Herb's, the P Street restaurant that found its niche catering to the Washington arts community, closed last night.
On Dec. 31, they'll take down the sign, the restaurant's jazzy, black-and-white urban-skyline logo, thus ending a short but significant chapter in the nightlife of the area.
The sign evoked a lot of comment -- not all of it favorable -- when it went up in the spring of '82 over the newly carved-out entrance to the newly remodeled restaurant in the Georgetown Hotel. So, too, did the concept of an arts restaurant, which struck some as rather pretentious and pseudo-New Yorky, a dubious business proposition at best that couldn't possibly work in a one-company town like Washington.
That Herb's worked as well as it did for as long as it did was due in no small part to its proprietor, Herb White, a ubiquitous but low-key presence fond of saying he liked people in the arts better than politicians because "their minds are more interesting."
A native New Yorker, White has been in and out of Washington since the late '50s, when he attended Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He knows the city and its arts scene well. Cafe Don, the Columbia Road bar he ran in the early '70s, was a kind of dress rehearsal for the restaurant that bore his name. So, in a different sort of way, was the Wayside Inn and Wayside Dinner Theater in Middletown, Va., which he operated earlier.
Herb set the tone for the place -- a tone of calm acceptance for whatever walked in the door, be it visiting celebrity, prominent or not-so-prominent local, struggling actor, painter, musician or whatever. And some of what walked in the door, as Herb would be the first to admit, was pretty bizarre.
But unlike the traditional haunts of artsy types, Herb's was attractive and upscale. It was a handsome, L-shaped restaurant with dark oak paneling, a highly polished long front bar, red leather banquettes, white tile floor, green stucco ceiling, and a glass-wall front where you had to make an entrance -- whether you liked it or not.
The arts connection seemed real, not contrived; more than just a series of glossy autographed photos of local arts professionals gracing the walls. The restaurant opened with a series of four benefits for Washington arts groups -- New Playwrights' Theatre, Washington Ballet, Washington Project for the Arts and Washington Independent Writers. "We charged $10 a head, and gave $6 back to the organization," White says. "It was really a nice thing for Herb to do," says Washington Ballet board member Kay Butler. "It was a wonderful party."
The benefits continued with some regularity for "off-Kennedy Center things, and social concerns," says White, and several arts groups, including the Washington Sculpture Society and Washington Independent Writers, held regular meetings at Herb's. Proceeds from the jukebox were donated to arts groups. If someone had an opening and came to the restaurant afterward, champagne would be sent to the table. A large bulletin board bore announcements of "Galleries," "Concerts and Shows," "Theater," "Dance" and "Literary Events." It all created interest and enormous good will.
Says Washington sculptor Frederick Hart: "There was always some place you could hang out -- Tasso's, the Ben Bow, the Childe Harold, Millie and Al's -- but no place that defined itself as an arts place, no place that went after the business so overtly."
Most of the waiters were arts people as well -- young actors, writers, painters, musicians; even a comedian, Sam Greenfield, who used to try out new material on the customers. Their work schedules were accommodated. But this proved to be a mixed blessing. Some enjoyed bantering with the more theatrical waitresses. Others did not. The service could be infuriatingly inattentive. As for the food -- billed as "eclectic American cuisine with Thai influences" -- it could be good, it could be bad. And some found it pricey. "Consistently inconsistent," in the words of one former staffer. A three-star restaurant Herb's was not. But who went there solely for the food?
Herb's also had strong neighborhood bar appeal for local notables such as D.C. City Council Chairman Dave Clarke, superflack Bob Gray and Jennifer and Laughlin Phillips, who run the Phillips Collection. British journalist Henry Fairlie, who also lived in the neighborhood, would often hold court there. Celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley was served a subpoena by Frank Sinatra's lawyers at Herb's.
It was also a star scene. "Naked Lunch" author William Burroughs celebrated his 70th birthday at Herb's. During her "Private Lives" run at the Kennedy Center, Elizabeth Taylor dined there one Sunday night with her bodyguard and four others, amid a parade of fans proffering balloons. Steve Allen did a TV interview at Herb's. Kevin Kline was spotted by a waiter in the hotel lobby and nearly caused a staff riot. Carol Channing stopped in after a performance of "Jerry's Girls." Jane Alexander, Jennifer ("Dreamgirls") Holiday, Gene ("Star Trek") Roddenberry . . . and on and on like that.
Working at Herb's was "like going on stage every night -- you were acting for a different audience every night," says waitress-musician Melissa Drumheller. "Herb was a big daddy, very nurturing to his staff. It was all first names. I loved working there. You got a Saturday night full of just locals. Everybody seemed to know each other. Everybody was so bizarre, anyway. It was quite entertaining."
"We opened with a mission to make things happen that were waiting to happen, to introduce people to people, to cross-pollinate various arts forms in this city," says White. "I liked to stir the pot a little. Mary Day, who heads the Washington Ballet, I got to introduce her to Leon Berkowitz, an artist in this city. They had never met before. That kind of thing. It pleased me to be a part of that.
"I miss it already," he says. "It was a very positive experience. I was not interested in making the last buck. I was interested in performing a public service but being profitable as well. I felt that it could be done. You have to have your greed factor under control. I get so sick of hearing that phrase, 'the bottom line' . . ."
Herb's did good business. "It grossed over $2 million in 1984," says White. So why did it close? Because Washington developer Leo Bernstein, with whom White has had a long business relationship, sold the hotel to Omni International earlier this year. White stayed on as manager through June, then became a consultant through October. Omni leased the name through December. And with a different ownership come different priorities. It wasn't the same. There was a lot of staff turnover. Business fell off sharply this past year.
There are plans to reopen the restaurant sometime in the spring as a cafe', the Cafe' Beaux Arts. According to general manager Richard Cotter, some effort will be made to continue Herb White's pioneering outreach to the Washington arts community -- a more viable marketing concept for a restaurant than most people realized.
"It will be different," says Cotter. "There's only one Herb White in this city, and that I certainly can't replace."