Washington may soon be sans Sans Souci.
The venerable institution for eating and meeting -- not necessarily in that order -- is up for sale.
Although he's keeping his lips sealed, owner Bernard Gorland has his fingers crossed that he'll be able to sell the name of the restaurant to some local hotel dining room and sell the lease he has at 726 17th St. NW to another restaurateur.
And there's the rub:
"The lease five years, renewable by the owners for five more really isn't long enough, and the name . . .well, it's seen better days," says George Mousse, owner of the Hay-Adams Hotel, who turned the deal down. "The place is close to bankruptcy now, and it would probably cost $600,000 to put it back in order. You can't risk that money on a five-year lease."
Gorland, who has owned the Sansfor 20 years, also would be willing just to sell the existing restaurant to someone new. His attorney and nephew -- not necessarily in that order -- Robert Reaver, said there are a couple of interested parties: a group of Orientals who want to open a gourmet Chinese restaurant, and a Frenchman who would keep serving snails, trout amandine, chocolate mousse and the like.
"Oh, that'd be great, a Chinese restaurant," said Art Buchwald, once a regular customer at the Sans. "You always go back to a Chinese restaurant. I have a feeling it'd be a kind of a coup for the People's Republic to be that close to the White House. Every table could be wired."
Indeed, for a long time the Sans Souci was very much wired to the White House. Henry Kissinger, Bob Strauss, Edward Bennett Williams and many other political types were often there holding court at lunch. Gerald Ford was taken over for a surprise birthday party. Just getting a table could be a coup in itself: Rock star Mick Jagger was turned away for not having a tie.
The restaurant began to meet hard times when Jimmy Carter and his corn-pone crowd moved into town, and had little use for dainty lunches. The trouble at the Sans was compounded when its renowned mai tre d', Paul DeLisle, jumped ship to the Jockey Club, and a number of other employes opened the Maison Blanche, down the street.
"I hate to see the Sans go," said Paul DeLisle, "but it has been going very badly. If I were a little younger . . ."
Shortly after DeLisle left, the Sans attempted to give itself an injection of new blood by opening its doors to the Federal City Club, which had been exiled from the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel. The club had been formed in 1964 as an integrated amalgamation of politicians and journalists who were at odds with the segregated Metropolitan Club. "It worked reasonably well for us," said president Charles Bartlett, "but it didn't have a club atmosphere. We were going to pull out anyway. We're about to relocate in a very good new building, where we'll have our own club."
The building that houses the Sans Souci is owned by Henry A. Willard II and William B. Willard, sons of the builder of the old Willard Hotel.
"All of the people who've approached him Gorland about purchasing the business haven't been interested in the name," says Henry A. Willard III, grandson and great-nephew of the building owners -- not necessarily in that order. "Most of his business now is from out of town. I guess that's show business."