GEORGE, RAY, Mel and Mo. Important to know.
If the game is lunch, position is everything, and lunchtime prestige brokers of Washington are the maitre d's, the natty, fast-talking men who mastermind seating in the city's voguish restaurants.
They turn thumbs or thumbs down. They give power and prestige its due.
They assign The Right Table. And getting the wrong table can be worse than seeing your name misspelled on a place card at a state dinner.
"What do you have to do to get a good table?" says Ron Nessen, former White House press secretary and public relations executive who lays claim to his own table at The Palm. "You have to be someone important or have lunch with someone known. I'm serious . . . People I'm eating with often asked me to make the reservation . . "
The "ins" go to see and -- more important -- be seen. Maitre d's are cultivated fiercely. The thirst to be recognized is unquenchable. And table designations take on a peculiar status.
Where will the diner's wheel of fortune stop? Along Mel Krupin's Gold Coast, the highly visible front ring of tables, where Bob Strauss, Madame Wellington or even Jane Fonda can be foundnibbling dill pickles? Or will it be Maison Blanche's Siberia (Table 4) where you might get a good view of Art Buchwald or Caspar Weinberger -- as the kitchen doors swing within inches of your head?
"Writer Nora Ephron was pleased when the old Duke Zeibert's restaurant consistently gave her a prime table. "That's because I obviously happened to be eating with people they thought deserved good tables," says Ephron today.
One day, during the height of Watergate, she walked in with a woman friend. She was promptly escorted to the back room of the restaurant, the part commonly referred to in New York as "the ketchup room," and in Washington as "Siberia."
On the way back, as she passed former attorney general Richard Kleindienst and other front-page Watergate faces prominently sitting at the best front-room tables. Ephron snapped loudly: "Exactly what do you have to do to get a good table in this place . . . be indicted?"
"It's a headache," says Paul Delisle, who served as chief table arbiter and maitre d' at the now closed Sans Souci -- a prime lunchtime romping site for two decades. "You're gambling all the time to try to make the clientele happy . . . There's quite a lot of ego involved."
"You gotta smooze 'em," says Ray Jacomo, gatekeeper and fast-talking co-owner of The Palm.
This is a town of changing allegiances, of "in" and "out" people, of trendy drinking and lunch haunts whose popularity ebbs and flows with changing administrations. It's almost as critical for the restaurant to become the place to be seen in as it is for the careful luncher to be seen. "It's a jungle out there," decrees Mo Sussman, owner of Joe and Mo's.
Since Sans Souci went under three years ago, no single restaurant has matched it for snob and seat appeal. The contenders for the "in" power lunch spot today are Maison Blanche, The Palm, Mel Krupin's and Joe and Mo's.
Getting a good table at one these places is like qualifing for Wimbledon. If you're a top seed, name your game. The casual diner scrambles.
Take Fred Fielding, counsel to the president. Undisputably a top seed, always playing center court in the table game, eats lunch out often--and at his very own table. Everywhere. They are held at a morning's notice if he calls.
"The restaurants are very protective," explains Fielding.
At Joe and Mo's, left-hand corner booth. White House phone installed for him.
Table 55 at The Palm, third booth in back on right side.
Table 33 at Mel Krupin's, banquette directly behind the first ring of tables, out of view.
No table at Maison Blanche. "I've never heard of him," says George Torchio, maitre d'.
It's a rough game:
* A woman recently called The Palm to reserve a table for a business lunch with attorney Kip O'Neill, son of House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass).
"Did you say Kip or Tip?" the restaurant inquired. ". . . It makes a difference what table . . ."
* There is one table at Maison Blanche so far removed from the action that it doesn't have a number. It's called the lobby table because it's five feet from the front door. Separated from the dining room by a partition, diners practically trip over it on the way to see George.
Last week the unheard of happened -- a couple walked in at noon without a reservation. They were shown to the lobby table. They grimaced.
"You know," says George, "many dignitaries sit here."
"In that case," said the woman, "we'll take it."
* A journalist, who has always been seated in Mel Krupin's Siberia, recently called the restaurant to ask if they would hold a noontime table for her and a guest.
"Who are you eating with?" she was asked.
When she informed the restaurant she was bringing Ed Hickey, deputy assistant to President Reagan, the woman on the other end of the phone thanked her profusely for the information. Hickey and the journalist got a prime table.
* A White House correspondent for a major newspaper needed a good table at Mel Krupin's for an important interview. She asked another White House correspondent to use his pull for her. He refused. It had taken him two years to move out of Siberia and he wasn't going to use his chit for her.
* A Capitol Hill lobbyist desperately trying to woo a Senate aide called Joe and Mo's to request a decent table, explaining it was an important luncheon. They were still seated in the back room. "Anyone who sits back there are people I don't know . . . That's the way it goes," says Mo Sussman, who was horrified recently when he spotted former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart emerging from his back room. "It should have never happened," says Sussman. How to Get a Good Table
Do Not act overly familiar with the maitre d' if you don't know him. This includes calling him by his first name, slapping him on the back and asking him about his dog.
"If a customer acts like we're buddies and I don't know them it's the kiss of death," says Sussman. "They had a chance for a good table but they blew it."
* Do Not offer money to the maitre d'. This is looked upon as a dirty New York habit. Since most maitre d's are at least part owners, they like to be considered part of the establishment. Waving a $20 bill will guarantee you a fine table in Siberia.
* Do give a Very Big Gift at Christmas.
* Do eat at the same restaurant three times a week for starters. Once you get famous, once every three months is appropriate.
Make sure there is a man in your party. As the old joke in Washington goes: The only time two women can get a good table in Washington is if they're Barbara Walters interviewing Indira Gandhi.
* Do Not throw a fit if you don't get a good table -- even if you are a regular. "I just let them go, there's nothing you can do if they get mad," says Krupin. "I had one guy stay out four months . . . He came back."
* Ask Fred Fielding if you can use his table when he's out of town. Mel's
Lunchtime, Wednesday: Mel Krupin says he doesn't take reservations for lunch. Don't believe him. What he means is he doesn't take reservations for Siberia.
Anyone can stand in line for a table in the back room. But the regulars, what Mel calls the "beautiful people," never wait. They slip right by the front-door guards, right down the winding stairs where Mel is waiting to signal a table.
"Back there beyond those first banquettes, I guess that's what they call Siberia," says Krupin, who is waving his arms and jumping around like a traffic cop on the landing midway down the staircase as the noontime masses begin descending to the main dining room.
"Notice where they are all going . . . I'm keeping these front tables open . . . these are for my regulars . . . they called."
After 30 years of crabcakes and beef in the pot and he-man camaraderie, Washington was left high and dry when Duke Zeibert's shut its doors almost three years ago. So Brooklyn-born Mel--taking with him his 12 years of high-priced delicatessen experience and table horse sense he learned as Duke's manager -- opened a replacement. Pickles from New York. Onion rolls from Washington. Lunch for two, about $25.
The first woman of the day descends the stairs. "When I see a couple like this coming down, I give them a nice banquette over there in the corner where they can sit next to each other and be alone," says Krupin, explaining his high-pressure lunchtime production.
And how does he know they want to sit next to each other, in private, at the back of the restaurant?
"Because," he says matter of factly, "I know they're fooling around. You have to know everything in this business."
No one has his own table in Mel's. Well, not exactly. But some people have favorites. Like Democratic dealer Bob Strauss. "He likes 22," says Mel. A prime banquette, facing the stairs. "That way he can see everyone come in but he doesn't have to get up and shake hands because he's stuck in the banquette."
The prime semicircles of tables that ring the stairs -- Mel's Gold Coast -- are starting to look busy, as the unknown are shuffled to the back. The stars are arriving. En masse. Confusion. Back-slapping. Private jokes. Everyone is around the same tables, and it's hard to tell who's going where.
It's former Democratic National Committee chief John White moving toward Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo). No, they're only shaking hands. White's at 31, Simpson edges to 55. Wall Street Journal star reporter Al Hunt is talking to former Florida governor Reubin Askew. No, Askew seems to be with Dallas Morning News bureau chief Carl Leubsdorf at banquette 32. Fred Fielding slips in unnoticed and slides into 33.
All at once, they sit. No one gets up again. The great lunch soft-shoe has been choreographed properly. They all seem happy.
"I learned early," says Krupin with a wry smile, "that you always put the beautiful people out front." Maison Blanche
Noon crisis: A reporter from a major newspaper and a public relations executive -- women -- are lunching at a quiet balcony table. Acceptable location. Out of mainstream with good view. Martin Agronsky is close by. New York Times bureau chief Bill Kovich is seated one table away.
Something is not right. White House communications director Dave Gergen is expected for lunch with Kovich. Co-owner Anne Hartley tells Kovich he has a phone call. She lied. She reseats him.
"We could not have all those reporters listening while he was trying to interview Gergen -- it just wasn't right," said Hartley. "We have to use judgment . . . be careful . . . I don't think the ladies were offended . . . I sat Elliot Richardson down next to them. He's my heartthrob."
Sparkling chandeliers, pink carnations, the sweet smell of simmering butter and lots of famous people make lunchtime tables at Maison Blanche almost as coveted in Washington as an audience with the president.
When Sans Souci closed, columnist Art Buchwald walked across the street, and picked his new spot a short distance from the White House. Table 14. Middle of the room facing every angle of the restaurant. Best location in the place. Celebrity Row.
"Wherever I eat lunch is the in place," Buchwald said recently. He was right. Slowly but surely, everyone walked across the street to the 3-year-old restaurant.
Newsweek bureau chief Mel Elfin gets 10, a hop, skip and a table's jump away from 14. Columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak like the middle of the room unless they are interviewing, in which case they prefer 51 and 59, respectively. Hidden corners on balcony. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski likes 12, back right-hand corner. Obscured but part of Celebrity Row. White House social secretary Muffie Brandon likes Table 16, where she generally eats with presidential aide Morgan Mason. Near Buchwald and the action. Attorney Donald Rogers prefers Table 15. He doesn't care much, he says, but his "guests from out of town like to see all the personalities."
No one wants Table 4. Absolute Siberia. For all intents and purposes, the front room at Maison Blanche is semi-Siberia. Much too busy. And the lounge, by the bar, is Voluntary Siberia. No scene whatsoever. But privacy.
Buchwald is not back from vacation this particular Wednesday so Jean Smith, wife of the attorney general, and Joan Braden are using his table.
"You have to be flexible," explains Grecco, restaurant genius responsibile for launching such other Washington luxury restaurants as Rive Gauche, Tiberio and Jean Pierre.
"It's a lot of pressure," says George Torchio, prote'ge' of Paul at the Sans. "Sometimes the customer wants to impress someone and you have to sense this. They need a good table . . . They want me to recognize them and call them by name."
Maison Blanche does not fool around with this recognition business. Neatly hidden under the maitre d's stand is "Know Your Congress," a photobook of congressmen, and a newspaper clip featuring photos of the Cabinet.
"Most people come in here to do business and be seen," says Grecco. "I told a young lady, a consultant, who used to work for Dan Rostenkowski D-Ill.; chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to bring him in here and have lunch with him to help her business . . . Then you have the oil firms and insurance firms see this and you let them know what you got . . . they all just want to be heard . . . She's working on it." The Palm
There is nothing peaceful about The Palm at lunchtime. Clicking heels on hardwood floors, voices that carry throughout, noisy phones. Briskly rotating ceiling fans whirl the aroma of Palm fries around tables full of fast-talking men. Bright colored caricatures of the famous cover the walls.
This is a man's restaurant.
"A great place to cut a deal," decrees one defense lobbyist, "but I wouldn't call it romantic."
Ray Jocamo, maitre d', co-owner, is frenzied. A local television crew is filming a restaurant review at noon, tying up a cluster of tables. Men, men and more men are crowding in, all with reservations.
Businessmen, lobbyists, lawyers, political consultants--lots of people have their own table at The Palm. John Gore from British Petroleum gets Table 50. And Rostenkowski gets a table in the lounge right under his own caricature, a sign of prestige at the The Palm. You have arrived if you have been sketched.
Edward Bennett Williams, or "EBW" as Ray affectionately calls Washington's most famous criminal lawyer, always gets Table 10. It is a booth for six in the back. He likes this booth, so they drew his picture over it. Now he, too, sits in sight of his portrait.
"People love to sit under their picture," explains Ray's assistant Greg Fitzpatrick. "A lot of them like to sit at least where they can see it. They don't ask but you just know it. I guess it's some kind of ego trip."
At The Palm, it's difficult to pinpoint Siberia.
Businessmen and lobbyists seem to lean toward the front room. Action. Deals. Take Nicholas Nichols, director of the federal affairs office of the American Institute of Certified Public Accounts. Table 42 in the front room almost every day. "If he shows up late and someone else gets that table, then I have to start playing games," explains Jacomo, dripping in gold -- cuff links, bracelet, ring. "I mean, he wouldn't have a nervous breakdown, but it's clear he wants that area."
Joe Califano, on the other hand, gets the very last table at the far back of the restaurant. Privacy. George Bush, Fred Fielding, Ron Nessen also sit back there.
Today, the cameras are back there. Two groups of pin-striped businessmen walk in without reservations. No dice until 1:30, Jocamo says.
A few minutes later, three women walk in together without a reservation. He finds them a table near the cameras and sizzling lights.
"If they don't like it," says Jacomo, "they can walk out."
They didn't. Joe and Mo's
"Money? For a good table? Are you kidding me?" blurts Mo, sole proprietor since Joe left. "For Christmas last year I got $20 and two Dolly Parton albums. That is not going to buy a good table in Washington."
Joe and Mo's, opened three years ago on a wing and a prayer by two ex-waiters from The Palm, is perhaps more relaxed in terms of power lunches and seating than some of its competitors. Rock bands visiting Washington have parties there and Fred Fielding talks to the White House from there.
Regulars include David Stockman, John Mitchell, Frank Mankiewicz and hundreds from the three-piece lawyer club around the Connecticut Avenue corridor.
The back room is for strangers but, says Mo, anyone can get a good table -- if he begs.
"You come in here," says Mo, "and tell me it's urgent and you can sit anywhere . . ."
Except, of course, for the table under the mirror in the main room.
"Well," says Mo, "that's Edward Bennett Williams' table . . . But he doesn't always come in . . ."
So how does one get a good table at Washington's lunchtime clubs? What's the gimmick? Who gets finessed, cajoled and caressed?
"It's really very simple," says Mel Krupin, surveying his vast domain of pickles and neat white-covered tables. "You gotta know Mel."