owner of the landmark Bassin's Restaurant, died May 8 of respiratory failure at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.

For almost 40 years, Mr. Zitelman owned and operated Bassin's with his brother and sister, transforming it from a delicatessen serving sandwiches and hot dogs to a seven-room restaurant that became a Washington institution. As the colorful frontman, Mr. Zitelman presided over a varied clientele of politicians, journalists, government workers and actors from nearby theaters.

The sprawling restaurant complex, which had four entrances, curved around the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW and was within two blocks of the White House, the District Building, three newspaper offices and the National Press Club. Open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., it included a cafeteria, a dining room, two smoky lounges and the Top o' the Walk -- Washington's first discotheque, which Mr. Zitelman opened in 1962 after he saw Chubby Checker dancing the twist in New York.

Bassin's didn't offer the most challenging cuisine -- corned beef sandwiches remained a staple throughout its 37-year reign -- but it had a certain bustling panache, much of it supplied by Mr. Zitelman's open-armed presence.

In 1959, he launched a determined effort to get sidewalk cafes approved by a skeptical D.C. government. Naysayers said that food served al fresco would be contaminated by grime and attract vermin. But, after more than two years, Mr. Zitelman won his victory.

When he opened his sidewalk cafe Aug. 8, 1961, Washington instantly acquired a more sophisticated air, as more than 500 would-be boulevardiers crowded Bassin's outdoor tables. The Washington Post published an editorial praising the cafe as "a felicitous addition to [the] city."

A year later, Mr. Zitelman persuaded the city's alcohol control board to relax its Depression-era laws prohibiting the drinking of "any alcoholic beverage in any city street." On the first day it was legal, Mr. Zitelman proudly poured champagne for cast members of "Irma la Douce," then showing at the National Theatre.

"You have to hand it to Harry," a D.C. official told The Post in 1961. "He never lost confidence that he would come through with the first sidewalk cafe in the District, and he did."

Harry Paul Zitelman, the son of Russian immigrants, was born Oct. 10, 1913, in Frederick and grew up in Baltimore. He had a spotty career in sales before becoming a partner in the restaurant with his sister, Sarah Bassin, and her husband, Max Bassin, in 1939.

Mr. Zitelman served in the Army during World War II, participating in the Normandy invasion and in the building of the Alcan Highway across Canada and Alaska.

In 1949, his brother George Zitelman invested in the restaurant, and Max Bassin soon left the partnership to go into real estate. The three Zitelman siblings ran Bassin's for more than two decades, dividing the 20-hour workday into three shifts.

They converted a liquor store into a lounge, which had a wire-service teletype clacking away in the corner so thirsty journalists could keep an eye on breaking news. When reporters went out of town on short notice, George Zitelman recalled, he and his brother sometimes issued loans from the cash register.

The Zitelmans took over the upstairs Atlas Club, which had been an illegal gambling den complete with slot machines. They turned a shadowy basement space into L'Escapade, featuring honky-tonk pianist Jerry White.

Mr. Zitelman was often photographed shaking hands with entertainers, senators and newsmen, whose autographed pictures lined the walls of the restaurant. He was active in commercial associations, but after the 1968 riots, many downtown businesses suffered, and Bassin's was no exception. The Zitelman family sold the restaurant in 1976, and two years later it was gutted in a fire.

Mr. Zitelman, who was a member of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, lived in Silver Spring and Bethesda before moving to North Bethesda in 1988.

He was fond of silk suits and later sported a dashing white goatee. He often wore red shoes and drove a red Jaguar convertible, with the top down in all kinds of weather.

His wife of 57 years, Beverly Markman Zitelman, died in 2006.

Survivors include two sons, Marc Zitelman of North Potomac and Rick Zitelman of Rockville; his brother, of Bethesda; his sister, of Naples, Fla.; two grandsons; and four great-granddaughters.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company