"We're looking for glitter . . .
" . . .Glamour . . .
" . . . Some pizazz!"
Roland W. Banscher, hands clasped behind his head, leans back in his chair in the ancient Smithsonian castle. His office is in the nerve center of one of the world's most important museums and scientific centers, a stately institution of research, learning and the arts.
But Banscher isn't part of that.
He was brought in earlier this year to develop another side of the Smithsonian that has long been overlooked: feeding the tourists.
Annually, the Smithsonian serves more than $9 million worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners to some 20 million hungry tourists, locals and staff each year.
But unlike the Smithsonian's cultural attractions, its culinary exhibits generally do not get rave reviews. "We're trying to change that," said Banscher.
The new Smithsonian food service administrator is in the final days of negotiations with Warner LeRoy, a famous New York City restaurateur, and the Marriott Corp., for a $20 million joint venture to revamp existing restaurants and to create several new ones.
"Of course," Banscher said, "we were looking for the best food service for the value to the visitor or staffer who eats here, but there's another touch that was necessary. Something that would make the restaurants distinctively Smithsonian."
To get that touch, Banscher said, you have to have "a bit of Hollywood."
Enter, stage right, Warner LeRoy.
The 49-year-old LeRoy is the penultimate trendy restaurateur, the inventor of glitter bars who built two of New York's enduring eateries, Maxwell's Plum and Tavern on the Green in Central Park.
Today LeRoy's investments include shopping centers and a 1,000-seat waterfront restaurant now under construction on the banks of the Potomac in Georgetown. His father was Mervyn LeRoy, producer of "The Wizard of Oz" and Edward G. Robinson's debut film, "Little Caesar"; his mother is the daughter of one of the original Warner Brothers.
"My great uncle was Jack Warner and my father did 'The Wizard of Oz,' yes, yes," LeRoy said. "But that's not me. I left Hollywood when I was 12.
"What I want to do is establish world-class restaurants," said LeRoy. "To have places people will want to eat in as much as the museums run by the Smithsonian are the place people have to go to when they are in Washington."
"He is Hollywood," Banscher insisted, "he's got the glitter, the glamour, the pizazz in his blood."
"It is not like we want the Smithsonian to be different after they put together the restaurants," said John F. Jameson, the Smithsonian's assistant secretary for administration.
"What we are looking for is quality. I don't know what he LeRoy means by world-class, but I tend to take a lower key approach than others."
But the Smithsonian's then-secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, didn't look at it that way two years ago when he heard from friends that the old New York City library was being turned into the Bryant Park Restaurant, seating more than 1,000 in an extravaganza atmosphere. The developer, Ripley learned, was Warner LeRoy.
Ripley called LeRoy and asked him to consider a restaurant project in Washington that would have the best view of the U. S. Capitol east of the Washington Monument -- the third-floor restaurant at the National Air & Space Museum. Almost as a footnote, Ripley asked if LeRoy would develop a pair of restaurants for the East Plaza, a vacant concrete terrace adjacent to Air & Space on the Capitol side, that would serve the throngs of visitors to the world's most popular museum.
"It didn't take me long to agree to do it," LeRoy said.
That was 18 months ago.
Now the project has grown to include improvements to all of the other Smithsonian restaurants. Because of the size of the project -- estimated at between $18 million and $23 million -- the Smithsonian had to follow government regulations and open it to other bidders.
Dozens of well-known food-serving firms, including Sports Services Inc., which operates the Washington Convention Center concession, and Guest Services Inc., which operates concessions in many federal office buildings, submitted bids.
Also watching the proceedings carefully was Marriott Corp., which has had most of the concessions at the Smithsonian since the 1960s.
Smithsonian officials were looking for aesthetics of the presentation of the food, nutritional value, cleanliness of operations and quality for the price. In whittling down the list, Banscher said, "we did an awful lot of eating." Museum officials flew from San Francisco to Miami scouting food service operations.
Along the way, J. W. Marriott Jr., a longtime acquaintance of LeRoy's, proposed a joint venture. They quickly came to terms and are now the lone firm negotiating with the Smithsonian. A contract, Jameson and LeRoy both said, should be signed within a month. Though the deal is not officially closed, a ground-breaking on the first new restaurant at the National Air & Space Museum has already been scheduled for Nov. 16.
"It was a kosher deal; there was open competition and a lot of it," Jameson said. He said that the Smithsonian's tens of millions of visitors annually deserved "quality. And that was the primary consideration."
"If we can get a decorum that is suitable to a museum atmosphere, we'll be much farther along toward making the museums a complete experience than we have now," Jameson said. "There'll be no Roy Rogers, no Big Boy-type operations," he said referring to the Marriott owned fast-food and family-style restaurants.
"This is an extraordinary opportunity to create among the great restaurants of the world," LeRoy said. "Our basic philosophy is that while we have quality service to the visitor, these restaurants should stand on their own as great world attractions."
Most of the initial effort will focus on the Air & Space Museum.
Between 1976 and 1981, the first five years the museum was open, ARA Services Inc. of Philadelphia was the contractor for food services. "We kicked them out because we wanted to try running it ourselves," Jameson said, "not really because they were doing things wrong. The space is small and they had little to work with." The only access to the restaurant was via a single pair of elevators.
Jameson said the Smithsonian staff quickly found that "we didn't think we were particularly good at running restaurants." Still, he said, "it was a useful learning experience."
At Ripley's urging, the Smithsonian decided to build two new restaurants in the unused East Plaza (or terrace) just outside the museum: a cafeteria seating 800 people on the ground level with a horseshoe-shaped mezzanine serving an additional 200 to 300 people with waitress service.
On the Air & Space Museum terrace, LeRoy said, "We're building a kind of mystical glass-pavillion -- it's a pyramid -- and within it, we're going to move around on a very elaborate system, a series of fantasy science fiction models."
LeRoy hopes to use the official Smithsonian model of the Starship Enterprise from the "Star Trek" television and movie series and the spaceship from the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Other models will be created by LeRoy and Marriott.
"These will be supermodels that will be doing things, in motion," LeRoy said. "It's a kind of motion picture technique. And it'll be in direct relationship to the museum."
The food, he said, will be planned carefully with Marriott around a theme, and might include, he said, "a flying saucer hamburger, perhaps, or a jet plane-shaped chicken. We're not sure yet, but it will be amusing as well as taste good." The prices will range from $2 to $4.50 for a complete meal in the cafeteria area and from $4 to $7 in the mezzanine.
For the present cafeteria space on the third floor, LeRoy plans his most elegant entre'e: the 200-seat "Smithsonian Vista."
"I think that's a nice play on words," LeRoy said. "Considering the magnificent view of the Capitol you would have." This restaurant would be "very upscale, very high quality."
Here's a look at the improvements planned for some of the other restaurants:
*Hirshorn Museum: After the Air & Space restaurants, the eatery here will be the first to be redone. The 150-seat open-air, summertime-only cafe will be slightly enlarged and the menu will be expanded.
*National Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery: The only Smithsonian restaurant off the Mall, located at 7th and G streets NW, will be renovated after the Hirshorn.
*The Castle: The Commons, the staff-only restaurant in the Castle, will have new kitchen facilities installed.
*National Museum of American History: This museum has two eateries. At the Palm Court, a restaurant recently renovated into a turn-of-the-century ice cream parlor complete with old Horn and Hardart automat facades and the front of an old ice cream parlor, the current ice cream-only fare will be expanded to include light snacks and salads. "Few people want to have ice cream alone for lunch, and it's been empty then," explained Jameson.
The museum's other eatery, a cafeteria with revolving food carousels, will become a showplace for American cuisine and will be split into a "cafe" for those trying to get in and out quickly, and a sit-down restaurant. The size of the eating facility will double from 500 seats to about 1,000 by extending the project out into the courtyard along 14th Street -- and by making a newly constructed gazebo-bandstand a centerpiece attraction. Because this project extends outside of the building, it still needs approval from the National Capitol Planning Commission and the Commission on Fine Arts, Jameson said. Not only will the food change, LeRoy said, but "we're going to try to create a wonderful kind of restaurant-theater with a multimedia show that will include live performances."
*National Museum of Natural History: Facilities here include a small public cafeteria and an "Associates Court" restaurant in the basement serving those who pay annual Smithsonian dues. This buffet-style operation, located in two rooms, might be expanded by cutting through to an upper floor, Smithsonian officials say, and connecting the two dining areas. Although the overall seating capacity wouldn't change much, the concepts and appearances would. Details on the renovations haven't yet been worked out.
"These restaurants have to be awful good -- dazzling, you could say," LeRoy said. "And it's been fun planning. Next to the problems of New York, dealing with the Smithsonian people is a pleasure."