By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Mr. Frank left first. Then Chessie and, after 63 years of employment, Gertie. Finally, weeks ago, Reeves Restaurant and Bakery, founded in 1886, simply vanished from downtown Washington, and so did its legendary strawberry pies and blueberry doughnuts.
The storefront, on G Street near 13th Street NW in the city's old shopping district, has a "for lease" sign on the door. It was the last survivor among a group of famous neighbors: Woodies, Garfinkel's, Hecht's. But business had slowed in recent years, and the iconic eatery just couldn't pay rent anymore.
"I tell you the truth. I can't tell you much," said Chessie Fulwood, who cooked at Reeves for 38 years before leaving last year. She said the person truly qualified to talk about Reeves, thought to have been the District's oldest restaurant, is Gertrude Sweeney.
After all, Gertie had started in the sandwich department when World War II was raging and Reeves, with its original Tiffany chandeliers, was primarily a tea house for ladies who lunched. Except for a three-year hiatus nearly 20 years ago, when the original three-story Victorian restaurant on F Street NW was razed to make way for an office building, she waitressed at Reeves until March, often rising at 3 a.m. at her home in the suburbs so she could be downtown by 5.
Over the years, Gertie, 82, served them all: G-Men from the FBI, secretaries from the Justice Department, Lady Bird Johnson and her daughters. The first lady sat at the counter "with everyone else and ordered from the menu like everyone did," Gertie recalled.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover frequently sent an agent to pick up a ham sandwich. Helen Hayes was a regular.
But if occasional flashes of celebrity were one aspect of the restaurant's history, family ties were a less-noticed facet that nurtured Reeves through the generations.
In the 1960s, brothers George and Hank Abraham bought the restaurant from the founding Reeves family and began serving fried chicken and sandwiches to appeal to office workers and working-class Washingtonians. George Abraham probably felt at home with the police officers and FBI agents who frequented the place. Before becoming an owner, he had been an undercover narcotics agent, tracking heroin dealers.
When the Abrahams took over, Gertie was still there at the cherrywood lunch counter, joined by her daughter, Mary Marshall, who put in 21 years at Reeves. It was something of a family tradition. When Gertie started working there, she had taken lunch orders alongside her stepmother.
A fire in 1984 temporarily closed Reeves. But what first threatened the restaurant's longevity was the downtown office-building boom and the creeping transformation of a city whose traditions and rhythms had, not so long before, been more aligned with Baltimore's or Richmond's than, say, New York's.
In 1988, even as the bakery was selling about 300 strawberry pies a day, the Abrahams sold the F Street building and the storied Reeves name to real estate magnate Oliver Carr.
About four years later, Frank Carcamo, who had started working at the restaurant as a busboy in 1957 before rising to general manager, put together an ownership group and revived the business. Despite the passage of years, about three-quarters of the employees returned to the business in its new location on G Street, scarcely a block away.
Carcamo, still affectionately called Mr. Frank by Reeves workers, even brought back the cherrywood counters. Again, the business was a family affair; his wife worked at Reeves, too.
Jeffrey Axelrad, a lawyer at the Justice Department, was one of many government bureaucrats who typically ate two meals a day at Reeves. At breakfast, he chose the toast made from the homemade bread. At lunch, he went for the creamed chicken and biscuits.
In 1992, Axelrad, now an adjunct professor at George Washington University law school, took the plunge, becoming a part owner of Reeves, along with Carcamo and others. He sold his interest in the business last year.
"Some people put money in fancy cars or other crazy things. My fancy splurge was putting money in Reeves," he said.
He liked the idea of it, and the informality. "Probably the only policy we ever had was that we were in favor of nepotism," he said.
Were they ever. His son and daughter spent a summer behind the counter, and Axelrad worked one day every year: the day before Thanksgiving, when the pumpkin pies all but flew out the door.
But time was taking a toll on Reeves. As the years went on, the number of recipes made from scratch declined. There was no more candy counter with hand-dipped chocolate bunnies at Easter. But diners could still count on chicken salads made from roasted hens, yellow-hued homemade mayonnaise and, of course, the strawberry pies, tasting of fresh fruit, topped with a light, lattice crust.
Carcamo retired in 1992 after having a heart attack. After 45 years at Reeves, he never went back.
That might be just as well.
Even devotees, who lined up in the final days to grab a dozen doughnuts or cupcakes, said that something changed in the years before Reeves closed June 8. Crowds thinned, and then one morning in March 2006, Fulwood, the 38-year cook, got a phone call.
"They called me up and told me not to come in no more," she said.
After the fire and the razing of the F Street building, Reeves had been brought back to life twice. Now, even the most faithful doubt it will be back, at least in the city.
Jeffrey Craven, a relative of the current owner, Lillo Glorioso, said that the family had more space than it needed, especially after the restaurant closed more than a year ago, leaving only the bakery. "And we couldn't afford the rent we had," he said.
Attorneys for the building owners said Glorioso owes thousands of dollars in back rent.
Craven said the family is seeking a new location, probably in the suburbs.