"I really can't tell you how Sarsfield's distinguishes itself from other bars in town," pondered presidential appointments secretary Tim Kraft. "But possibly one of the reasons our crowd likes it is that you know they won't press charges for vandalism or indecent exposure. Listen, any bar that would put up with our gang for 48 hours deserves a medal."
Last December Richard Evans, former Muskie advance man and owner of Sarsfield's, realized the new members of the Carter administration were going to need at least one thing that he could provide: a bar of their own. He also realized that most Carter people didn't know about Sarsfield's and, in fact, wouldn't know one bar from the next unless someone told them.
So Evans decided to throw a party. Billing it a "transition bash" he served up fried chicken and barbecued ribs instead of peanuts, offered cut-rate drinks and invited all the new Carter crew to dropy by his bar on Sunday and party.
So they did. And now, seven months later, they are still dropping by Sarsfield's, having made it the unofficial Carter team hangout. Susan Clough, the President's personal secretary, says Sarsfield's longevity as Top Bar is already extraordinary. "In Atlanta," said Clough, "our crowd usually lasted about four months with one bar before we'd move on to another."
Since December Evans has noted their patronage by holding other special Carter parties, even though he says it is not the parties, but Sarsfield's "very laid-back" atmosphere that keeps the White House coming back.
A point of view concurred in by Terry O'Connell, local political consultant who Kraft credits with having first turned him on to Sarsfield's.
"Sarafield's is not a political bar," says O'Connell, who is currently in New York managing Bella Abzug's mayoralty race. "You go there because people leave you alone - whether you work at the White House or don't work at all, it doesn't matter. You can sing or dance or jump on the bar or pour ketchup on chairs or drop trou or do whatever you want and nobody will say anything. It's one of the few places left in town where you can really get down and get crazy."
"Sarsfield's," sums up O'Connell, "is an ongoing '60s fraternity party."
Sarsfield's (on L street) is also not in Georgetown, which to Scott Burnett, director of the President's speaker's bureau, is practically its biggest plus. "Sarsfield's is just a run-of-of-the-mill bar, but one reason I got there is because I'm never going to Georgetown. Bars in Georgetown are too loud, too expensive and besides, don't like the New York-Washington types who hang out in Georgetown. We prefer to stay by ourselves. After you've worked 11- or 12-hour days you don't want to be hassled. So Sarsfield's is good because you can sit in the basement and converse or go upstairs to the bar and get crazy."
Unless it is just for a quick beer, the Carter people generally head for the basement - two nondescript catacomb-like rooms with several tables and a small bar where, as one staffer put it, "you can see who's coming through the door before they see you."
It was there that Chip Carter, while attending a birthday party for Pat Caddell, suggested the group do tequila shooters and ended up, according to one eyewitness, "downing at least a dozen of them. All I can tell you was that Chip was the first to arrive at Sarsfield's and the first to leave."
The heavy action action at Sarsfield's is centered in the main-floor bar, which on almost any night is similar to the Phi Delt house in the middle of a two-day binge.
A long oak bar - lit by the obligatory Tiffany lamps and presided over by 6 foot 6 chief bartender Rod Hayden - dominates the room, which is typically packed with people either standing or dancing on the postage-stamp dance floor.
If there is any dress code at Sarsfield's it is not to dress in anything much spiffier than blue jeans. Except on week-ends, when a live deejay from Nard's Oldies but Goodies comes in, the jukebox provides music while the bartenders literally romp behind the bar often making customers wait for their drinks until they finish a boogaloo.
Aside from the White House crew, Sarsfield's patrons are "young professionals - lawyers, people from the Hill, those types," says Evans' partner, Tom Reed. "We also make an extra effort for single women. For instance, our door personnel will escort ladies to their cars or meet them out front and escort them in.
"We're really a neighborhood bar whose customers aren't from the neighborhood."
"Sarsfield's," says Jim O'Dea, a local lawyer and Sarsfield's regular, "is one of the few places where the bartenders move drinks on you. Is it a singles bar? Yeah, but a singles bar for the serious drinker. At Sarsfield's meeting people is secondary to drinking."
Which is undoubtedly part of its charm for the Carter crew who take their drinking seriously and usually in the form of either beer or bourbon, with schnapps or Tequila Gold for shooters.
Last New Year's Eve a group of 20 or so that included O'Connell, Burnett and Phil Wise, the new deputy appointments secretary to the President, ended up at Sarsfield's. In the spirit of the evening one of the bartenders wagered the table couldn't down a bottle of schnapps in five minutes. Chug-a-lugging straight from the bottle, the group polished it off in three, prompting an offer of another bottle and a bet that the crowd couldn't do the same in under three minutes. That bottle went in 65 seconds, and Phil Wise ended the evening passed out in the ladies room.
"Basically Sarsfield's is a saloon," says Evans, who bought the place, then called The Aquarius, in January 1974. He reopened it in March as Sarsfield's in honor of Jay Sarsfield Sweeney, a friend of Evans and well-known bartender around Washington who now works the bar at Pisces. (A portrait of Sweeney, resplendent in an Irish military uniform, presides over the main bar at Sarsfield's.)
"And the saloon business," continues Evans, "is the business of entertaining people. Our drinks are cheaper than Georgetown, our food is good and well-priced, and the bartenders know people by their first names. We want to have as good a time as our customers, which is why our bartenders have so much leeway. As far as the White House people, our employees are instructed not to make a big deal over them. We try and give everybody the same thing - a place to let off a little steam."
Head bartender Hayden thinks the White House people dig Sarsfield's because "Sarsfield's is almost an anonymous situation. It's one of the few places the Carter people can hang out without worrying about somebody hitting on them for something. Here they can be regular people for a change, without having to worry about somebody finding out what they did."
If someone does tell, it won't be one of the Sarsfield's employees, who are unusually close-mouthed about the antics of their White House customers.
But then administration partying at Sarsfield's, although loud, tends toward the more subdued anyway. A typical example was the recent goingaway party for Carter campaign worker Richard "Tick" Segerblom. Spearheaded by Kraft, the Carter crew showed up at Sarsfield's sporting blue jean and beanies with airplane propellors stop.
Throughout the long evening of drinking and dancing, the beanies remained intact with no one at Sarsfield's regarding them as unusual attire for employees of the President of the United States.
"When you think about it," said one Carterite, "Sarsfield's is exactly the type of bar the Carter crowd would like because basically Sarsfield's is a bar for a group of over-age athletes."
Just how long the Sarsfield's honeymoon with the Carter people will last is open to debate, although even now it is beginning to sour. "The good bar it once was has changed," said Mark Weiner, staff assistant to the director of scheduling. "I mean it's still a great bar with good service and good food, but now that the word's gotten out that the Carter people go there, it's gotten so crowded we often have trouble getting in ourselves."
At least one former frequent droppin to Sarsfield's is already disenchanted. "In my younger days when I was footloose and fancy free, Sarsfield's would have been my sort of place," mused Press Secretary Jody Powell. "But now that I'm an old man I need a stool to sit on when I drink and that's hard to come by at Sarsfield's so I generally opt for Fricky's when I want a beer after work."
Hamilton Jordan, on the other hand, who last winter seemed to have taken a determined hiatus from any Washington watering holes, recently began showing up against at Sarsfield's, where he reportedly has spent some rather raucous evenings of late.
Unbeknownst, however, to Powell, who upon hearing of Jordan's Sarsfield's escapades retorted: "You mean all tht time the President was out of town, MOndale was out of town, Vance was out of town, Brzezinski was out of town and I was out of town - all that time we were all out of town thinking that Hamilton was safely back here at the White House with his fingers responsibly pressed on the levers of power, he was really at Sarsfield's?"