Sarah Bassin, 99

Sarah Bassin, 99, dies; co-owner of District's first sidewalk cafe

Sarah Bassin and her husband founded Bassin's Restaurant in 1939. In 1961, it became the District's first sidewalk cafe.
Sarah Bassin and her husband founded Bassin's Restaurant in 1939. In 1961, it became the District's first sidewalk cafe. (1977 Photo By Joel Richardson)
Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sarah Bassin, 99, a Washington native who co-owned Bassin's Restaurant, the first District dining establishment to offer sidewalk seating, died June 30 in Naples, Fla. She had Alzheimer's disease.

Mrs. Bassin founded the restaurant with her husband, Max, in 1939 on the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, two blocks from the White House. After raising her children, she managed the restaurant's day-to-day operations.

Her brothers Harry and George Zitelman later became co-owners and helped make the restaurant a local fixture, popular with actors performing at nearby theaters and journalists, including the staff of The Washington Post, whose offices then were steps away.

Led by Harry Zitelman, the restaurant's owners began seeking permission in 1959 to open a sidewalk cafe. The idea met with fierce opposition from residents and city officials, setting off a years-long battle to allow customers to eat and drink in the open air.

City officials argued that sidewalk eateries would expose food to contamination by "windblown foreign matter" and would exacerbate pest problems, The Post reported. A deputy police chief warned that "this type of operation would provide a favorable setting for ladies of easy virtue as they ply their trade up and down the street."

Nevertheless, by late 1961, the city had granted Bassin's Restaurant permission to open a sidewalk cafe.

Business slowed in the wake of the 1968 riots, and Mrs. Bassin left the restaurant in 1970. Her brothers sold Bassin's in 1976. Two years later, it was destroyed in a fire.

Sarah Zitelman was born in Frederick and grew up in Baltimore. She moved to Washington as a young woman and worked for Hahn's shoe store before going into the restaurant business.

In retirement, she played tennis and volunteered with Meals on Wheels. She also worked in the gift shop of the Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, where in her late 60s she had a bat mitzvah. She lived in the District until moving to Naples five years ago.

Her husband of 46 years died in 1977.

Survivors include two children, Robert Bassin of Naples and Brenda Finci of Boca Raton, Fla.; one brother, George Zitelman of Bethesda; four grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandson.

-- Emma Brown

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