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Restaurant regulars love the food -- and the perks

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; E04

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.

* * *

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."

* * *

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.

No matter. "I come back for the food," Lake says. "And the customer service, and Mr. Henry."

Lake was having the fried trout special with sides of yams and collard greens on a recent day, but sometimes she orders liver and onions, or baked chicken with dressing, her favorite. When her order was ready, Lake shook "Mr. Henry's" hand, smiled at him and breezed out the door to her Mercedes sedan parked right out front.

"Thanks for coming, Sweetheart," Smith, 68, called after her. Then he admitted that, being bad with names, he simply calls all women Sweetheart.

Jermaine Smith, Henry's son and business partner, was quick to note how much power that simple act of acknowledgment wields. "My father speaks to 98 percent of the customers who come in here. The interpersonal action is what makes us different from Popeye's, where you're just nothing more than '2-piece chicken,' '3-piece chicken,' " he says. "As someone becomes a regular customer, you remember what they order and ask them how they're doing. Small conversations."

Giving away a piece of pie every now and then isn't a bad idea, either, especially to a child.

"When they grow up, they come back," Jermaine Smith says. "There is nothing like going to the same place for the sweet potato pie you got when you were 5 years old."

* * *

Interest in wine made regulars out of Palisades residents Charles and Deborah Hoyt at New Heights Restaurant in Woodley Park, beginning in 1988.

"Umbi [Singh, the owner] started bringing out wines to taste when we came," Charles says. "He seemed to be concerned about us, and we went often." But when Singh opened Butterfield 9 in May 2000 and wasn't around as much, the Hoyts felt the change.

"Nobody greeted us, 'Oh, good to see you.' Nobody said, 'There's a new item on the wine list I think you'd be interested in,' " Hoyt says. They crossed New Heights off their list of go-to restaurants. Then Singh left his other place and refocused his energies on the place the Hoyts had loved. "There's something about the atmosphere he has created," says Deborah. "Details make a difference." Now they are regulars again.

* * *

Equinox co-owner Ellen Kassoff Gray explains that Burton Wood started sitting in the service area at the downtown restaurant's bar once he discovered what a vantage point it was. It became his regular seat; one of the managers even made a plaque that reads, "Reserved for Burton Wood."

Gray calls Wood the embodiment of a regular.

"He started coming the day we opened 10 years ago, for both lunch and dinner. He's funny; the staff adores him," she says. "He is family."

Which is why he was an honored guest at Equinox's 10th anniversary celebration, where he roasted chef-owner Todd Gray and brought down the house.

Wood, a World War II veteran who came to Washington 55 years ago from Oklahoma, is a lifelong bachelor. At 86, he continues to work as a legislative counsel for the Mortgage Bankers Association. Through natural attrition, his social circle has greatly diminished. A dinner conversation with Wood can easily turn into a virtual history of the restaurant business in Washington since 1954. He has visited every famous place and is on a first-name basis with the city's noted restaurateurs.

Now that the Connecticut Avenue quarters are temporarily closed for rebuilding after a fire, Kassoff Gray says, "whoever gets him for the next couple of weeks better take damned good care of him."

* * *

As New Yorkers, Jeff and Mari Stein grew up being exposed to every kind of cuisine. Twenty years ago they moved to Gettysburg, Pa., "not known for its quality of food," Mari says.

Following a friend's recommendation, they made the 45-minute drive to Volt restaurant in Frederick soon after it opened in July 2008. Now they go there every Sunday for brunch ("three courses, a bargain for $25!") and once a week for dinner, seated at Table 8 in the window, where an off-the-menu course of foie gras and veal cheeks occasionally arrives.

"We don't need to go for free food," Jeff says. "We go there for great food and because the people are wonderful. We are family there.

"From our first visit, it was a no-brainer that Bryan was going places," Jeff says, referring to 33-year-old chef Bryan Voltaggio, who recently finished runner-up to his brother in Bravo TV's "Top Chef" reality competition.

From the beginning, Jeff Stein, 62, a wine aficionado with more than 2,500 bottles in his personal wine cellar, took a liking to sommelier Neil Dundee.

"Neil selects tremendous wines from boutique wineries that you don't find," he says, "and we very often wind up buying six bottles or a case from them, like Charles Smith Boom Boom Syrah and Van Duzer 2006 Pinot Noir."

The Steins and Dundee are now Facebook friends.

"Neil and one of the other sommeliers want to come see our cellar," Mari, 49, says. "I told them absolutely they were welcome. There's a big-screen TV, a poker table and a couple of La-Z-Boys. They can spend a week down there!"

* * *

Gene Ford typifies the image of the larger-than-life, food- and wine-loving bon vivant. Born in the District in 1952, he got his first taste of good wine when he was 20 and a friend let him loose in his wine cellar.

Thanks to a lucrative family business, Ford was able to parlay his epicurean interest into a financial one; he invests in restaurant projects with gusto.

"When [chef] Jeff Buben was at the Occidental, I got an opportunity to see what he was about. When he decided to raise money to go out on his own, I helped him do it and invested significantly," Ford says.

Ford was one of the original investors in Vidalia, the downtown restaurant Buben opened in 1993.

"Besides being the most fun I ever had, Vidalia has also been a very good financial investment. We get a break on the dinner check and a return," he says. "James Beard said he liked to eat where they treated him the best. And they treat me like King Tut there."

Fittingly, he prefers Table 65, in the middle of the dining room.

Before Buben opened Bistro Bis in 1998, the chef went on a whirlwind research trip to France and took Ford, who envisioned a dream trip. But after hitting 70 bistros in six days, Ford was whipped: "Jeff is the hardest-working guy I know."

Ford eats at Vidalia every couple of months, usually for special events, and avails himself of their catering: "the best in Washington," he adds, ever the promoter.

Via his affinity for things gastronomic, Ford has made the acquaintance of the Washington area's top culinary talent. Chief among them is Cathal Armstrong. While Armstrong was the sous-chef at Bistro Bis, Ford got to know him as well, using wine as a medium.

"Once a month for three years I'd come there on a Saturday afternoon with a case of wine and some friends, and he'd prepare something just out of his head," Ford says. "He really emerged as a chef there." Over the years, the bond between the men has grown strong. Ford has been a regular at Restaurant Eve since it opened in 2004.

"He's the only person we allow to come to Restaurant Eve in flip-flops and a T-shirt adorned with giant fish," jokes Meshelle Armstrong, who co-owns the Alexandria restaurant.

* * *

Beth Larson and her husband, John Lueders, of McLean realized they had been pegged as regulars at Restaurant Eve when bartender Todd Thrasher approached them one night.

"This is the third time you've been here, and you ordered the same wine each time," Thrasher said. "Tonight you're having something different." Lueders asked Thrasher for a recommendation, and he has never ordered his own wine there since.

That was enough to persuade Larson to switch their date-night venue from Cactus Cantina to Eve, booking Table 41 there every Friday night in perpetuity.

Chef-owner Armstrong estimates that the couple, in their 50s, have eaten at Restaurant Eve more than 400 times. That adds up to at least enough to pay for a college education.

"It took about 100 visits before they requested I choose their menus," estimated Armstrong. "It's fun for them, because sometimes I send things they wouldn't ordinarily try."

Lueders says that only once did Armstrong send out a dish he wouldn't order again: chicken-fried tripe. He was fine with the monkfish liver, but Larson, not so much. (Armstrong admits that tripe is not his favorite, either.)

Asked if there were ever an expectation of being rewarded for their patronage, Lueders and Larson balked.

"Creative people make wonderful friends; you don't try to negotiate their friendship as a medium of barter for their craft," Lueders says.

But loyalty doesn't go unnoticed. Their 100th dinner was on the house, for example, as was a recent birthday dinner for Larson. And now the cooking has been reciprocated.

"We had the Armstrongs over for dinner last Sunday," Larson says. "I cooked three days for him. But he came over early and showed me how he makes all his soups, using cauliflower as an example. Now I know his secret."

Hagedorn can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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