"Unless you know the business, stay away." - Alex Stuart, Harvey's Restaurant
In an era when new restaurants pop out here as recklessly as spring flowers, that may sound like sour grapes. But amid the splashy successes of the last few years, there have been failures and a great deal of anguish. This past summer was one of severe drought for Washington's expense-account restaurants. There is fear that the structure has become top-heavy toward the expensive end and rumors persist of financial difficulties at several highly regarded places.
The old pros watch with some bemusement. First there was the French restaurant boom. It eventually spread to the suburbs. More recently Georgetown became a movable feast. Now Oriental restaurants are opening in epidemic proportion. Prices are high and should go higher. Is demand totally elastic?
The vagaries of this difficult business usually do catch up with the unwary and the undercapitalized. Alex Stuart knows. He owned and gave up several restaurants before settling in with one that has been a solid hit, Harvey's.
Among his restaurants in the 1950s and early '60s were La Salle du Bois and The Colony. Both were considered oases in a city that those with gastronomic inclinations termed a culinary desert.
Stuart came to Washington after World War II service in the Air Corps and opened the Colony on DeSales Street. It had collapsed by the time the French restaurant boom began during the Kennedy Administration and, as Stuart points out when talking about the difficulties of the business, "it went through five or six names" until it became Anjou Chez Camilie in 1974.
La Salle du Bois, on the southwest corner of 18th and M Streets NW, was a Washington favorite. Stuart said he lost it in 1967 when the owner failed to renew the lease. The restaurant became an early singles' bar, changed hands and names before it eventually disappeared. "I went in there one night," Stuart said. "There was music blasting . . . beer cans all about." He shook his head in displeasure. The side is now part of an office building.
Stuart gave his name to another venture, Alex Stuart's, at 14th Street and Rhode Island NW. That one lasted five years, until 1965. "We did fine at lunch," he recalled, "but people were not coming downtown at night. You keep learning, too. I learned too late the parking was wrong. It was across a big double street."
Whether it was accumulated knowledge or timing, things have looked up since Stuart and his partner, Seth Heartfield Jr., bought Harvey's "about 10 years ago."
(Stuart is vague about dates, except one. Asked when Harvey's moved from its Connecticut Avenue location beside the Mayflower Hotel to K and 18th Streets NW, he shot back, "Dec. 16, 1970, Beethoven's 200th birthday." Alex Stuart loves music, studies piano daily and, in a reflexive moment, said, "a pianist, maybe that's what I should have been.")
Harvey's was known as "the restaurant of the Presidents." It was a favorite of J. Edgar Hoover and in the late '40s and early '50s was usually listed as one of America's most popular. But it had gone through several owners and, according to Stuart, was on the verge of bankrupcy when he and Hartfield took over. "It had deteriorated," Stuart said. "It only kept going because people from all over the country knew about it and came to eat there."
Stuart is the son of a New York restaurant family. He recalls coming to Washington because "I had heard that whatever the economic condition Washington wouldn't suffer because of the federal government and that there wasn't much in the way of eating places."
Nonetheless, he professes himself bewildered by the startling growth of the restaurant industry here. "Did I foresee it?" he said. "Hell, no! I don't even understand how it has developed." When Harvey's was forced out of its Connecticut Avenue location, Stuart said he immediately looked west. "It was the way the city was flowing. It was the only way to go," he said. "I just didn't want to go too far from where we were."
The first choice was the store front at 18th and L Streets NW that was obtained by Latt's clothing store. The second was the basement of the building at 18th and K owned by the International Association of Retail Clerks. To a veteran restaurateur the basement location presented several problems. The space was split in two parts with a corridor between, there was no direct access from the street. Stuart's answer was to spend $25,000 on a stairway to 18th Street, to use the smaller part of the space for a hollow square cocktail lounge and the larger for restaurant seating. Remembering the past, he also arranged for evening customer parking in the next building.
"The only mistake," Stuart said, "was we agreed to a minimum rent and a scale up from that according to how well we did. But we failed to specify a ceiling. Now it's way above what we could have gotten. But relations with the union have been good. I have no regrets."
Once the shell was there, Stuart chose Ray bates to fill it. Bates, who has a distinctive style, had done the Jockey Club and a dozen or so other top restaurants here. "Ray bates doesn't make mistakes," Stuart said. The "intimate" dining room has Tiffany lamps over the bar, paintings on the walls and uses wood and red table-cloths to slightly brighten the dimly lit interior. While he finds the decoration of the "new black and white places" to be "boring," Stuart has asked Bates to light some of the paintings and make other adjustments. "I think things should change," he declared. "We've been here five or six years. It's time for some newness."
Some things don't change, though, and one of them is the way Alex Stuart runs the restaurant. It is a one-man show.
"I run that show right in there," he said, taking off his scholarly half-glasses and pointing toward the kitchen. A squarish man who dresses in carefully tailored good taste, he speaks quietly and thoughtfully. But it is easy to sense the possibility of other moods.
"A restaurant can deteriorate overnight it you don't have a finger on it," he continued. "People who buy restaurants, lawyers, engineers, are in trouble. Unless you know the business, stay away. Maybe one guy in five they'll hire does. That doesn't hurt me. I know what's going on. All I need is people who can execute directions.
If Stuart has a philosophy, it seems to be "Don't forget to give a guy a break and a value." He claims his food costs exceed 40 per cent, a figure too high to be tolerated in a chain operation, and that he keeps his wine prices to about double wholesale cost. (He objects strongly to the 300 per cent or more markups common elsewhere.) His "house" wine is Robert Mondavi, a quality product. His "bar" liquors are all names brands such as Virginia Gentleman. He serves bottled water.
He revealed he doesn't offer lamb because at $5 a pound wholesale he doesn't think it worth buying. Stuart shakes his head at the cost of fish, more to him now than meat, and recalled a time "10 years back" when suppliers pestered him, when shrimps (now $5.50 a pound) were 70 to 90 cents a pound.
He jumped up and walked behind the bar to pick up a drink glass. "These are 11-ounce glasses," he said. "I had them made special. All drinks are poured to this 'hit' line. That's 2 to 3 ounces. We sell them for $2 each, and that's not even high anymore. When someone asks for a double the bartender tells him, 'all our drinks are doubles." These glasses cost money. The (fresh) flowers cost money. But it's paying off." Harvey's may serve 250 to 300 dinners after a full house at lunch.
Stuart supervises a staff of 90. He is one of the few restaurant men I've met who reads food history to search for new dishes, tests them and visits competitors on a regular basis. Yet he makes all purchasing decisions, concerns himself with details at both services, then studies a breakdown of what was served.
That means long days and night works as well. "There's been no menu in all the years not written by me," he said with pride. In the evenings he also manages to "pass by" Napoleon's, the Connecticut Avenue restaurant he and Heartfield bought seven years ago.
The personal cost is considerable. He talked of years in the past when "it was tough to carry on." He is an admirer of French restaurateurs, yet he never has visited France. "I don't take off," he said. A widower, he is raising an 11-year-old son. An older son is in college. A Francophile daughter, a language student and restaurant fan, may get him to France yet.
"Why keep at it?" he asked, lobbing back a question. "Because it beats starving."
He paused, erased the answer with a wave of his hand, and tried again. "Obviously I know more today than I did 10, 20 or 30 years ago. You reach a point, if you make it financially, where the hardship and rent struggles are over."
He paused again and abandoned the subject.
"In the old days we could give more service," he concluded. "Things change. You learn. You know, I once turned down Paul DeLisle (the now-famous maitre d' of Sans Souci) for a job."