Who could forget Bogart in his double-breasted, immaculate white dinner jacket running Rick's Americain Cafe without moving from his table?
The super-cool Bogart was independent, admired, even feared, as he ran the ultimate bar. Who could fault anyone for wanting to be like Rick?
In Washington, where one of the most active building booms in America is taking place, a lot of people are apparently thinking they would like to be like Rick and own their own place.
All those new buildings mean more hungry and thirsty people and the increased restaurant and bar activity can be seen in the Yellow Pages where in 1968 the bar, restaurant listings took up 29 pages for the Washington area. In the new directory they fill 51 pages.
To handle the daily Washington lunch and dinner flow, it is estimated there are 800 places serving food and drinks in the city alone.
On any day Washingtonians can choose from spicy Argentinian dishes to subtle Swiss fondues. Light Greek salads to thick Irish stews . . . heavy German sauerbraten with dark bread to fluffy scones and thin-sliced London broil.
And all these places seem to do a remarkable business so there apparently are others with dreams like mine.
"There is just no easy deal," Al Stern, a busy bar broker said. "The business gets tougher and tougher all the time."
Stern sat behind his desk in his office, trim except for a bulge around the middle making him look like a man who fights weight and loses once in awhile.
He was in shirt sleeves, diamond cuff links, gold wristwatch. A smoky blue blazer hung from a hook on the wall.
"There is always a customer for a restaurant and bar. On the national average less than 1/2 of 1 percent go broke," he explained.
"Maybe there are 20 to 25 percent of the restaurants in financial difficulties but they get new money, new investments and partners.
"At present approximately," and he shook his head saying, "galore, I have 30 or 40 people with ready cash, waiting for a good purchase."
Another bar broker who preferred to have his name left out said, "Stern is good, he is a hard-working wheeler-dealer. We are going through a very transitory buying and selling period.
"For some reason the worse the economy the better the bar-broker business becomes, people getting out from under and others wanting to invest."
He described the business as "not being all it's cracked up to be. It's a fantasy-type business and the fantasy doesn't last long."
"The glory fades rapidly, they find the cost of food and liquor going up, getting the right help is tough, all the insurance they have to carry is costly, no, the dream fades rapidly."
The 20 to 25 percent figures that Stern used to describe restaurants in financial trouble was disputed when the other broker said, "it's more like 50 percent."
The places Stern has helped change hands read like the restaurant section of the Yellow Pages.
Charing Cross, Marshall's West, 209 1/2, Third Edition, Chadwicks, Tic Toc in College Park.
He helped Mr. Henry get started and Gallagher of the pubs with same name.
"I handled the sale of the Three Thieves, Maria's on Connecticut Avenue, Images, La Bagatelle," he explained."Take the Bagatelle, 11 years ago it went for $60,000 sold again after 10 years for $75,000, and a year later $110,000, and today it could go for a half million."
Stern was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1918, where he practiced dentistry.
In 1940 Hitler's storm troopers moved into Hungary. Stern escaped to America but his parents and sister perished in Auschwitz.
Later he was able to help a younger brother escape from Hungary and come to America.
Settling in Manhattan's Lower East Side, Stern worked as a tie presser on Rivington Street for $5 a week, moved up to busboy for $7 a week and finally moved to Philadelphia to open a haberdashery with a friend.
Always an eye out for the right business and an interest in food. Stern moved to Washington in 1942 where he bought, ran and sold three bars in succession before taking out his broker's license in 1955.
Stern tells about the rapid change of some properties: "The Potomac restaurant (now the Saloon) in Georgetown sold four times in five years."
When a bar is sold it is kept a secret. Sometimes the owners never meet each other.
Danny Marshall, owner of Marshall's West, is younger looking than his 29 years and wanted to have his own bar.
"Running a bar keeps me off the streets," he said.
Marshall worked as a bartender in Sarsfields and knew the Venus across the street was for sale, but he knew the owner wouldn't take a change on selling it to him.
"I wore jeans, had shaggy hair, always in a blue windbreaker, I knew he wouldn't take a chance so I went to Al Stern and he arranged the sale."
Al remembered it as an easy deal and said. "I had the location, we met on Saturday and signed the contract on Monday."
Stern's 10 percent commission came to about $8,000 for the deal.
There are many reasons for secrecy in the sale of a bar. Stern explained:
"Take La Bagatelle, there were five boys working at the Jockey Club who wanted to go into business. It had to be kept a secret because they would have lost their jobs a long time before they were ready to open up," he said.
"The help should not be aware a sale is pending, maybe one may have his hand in the till and will go in deeper. Some will think they will get fired and resign before the deal is made," he added. "It happens quite often, a new owner comes in and has no help."
When a customer comes to Stern, he sizes them up, questions their experience, insists they have a lawyer or an accountant, takes them for lunch or a drink at the place he has in mind for them and waits for it to hatch.
Stern feels that a place becomes successful because of congeniality, a good drink at a reasonable price and said, "A customer will overpay for food but they don't like to overpay for a drink."
There is a big bar scene in Washington, Stern said, "because a lot of single girls who work for the government who maybe have a roommate or a small apartment do not want to be entertained at home."
Stern was asked how one would go about setting up a brand new restaurant in a new building where there is just empty floor space and no kitchen facilities.
"You have to go by the number of chairs you are going to have in the restaurant," he said.
"For instance if you have 100 chairs you would have to figure $16,000 to maybe $20,000 a chair, so it could cost you starting at the bottom for 10 chairs, say, $200,000 to go in business."
A letter in a folder on his desk made him beam with pride.
It was from the owner of a hotel in Barcelona, Spain, and said that he had been recommended by the American Chamber of Commerce in Spain to handle the sale of his hotel selling for over $3 million.
And you had to feel it wasn't bad for the man from Rivington Street.
Like Danny Marshall and the Spanish hotel owner, the bar buyers come to Stern from every direction, thinking it might be a good investment, or maybe because they first like to tell people they own a piece of the place.
A good, tough in-fighter, he picks up the gold-covered phone to say, "Look I didn't see a check, no deposit, look are you ready to close the deal now? Are yoy willing to go ahead with it, all we give the man is talk."
He hangs up, rests his arm on the desk, stares at his palms looking for the stigmata of the man who suffers for his clients.
It is the classic gesture of the man refusing the loan as he says, "I don't like squeezing a client whose back is against the wall."
To find out what it takes to run a restaurant I visited Dominique's, one of the more successful restaurants around town.
"I am up at 6 a.m. six days a week, calling Tony the butcher, Sam the fish man, and at 1:30 a.m. the next morning I am watching the kitchen help clean up," Dominique said.
The cost of food keeps going up. French wine went up 25 present in one year. A $10 bottle has to be sold for $20.
"Insurance, rent, linens, advertising, workmen's compensation, utilities, a plumber, an electrician, a lawyer, and an accountant all run to about $350,000 a year. Remember, he said, "there are maybe 4,000 restaurants aroung Washington and we still have to complete with McDonald's."
Dominique has a barometer for success and said, "If you can make a profit on a cup of coffee then you are doing all right."
My thought was that he was just trying to discourage me, trying to keep it all to himself, so I went to visit a smaller operation.
Frank and Jo's, owned by Josephine Bedard and Frank Robinette on the corner of 15th and L Streets NW. It seats 8. I asked Josephine, "What is the romanticism of owning a bar?"
"Romanticism, are you crazy?" she asked irritated. "People think it's fun running a bar. No hard work. They think all they have to do is sit and watch the register ring.
"Let me tell you something," she said as she filled a tray with drinks, "this is hard work. The cook calls in sick, the dishwasher doesn't show up, so you become both of them. There is food and liquor to order, checking deliveries, it's a long day."
Upon her return for another tray of drinks Jo had calmed down a little and said, "But I guess that real bar and restaurant people are like carnival or vaudeville types, we're smitten I guess, and go out and break a leg everyday."
So the illusion of owning a bar could be shattered just before opening time when the cleaner calls to tell you he can't get the gravy stains out of your double-breasted jacket.
Well! Still I wonder how I would look in a double-breasted dinner jacket . . . and with a piano. CAPTION: Picture, Al Stern; by James M. Thresher