Restaurant regulars love the food -- and the perks

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Diners who eat at the same restaurants on a steady basis are good customers; once a personal relationship is created, they become regulars.

These days, common courtesies pass for special treatment -- which is basically what regulars seek, whether they realize it or not. The loyalty of regulars matters a great deal, especially in a down economy. As a result, the symbiotic relationship between regulars and restaurateurs is evolving and expanding. Perks come into play: prime seating, a chef ordering for the table, extra dishes that arrive between courses, extracurricular invitations, investment opportunities.

Such a relationship is what prompted Equinox chef-owner Todd Gray to continue cooking for a client's Christmas party in a new location even before work crews began to tackle the effects of his restaurant's devastating fire Dec. 18. Canceling wasn't an option: "This guy's a regular," Gray says. "He has his party at Equinox every year."

The regulars you'll meet here are among Washington's most loyal patrons, recommended for this article by the area's most dependable and prolific chefs and restaurateurs: a legislative counsel who has become part of the family beyond the restaurant doors; couples with enthusiasm for food-and-wine pairings; a woman who appreciates the soul served along with her carryout of fried trout and collard greens.

They all begin by fulfilling a tacit customer contract, but they often end up with real friendships.

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William Hall, 76, lives in the West End and is a retired chairman of the psychology department at the University of Maryland at College Park. He is single and has no close relatives in the area, but ever since the week when chef Robert Wiedmaier opened Marcel's restaurant downtown in 1999 and personally invited Hall to come in, the two have become more than friends.

He spends Thanksgivings at the home of the Wiedmaiers, who own Marcel's and Brasserie Beck. Last year, the chef-restaurateur asked Hall to present the achievement award given to Wiedmaier by the Lab School of Washington.

Hall enjoys the company at Marcel's as much as he does the food. A special bread is made just for him; a car service takes Hall to and from the restaurant six nights a week, and there's a reserved seat at the bar with Hall's name on a brass plate. He gives new Brooks Brothers neckties to Marcel's busboys and captains every three months.

"This place feels like home," he says. "That's the reason why I come every day."

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Upper Marlboro resident Sonya Lake works at the Reeves Center on V Street in Northwest Washington, which is how she came to find Henry's Carryout, Home of the Sweet Potato Pie, at 17th and U streets. Twenty-five years later, the 44-year-old gets takeout there twice a week. Prices are low (fried half-chicken and two sides, $8.75), and the decor looks as if it might date to 1968, when Henry Smith opened the place.

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