A restaurant died yesterday, leaving a lot of people homeless and weepy, especially when the bartenders began to work harder than the waiters.
Duke Zelbert's closed after 30 years of boiled chicken in the pot, beef, crab cakes, big portions of food, business deals, wisecracks and comradeship.
The last gathering at Duke's yesterday was something of a wake for a dying establishment, and the talk, as at most funerals, was of the glories of the past. The anecdotes, recalling the good times and celebrities who helped make the place what it was, abounded as friends and patrons crowded around to say goodbye.
Writer Warren Rogers told about the night Toots Shor was in Washington to receive the Touchdown Club's Man of the Year award.
"He sat at the edge of the bar with his usual drink," Rogers recalled, "a fifth of brandy and a glass of water. A drunk began to bother him, and Toots told him, 'You're drunk, get out of my joint.'"
Being on slightly firmer ground than Shor, the drunk stood back and said, "You can't throw me out, you don't own this place -- Duke Zeibert does."
Zeibert listened to the story and smiled. "He had the best place in New York," said Zeibert. "It was a compliment for me.
Zeibert waved an arm around and added. "This is my living and dining room. I'm not moving to any place new. It wouldn't work."
John A. Scali, an ABC diplomatic correspondent, talked about once walking a picket line in front of ABC.
"It was noon. I was startled to see a waiter from Duke's put a small table and chair down on the sidewalk. He pulled a napkin from his pocket, and a tablecloth, set it up, and another waiter appeared with a bottle of wine, a stem glass and a plate of crab cakes.
"I got halfway through my meal when the cops found a law against it."
Zeibert's customers through the years have included most celebrities who came to town. His waiters have served Lyndon Johnson, Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
"Bobby Kennedy came in often and used to throw great parties," Zeibert recalled. "We had a waiter we called 'Man o' War' Friedman because of his betting habits. He used to ask for his tips up front so he could get down on the daily double.
"One day Nixon is having lunch. He was vice president then. Nixon paid with a check, and Man o' War brought it to me and asked, 'Is this guy any good?'"
Zeibert flagged a passing waiter and told him to bring him a piece of fruit. He stuck his spoon into a slice of melon as yet another well-wisher came by to shake his hand.
"People are coming up and getting to me," said Zeibert after the greeting. "Look, I'm crying, I wish it were over."
There followed a brief debate between the older waiters about who had been the biggest tippers.
Benny Bergman, an ex-Marine who had worked with Duke for 33 years, going back to Zeibert's days as maitre d' at Fan and Bills, offered a candidate.
"I think it was a guy who owned a print shop named Barney Doyle. He handed out ten-dollar bills to everyone who walked by his table -- the guy with the napkin, the guy with the water, everyone, even a customer sometimes."
Another waiter though it might have been Jerry Wolman, wealthy Philadelphia sports entrepreneur, who tipped 50 percent of the check.
Father Gilbert Hartke, who raised $2.5 million for the theatre named after him at Catholic University, has been a friend of Duke's since 1942.
Father Hartke had lunch and sometimes dinner at Zeibert's almost five days a week. At noon it was always strawberries and cream with a cup of Sanka.
He talked about trying to raise the money for the theater. "Duke probably did it right here in his restaurant," he said. He was always putting me in touch with the right people, those with money, telling me how much they had, introducing me, and somehow the donations came in.
"If you ask him, he will deny it."
Mel Krupin, the manager at Zeibert's, may keep the Duke tradition alive. "Paul and Dave Young are retiring and closing their restaurant," he said. "When it happens, I will try to buy the facilities, put in a long bar and open up. Maybe with the same menu."