Presidential counsel Lloyd Cutler, who usually eats lunch at the White House, yesterday was assigned to Duke Zeibert's back room and thus temporary social embarrassment in the pecking order of the nation's capital.
"It's better in the back," insisted Cutler, who was dining in obscurity with ABC correspondent Bettina Gregory. Suddenly, a waiter plopped a platter of bologna and cheese in front of him.
"And see how good the service is back here?" Cutler continued. Then he stopped, his eye caught by the bologna that made up "Duke's Special: Assorted Cold Cuts" for $6.95.
"I ordered," he announced to the waiter, "Italian Swiss."
Cutler will never get a chance to recover from his lunchtime fall from grace because yesterday, after 30 years, nearly 11,000 lunches and God knows how many orders of roast beef hash, the Washington institution called Duke's breathed its last. A "Rest in Peace" wreath stood near the bar, a Marine played taps, and Duke, laughing with wet eyes, presided over the familiar noontime pageantry played out daily at the old building at Connecticut and L.
It has become the victim of an approaching wrecker's ball and a downtown Washington changing to accommodate a giant new office complex.
Yesterday, the pageantry was particularly fascinating to behold as way too many sports, political and media celebrities showed up to fit into the front room, where it was always important to sit if you wanted to be taken seriously as a sports, political or media celebrity. A table but five feet behind the all-important columns that divided the two rooms could humble the haughty. Duke not only reflected the town's pecking order; in some ways, he helped define it.
So Cutler was regulated to the back, as was Carter-Mondale campaigner Evan Dobelle, as were lots of others among the 1,500 plus lunch and dinner crowd that retired sportswriter Shirley Povich referred to as "nice people, but rank and file."
Among the rank-and-file for the day was ABC Washington bureau chief Carl Bernstein, who during the dinner hour actually sat at a big, round table just on the edge of the back room.
"He's ruined," said ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, who was sitting there too. "Roone [arledge, the ABC chief] will hear about this and get rid of him."
And even some of the upper-echelon people who never have to wait for a table had to wait yesterday.
At dinner, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill was kept standing near the door for perhaps eight minutes, which didn't seem to bother him much and also allowed him time to wax eloquent on the old days at Duke's.
"We'd sit over in the corner there," he remembered, pointing to the corner there, "and we'd lie and bull -- and tell stories." A little later O'Neill was led to his table, which included Boston Globe reporter Marty Nolan, and a little later, he got a call announcing the birth of his fifth grandchild.
"We're calling him Peter O'Neill,"he announced all around, "and nicknaming him Duke." Peter O'Neill's mother and father were unavailable for comment on the matter.
At lunch, the crowd had stood four and five deep near the coat room, eating chocolate mints and listening to Mel Krupin, the general manager. He smoked a cigar, had a switchblade on a gold chain in his pocket ("No watch, I'm from Brooklyn") and kept the crowd entertained in their hunger.
"Hello Duke's no reservations." he cried into the phone. "You wanna what?
Look, for you, I'll make it an hour. Listen, I got 152 people standing out in the street already."
The phone rang again. "Hello Duke's no reservations," he cried as Peace Corps Director Richard Celeste walked into the mob. "You'll have to wait, Celeste," he yelled.
"Ah, lemme sit on Dennis' lap," Celeste called back, walking to former Ohio Gov. Mike DiSalle's round table in front and almost proceeding to do just that, Dennis being Dennis Heffernan, a Washington realtor. But then somebody brought a chair over, allowing Celeste to preserve both his manhood and position in the Washington lunchtime hierarchy.
As the hours wore on, the mood in the blue and brown restaurant that regulars affectionately referred to as decorated like "a bruise" went from weepy sentiment to drunken gaiety to weepy sentiment and maybe back, depending on how long you sat at your table and how may drinks you had.
Duke was clearly the most sentimental of all. "You know" he said, the big eyes and bald head shiny, "I never realized the impact this restaurant made on the city of Washington. This restaurant's had soul.
"But no, I'm not going to make the mistake of trying to reopen the place and recapture it. You can never do it again."
So that leaves Duke, after the LaSalle building that has held his restaurant comes tumbling down, out on the golf course. And chasing girls, he added.
"Then after I chase them." he continued, signing menus, "if I can only remember why I caught them, I'll be all right."
In his formal closing speech, delivered during dinner, Duke began by announcing that "this is no doubt the elite of Washington here."
"The world! The world! came a voice in the crowd.
And then it was on to the favorite recollections. "I've had nights here," Zeibert said, "when I walked out of here feeling 10 feet high. And I've had nights when I wanted to crawl out of here on my belly. Such was the night I dropped a matzo ball on King Peter of Yugoslavia. Hit him on the head. Nice little guy."
Zeibert's daughter, Terri Lynn wept. "It'll be very lonely for him, I think," she said. "He's been in the limelight for 30 years."
To others, the restaurant's closing marked the end of the only "club" they ever belonged to, the place they could get a decent if unexotic meal of boiled beef in a pot, the place they could table hop for news on the latest Washington scandal, the place they came for lunch every day, absolutely every day, for 30 years.
Where they will go today, in fact, was an item of extreme concern yesterday.
"We actually made reservations for here," explained Leonard Abel, one of four CPAs at table in the front room. The four are 10-year regulars, and now they're panic-stricken. "We're completely at a loss," he explained. "We may go completely out of business because of this."
"I bleed from every pore," said Ed Morgan, a lawyer and Duke's regular. "I'm going to brown-bag it tomorrow."
"Where else will I be able to get boiled beef in this town?" said columnist Wiliam Saffire, who was dining with reporter Daniel Schorr and looking forward, he said, to "eating at the White House mess the day the Carter administration closes."
Interspersed with the last-day laments were plenty of the everyday comments that have given Duke's the men's club image it still hangs on to.
By late last evening, after the speeches and hugs and crab cakes and tears; things had quieted down some. This was when a middle-aged couple came meandering quietly into the scene.
"We're closed, we're closed," said Krupin.
So the couple headed toward the door, prompting one reporter to ask them their names for historical purposes -- that is, the last two customers Duke Zeibert turned away.
"Sorry," said the man. "We're both married to other people."