Everybody says: Hey ask Stuart Davidson and John Laytham, they've got stories about Clyde's that won't quit, all the stuff about the old days with the roofburgers, the Willard Room, the thing with the nun, the night back in the '60s when some of the waiters took mescaline . . . all of this being Washington legend now, part of the M Street Myth, a golden age, it would seem, back when a Saudi prince named "Turkey" (nobody knows how he spelled it) Faisal would sweat off a bum check by working as a waiter for a week.
Stuart Davidson and John Laytham own Clyde's, legendary Clyde's, "An American Bar," as it subtitled, Clyde's of the monogrammed T-shirt, necktie, keytag, scarf, ashtray, drinking glasses, lighters and belt buckles (two varieties of each) and canned chili; Clyde's which was started in 1963, the first true full-sized bar in Washington since Prohibition, and a template for so many to follow: Chadwick's, Duddington's, Whitby's, all those neo-funky New-York-style saloons with names like characters in Dickens; plus Mr. Smith's, Mr. Henry's, the Hawk and Dove, Childe Harold, Columbia Station, the Rogue and Jar, civilization as we know it.
And now they've taken the act to Tysons Corner, deep in the heart of Mondo Condo and Stewardess Alley, Davidson and Laytham have. They own 80 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Laytham started as a dishwasher. Davidson started by growing up in the big brick house next to the library in Georgetown.
Anyhow, Faisal and the bounced check: "I didn't give Turkey hell, I gave the bartender hell for cashing the check," says Davidson, a man of preoccupied eyes, faun eyebrows and an elegant drawl which becomes especially puzzled when the past is recalled. Or dredged up, as the case may be.
Did Turkey work the week as a waiter, as the story has it?
Oh God, yes I suppose." Davidson, at 57, twice a grandfather, spends a long silence rooting through the facts oof the matter. "He explained to me that he'd bought a Mercedes Benz and exceeded his allowance," he says. He pronounces "Benz" with a hard "z." And points out that Faisal finally made good on the check.
"They didn't have the money then that they've got now, of course. Oil was only selling for a buck or two a barrel . . ."
He appears ready to digress as a last defense against remembering anything interesting. "Let's see, OPEC didn't hike prices until . . . ."
Davidson is sitting in his new cellar offices at Tysons Corner. Across the desk is his partner, Laytham -- thinning blond hair, the cheerfully neutral demeanor of say, an IRS auditor or your ex-wife's new boyfriend.
Latham doesn't remember any stories either. He wants to talk about Clyde's profit-sharing plan, the mandatory five-day week, the whole corporate shtick that requires a 250-page manual just to describe it, lie-detector tests to keep everybody honest, training programs, the precise privileges and bonuses for everyone from dishwashers to head managers . . . .
Well, of course. Clyde's is getting to be like the Porsche-Audi Corporation of Washington bars -- four different models to choose from now, the original Clyde's in Georgetown with the gas lamps and the pressed-tin celing, plus the spinoff in Columbia, plus the Old Ebbitt Grill, and now the new Clyde's in Tysons Corner, 25,000 square feet of palm strees, leaded glass, nude mural and onyx counter tops, the ultimate roadhouse, an oaisis among the fast food and car lots.
But whattabout the roofburger, huh? Whattabout the notched pickles, huh?
Laytham smiles a smile of about the temperature of a properly served white wine.
"Oh, yes," he says. "The notched pickles."
After all, Clyde's will survive on hard work and amd efficiency, but it was fonded on the rock of insouciance that verged well into what Davidson refers to, if pressed, as "marginal behavior."
Such as the notched pickles.
Actually, the original notched pickle man was Richard Mauro, now a perfectly respectable advertising executive with the firm of Pla-Mauro.
Along with the late Marion Clark, who edited The Washington Post magazine, Mauro was a cook at Clyde's in 1967.
"We started noticing that people didn't eat the pickles we sent out on the plates with the hamburgers," Mauro recalled recently. "So we started notching them and sending them out again. I don't remember the record but I know we got up to eight or 10. Marion invented the roofburgers one night when we were bored. She took a hunk of chopped beef out of the package and threw it up to the ceiling. It stuck there for 30 seconds or so, then it fell on the grill. We started making them that way and calling them roofburgers."
Mauro was one of a legion of Georgetown University students who postponed or threw away whole futures as doctors, lawyers and diplomats to work at Clyde's: "I like to think of them as people who were disenchanted with their final destination," Mauro says.
A saloon! It was the ultimate nightmare of backsliding for those good Catholic parents who'd worked so hard to get away from "a bar, and a rail and a foam-bedecked pail," as the old song had it -- the old hexagonal white tiles on the floor, checkered tablecloths on the tables, a wry warning behind the bar of the pitfalls of "l'alcoolisme," ale on draft, all of this calculated to recall the ethos of Third Avenue Irish bars in New York -- in particular, P.J. Clarke's -- right down to the be-tweeded rogues and rake-hells bellying up to the bar.
The "Willard" room, Mauro recalls, earned the name from the movie of the same, and was used to describe the outdoor patio before it was walled in and coverd over to from the Atrium, thus ending the possibility of a stray rat taking a stroll through the revelers.
"An American Bar" -- it doesn't seem such a strange appellation until you realize that you wouldn't expect to walk past Le Toque d'Argent in Paris, and see it called "un restaurant frnacais."
But Davidson, along with original partner Billy Bonbrest, gained the advantage of a foreign restaurant's let's-pretend charm by calling it an American bar, and proceeded to evoke a mystique.
Saloon, saloon, saloon/It runs through my head like a tune ," as the old song had it.
We made money from the first night we were open," Davidson says.
In Southern town where public drinking was done mostly by soldiers, motorcyclists and college kids, Clyde's flaunted its saloon image, then insisted on coats and ties "to keep out the rednecks." Davidson says.
If it didn't create the types who flocked there, it became an instant club for them -- Mt. Vernon College girls in Pappagallo shoes, McMullen blouses, Villager skirts and Liberty sweaters; Georgetown Foreign Service School types in some of the first Gucci shoes and Paul Stuart suits seen in Washington: tousled Irish Catholic kids in jeans and tweed sportcoats, whose great regret in life was not being old enough to have gotten drunk with Dylan Thomas at the White Horse in Greenwich Village.
You'd come in the bar on a Saturday night, edging sideways along the crowd, hearing them talk -- would-be novelists, campaign advance men, people waiting for Kennedy-Restoration, failed gentility, rising roughnecks, blonds with year-round tans, the great whiskeyed brouhaha:
". . . and the next time he saw that Ferrari it was in a junkyard baler . . . ."
" . . . so we get the North Side and the Lithuanians and that's three electoral votes wrapped up like a Christmas package . . . ."
"I wake up this morning with a head like Hiroshima and then I realize I can't remember what her name is . . . ."
The late, great Peter Sheridan, bar fly and tough Irish kid without peer, would grab whatever woman might be handy and introduce her to anyone at random: "Meet my wife, Vassar "34."
From the very beginning, Clyde's (they picked the name because it looked good in an artist's logo) was self-defining. It was . . . Clyde's.
The strange thing was, the staff and the and the customers were interchangeable -- it was a saloon with no working-class aroma trailing after it. Law students and would-be diplomats worked there for the fun of it, for the glamor of a barroom nostalgia none of them was entitled to.
As the M Street scene grew, Clyde's would draw the occasional fern-bar cruiser in Qiana shirt and side-zip boots, or the Efrem Zimbalist Jr. look-alikes in from Out West to do some lobbying, but it remained a class act.
Celebrities sought it out: Robert Mitchum, Peter Falk, a lot of Redskins, Barbara Howar, David Brinkley, Rosalind Russell. In the summer of 1975 during the making of the Watergate movie, "All the President's Men," Dustin Hoffman came in with Ethel Kennedy's daughter Courtney and Jean Kennedy Smith's son Steve. Hoffman, the story has it, proposed a food fight, and emptied a can of whipping cream on Smith. Smith responded with an entire bottle of ketchup.
"We threw them all out," says Davidson, in that tone that suggests he can't understand why anybody would do such a thing, much less ask about it years later. "Hoffman was back in the kitchen mixing up some salad concoction he was going to dump on the Kennedys . . . ."
The problem was, some of clyde's patrons were trying to live up to a legend of ginger-man hell-raising that Davidson himself had kept alive in that drabbest of decades in this drabbest (then) of cities: the '50s. He was said, for instance, to have been asked to resign by the Metropolitan Club for getting drunk and telling of Dean Acheson.
"I don't think that's true," he says, adding with a style few people have. "If I insulted him, which was possible, I don't think I went out of my way to do it."
He also denies that he gave a trophy cup to a Clyde's patron for seducing a nun one Sunday afternoon.
"I had somebody's name inscribed on a cup for some kind of marginal behavior, but it was stolen. It wasn't a very good cup, pewter or silver plate . . ." Ah, the master of digression.
Does "marginal behavior" include seducing a nun?
"It wasn't a nun. It didn't even happen in here. The guy took his clothes off in another bar with this girl and they squirted whipped cream all over each other . . . ."
And no, he never walked into Clyde's carrying pistols and an an axe. "I don't think I could have gotten down M Street carrying pistols. Wouldn't have been any problem with an axe, but not pistols . . . I did take an antique revolver in there to hang on the wall, and the police stopped me with a musket one night, but it was just for decoration."
Not that Clyde's ever got a name for fighting or even the kind of meat-rack singles-bar action which has spawned an entirely new brand of social life in the last 20 years.
"You don't feel like it's showtime when you walk in, you don't walk down the length of the bar with all the guys looking you over," says Janet Kelley, who works for an executive search firm, lives in Northern Virginia and has been waiting for the Tysons Corner Clyde's to open for months.
She is standing near the huge four-sided bar that dominates the new place.
A four-sided bar does not fit a saloon, but then Davidson and Laytham chose to find another model, another mystique to spend their $5.5 million on.
The model, this time, is not the sort of tweedy ale-house camaraderie that had them celebrating Boxing Day in Georgetown in 1966. The new place is airy, huge, the kind of cavernous place you associate with '30s movies, Don Ameche talking on a white phone at a table (though no phone here), Jack Carson doiing a double take at, say, Joan Fontaine, the help in uniforms ! Palm trees! A 1938 sculpture by George Stanley, the guy who designed the Oscar!
It's either the ritziest roadhouse on the East Coast," says Davidson, "or it's . . ." Well, he can't even think of a comparison, except to say: "Since you're going to do something, why not have opulence and glamor? This counter top is made out of onyx, but onyx doesn't cost that much more, and it lasts." This of course, is the equivalent of somebody telling you that a Rolls Royce may cost more to start with, but you save so much on servicing.
There's a seafood room with original prints of water birds by Robin Hill ("We wanted to avoid the hackneyed old marine scenes," says Laytham). There's an omelette room, echoing the omelette room in Georgetown, the palm court and the grill, where formality and the prices get as high as they do at any Clyde's.
And neither, oddly enough, has ever gotten very high, for all the prestige and the crowds. Rack-of-lamb-for-one in the Tysons Corner grill is tops at $15.50. (Lobster can go higher depending on wholesale prices.)
The dress code gets only as formal as a collared shirt on men. ("We keep the rednecks out by charging a lot for draft beer," Davidson says.)
Clyde's still takes no reservations -- first come first served.
Early returns on the Tysons crowd indicate a little less preppiness, a little more chest hair; more salesmen, fewer diplomats.
But like the crowds in Georgetown, Columbia and at the Old Ebbitt, it's a . . . well, it's an American crowd .
In an American bar.