Under French red, white and blue ribbons and champagne-spritzy fanfare yesterday, the diners nibbled on petits morsels de kangourou in front of Dominique's. Around the corner on 20th Street, waiters and waitresses jogged up and down the block, trays in hand. They were getting ready for Dominique's 11th Bastille Day Race, the waiters' Preakness.
The race rules demanded that the waiters galavant up and down Pennnsylvania Avenue, balancing a tray of two champagne splits, two empty glasses and a French flag, sans catastrophe. Le Grand Prix for the winner was a round-trip, three-day visit to the city of Maurice Chevalier.
Sitting together on a stone ledge were Marc and Patrick Fabre, imports from Taverne Henry IV, a Paris restaurant. Both have won the Paris waiters' race, a more serious contest of eight kilometers (about five miles).
"Les petites bouteilles sont tre s difficiles," said Marc Fabre, referring to the small champagne splits. He had to carry a big wine bottle and two glasses for his previous '84 and '85 triumphs.
Past them, Ted Reich and John DiMichele, two waiters from the Hangar Club, dressed with nothing but pink bow ties above their skintight leather leggings, cooled their heels.
"Excuse me," said a man in a yellow jacket. "The ladies at my table want to see you. Would you mind?"
They didn't. Maryland's Hangar Club, after all, is not a place for shy waiters -- the club caters to women and features male go-go dancers.
"If we don't make it, we're going to sit down and drink the champagne," said waitress Donna Stivers, sitting next to her fellow Round Table waitress, her sister Rose. "We've been practicing up and down the stairs with trays."
"I'm a distance runner," said New Yorker Stephanie Ort, a participant in the third annual customers' race, a shorter hop preceding the waiters' run. She has completed two New York Marathons.
"I practiced during my sales meeting," said Hyatt Regency sales manager Marjory Hardy, another customer racer. When she had the time, she jogged in the hotel's hallways.
Back at the me'le'e, it was time for the customers' race, the first event. They had it easy, with a bottle of wine, a can of beer and a can of bean soup on each of their trays, not to mention a breezy four-block course.
The customer-competitors lined up three-deep on a sidewalk clogged with camera crews, revelers and small people handing out balloons. Emcee Charlie Brotman started them off at 2 p.m. and they hustled their trays through a pedestrian-choked route, the group of bobbing heads soon disappearing down Pennsylvania Avenue. One racer dropped his tray before the end of the first block.
When they returned, it was Tim Jenkins, a 28-year-old attorney, his wine bottle lying low on the tray, who emerged as winner. "Maybe I'll use it as a free honeymoon," he said, accepting the first prize (a trip to San Francisco) on the stage. The runner-up was Department of Energy employe Chris Smith; Linda Yahn was the first woman across the line.
Then the high point of the day arrived: 90 waiters and waitresses wedged together for the start.
The French brothers were well placed, the Hangar Clubbers well back. Dominique D'Ermo, with Dominique's manager Diana Damwood, held aloft a 23-inch tall, almost two-gallon bottle of Lanson champagne and popped the cork to start everyone off.
As the waiters broke, D'Ermo showered them with bubbly franc,aise. The moment the last waiter had left the starting line, spectators and luncheoners surged around the restaurateur with empty glasses to catch the last of the champagne. "Gimme some, gimme some, gimme some," insisted a middle-aged woman bouncing in her high-heeled shoes.
The wait was longer this time, since it was a 12-block course. The winner, Marc Fabre, emerged half a block ahead of the pack, barely sweating as he sauntered to the finish line. With the classic aplomb of the French waiter, he popped open a champagne split and filled the glasses of the waiting judges -- the race's final requirement.
"Yes, it was easy," said Fabre in French, beset by TV interviewers who spoke only English. He suffered a champagne splash over his head with Gallic modesty.
Staggering in second, his shirt stuck to his skin with sweat, was Dominique's waiter Fernando Castellon. "I've been training for a week," he said. "He's very good."
The rest of the contestants followed. Patrick Fabre came in fifth, looking a little more ruffled than his triumphant brother. The first women, right behind Fabre, were Colleen Wimmer and Elizabeth Jones, both of Bowties restaurant. They came in together, without so much as a grimace.
"We practiced at 1:30 last night after work," said Wimmer later.
"We ran into two security police guards who asked us out," said her companion.
Patrick Fabre sat forlornly on the edge of the stage as his brother talked to reporters. Someone had nudged him, he said. Another waiter complained to D'Ermo he had been instructed to carry his wine glasses bottoms down, which impeded his speed. Fabre had had his glasses bottoms up. D'Ermo shrugged.
C'est la vie.