So these two women came into Paul Young's restaurant one cold winter afternoon 25 years ago.
"They had cloth coats on, I thought they were gonna ask me for a donation or something," says Paul Young. "Woman's name was Mrs. Smith and they wanted to ask about having a private party. 'After the gala,' they said. I had no idea what they were talking about. I wasn't paying much attention. Then Hollywood Joe, he was our maitre d' in those days, Joe Theim was his name, he came up and whispered to me who they were."
Who they were was Jean Smith and Eunice Shriver, and the gala they were talking about was for their brother's inauguration as president of the United States.
A couple days later Joseph P. Kennedy himself, "the ambassador," Young calls him, dropped in to confirm that his party would be taking over the whole restaurant on inauguration night.
It was a party, all right. The place was packed with 350 of the most important people in the country. One young suburban beauty arrived with her date, took off her galoshes in the vestibule, brought her high-heel shoes from her bag and stood before the mirror donning makeup, diamond bracelet and earrings . . . but the name wasn't on the Secret Service list. They stomped out, high heels and all.
The party didn't end until the ambassador was ready to quit: at 5 a.m.
"The old man never stopped dancing all night," Young recalls. "When the president's limo pulled up outside, my brother David and I were there to greet him -- it's the custom -- and my mother was standing on the landing, and I introduced her. That got my wife mad at me, so our son Jeff took her over and said, 'And this is my mother.'
"That party made us. The Kennedys were very good to us. We catered for them a lot. They made David and me honorary members of the Massachusetts delegation . . ."
It's an American saga, really. Paul and David Young first came to Washington with their friend George Brodie in 1935. They had been hired to drive a rental car from Philadelphia to Miami but ran out of money in Washington. With literally their last nickel they bought a paper and found George a job for the day. Waiting for him to get off work, Paul Young wandered down to 13th and H streets and discovered an abandoned florist shop with a fishpond built into the floor. He thought it might make a nice restaurant.
"Well, that was the family business," he says. "We kind of drifted into it. Started in 1929 in New York when everything came tumbling down. I was still in high school and David was in short pants. The family got together and said, What'll we do? and Mama said, I can cook, so we opened a little vegetarian restaurant. Two years later my uncle in Philadelphia retired and sold us his restaurant. He wanted to unload it, is what it was. A week after we got there, my father died."
They bought the florist shop and called it the Roumanian Inn. For a while Young roomed with Alfred Lewis, a reporter putting himself through law school. When Young finally was ready to open the inn he realized there was no change for the cash register, so Lewis without another word emptied his pockets and handed over $11. The Youngs were in business.
"We didn't know anything. Didn't know how to write a menu. Looked up a produce dealer and a meat man in the phone book, had to place our first orders on credit. We didn't know any of these people. We had this Lithuanian dishwasher in Philadelphia, Tony, he stayed with us. He became the cook. My mother trained him. He lived with us for 30 years."
The real cook, of course, was Mama. She was Eva Vera Young, and she had emigrated from Russia in 1904, worked as a seamstress, and married Hyman Young in 1910. It was Mama who made the shashlik and the kasha soup and the great borsch and the blini and all those deadly things with sour cream. And the pastries, the mandelbrot almond cookies, the strudels, the cheese cakes that people still remember around town though she has been gone for 14 years now.
It was Mama who would spot someone she knew coming in and would send a special dish to the table. It was Mama who, years later, made 500 pounds of her dry fruit strudel every Christmas, working at it for six weeks, cutting all 10,000 pieces herself. The whole family ran an assembly line to get the pieces packed and mailed off to congressmen and Cabinet members and presidents. Every year, the thank-you notes piled up three feet high.
Even when the Youngs moved to the fancy new place on Connecticut Avenue just north of L Street, Mama in her eighties helped with cooking, though she hated the electric stoves. The regulars always asked for her, and when she came out they would kiss her. It was part of why they came. She died at 90 in 1971.
Paul: "She never worked with a recipe. It was a pinch of this, a handful of that, a shake of this. We'd say, 'Mama, won't you give me the recipe?' Some incredible dish of hers. And she'd say, 'Watch me. See how I make it.' "
In 1939 the brothers opened a nightclub, the Romany Room, above the Roumanian Inn. Dancing girls, a band and a comic. A music act. Names that today would command a major theater. Sid Caesar. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin ("Dean had his old nose then"). Carol Channing. The King Cole Trio ("we were the first to bring a colored act to a white nightclub here"). Jerry Lester. Alan King. Joey Bishop. Variety called it "the best entertainment buy in the capital."
David: "It was a very expensive place. We had a two-dollar minimum on Saturday nights. You got the same dinner as downstairs for a quarter more. In the restaurant, dinner was 65 cents. Washington was a small town then: Going to Rockville was like going on safari. The outer limit was Albemarle Street where the Hot Shoppe had a drive-in, you know, with the high school kids on Saturday night and the carhops on rollerskates."
Everything was on a smaller scale then. Alan King worked for $200 a week, the King Cole Trio for $225 "for the three of them." Martin and Lewis, just taking off in 1946, made $1,300 a week, topped only by Sid Caesar's $1,700.
"It was a small room, only seated 150 people. A table the size of a phone book would seat four for dinner. If your thigh itched, you'd be scratching somebody else's leg."
The floors creaked so badly some customers were afraid they'd fall through to the Roumanian Inn at any moment. But that was the place to go in Washington in those days. The lunch was 35 cents, and they had cloth napkins.
"When I was first married," says restaurateur Duke Zeibert, longtime competitor and friend, who opened his celebrated place across L Street just before the Youngs moved in and who is back in business after retiring in vain, "I took my bride to the Roumanian Inn for lunch. 'I'm gonna order you some food you never had before,' I told her. She was a little gentile girl from the Middle West. It was a real hot day, middle of summer in Washington. We started off with borsch. Now, if you never had Mama's borsch you never had borsch. So the waiter brings it in and she takes a sip and makes a face and says, 'Get that waiter back. This soup is ice cold!' "
During World War II Paul served in the Marines, David in the Army Engineers and their brother Ned in the Air Force while Mama and Paul's wife Tamara ran the inn. David's wife Georgia, now a vice president at Lewis & Thos. Saltz, was a department store executive. Ned went to Hollywood as a film writer, was blacklisted in the '50s for refusing to testify against his left-wing friends, later got an Academy Award for "The Defiant Ones." He died in 1968.
In 1960 the family moved uptown. They called the new place Paul Young's, opening June 27 in a plush setting designed by William Pahlmann, who had done the Four Seasons and other New York restaurants. They had a sommelier, a novelty in Washington, and table service. They aspired to class. Everything except the prime ribs and duckling was prepared to order.
Though the menu featured 29 dishes at dinner and 18 at lunch, plus 111 wines, some of the best stuff was unlisted. Veal parmigiana ("the best in the city," a regular says), fried chicken, corn on the cob, a superb continental rice pudding.
Paul: "All the years Milt Kronheim ate with us he never looked at a menu. He'd order knackwurst and baked beans, and the waiter would bring it under a cover so no one would see it."
Food experts like Kronheim, patriarch of the local liquor business, and restaurateurs Vincent Sardi, Trader Vic Bergeron and Mel Krupin (the man who bought the brothers out, but at the time Zeibert's headwaiter) ate at Young's. Every president from Kennedy on ate there, and Jimmy Carter celebrated his 55th birthday there. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings half the Hill would show up by unspoken tradition. For years the late representative Michael J. Kirwan, the powerful Ohio Democrat, held court at his special table by the staircase. The Youngs finally installed a plaque: "You are seated at this table through the courtesy of the Honorable Michael Kirwan."
With all those egos you needed a matador, and he appeared in the impeccable form of Emanuel Anagnostiadis, the maitre d' until the Youngs retired in 1980, Paul at 69, David at 59. He moved to the Montpelier Room at the Madison, and two years ago rejoined the brothers in their new venture, J&R Tobacco at 17th and K. It was Anagnostiadis who kept the delicate balance of elegance and camaraderie. He could stare an obnoxious drunk clean out the door. Once when a customer fell over the railing on the stairs, Anagnostiadis stepped swiftly over and caught the windmilling figure on his shoulder.
Though Paul Young's had a bakeshop and pastry cook, the brothers learned to bake the rolls and pastries themselves. One time after they sold the place to Krupin, Paul came in and baked for him during an emergency.
That's one of the things about the restaurant business they don't teach you in hotel school, he says. That and what you do when the immigration inspectors drop in and all your dishwashers scatter.
David: "My wife used to say, 'What are you doing in your good suit washing dishes?' How many times we washed dishes at midnight because the immigration was here. Guys hiding on top of the dishwasher, behind the oven, in the refrigerator . . ."
Young's went union in 1965.
(Those days seem pretty remote now. The Young brothers have a patriarchal look about them today, Paul with his four children, Barry, Jeff, Robert and Laura, and four grandchildren, David with his daughter Dale and five grandchildren.)
The restaurant kept a Rolls-Royce out front for favored customers. On the day John Kennedy was shot, two Kennedy women were having lunch in Young's. The cashier, eating in the kitchen, heard the news on her radio, and the place emptied out immediately. The Kennedy women were taken to the White House in the Rolls.
David: "Mama used to take the Rolls to Murphy's variety store and leave the chauffeur outside while she went in to buy her pots and pans."
Today the restaurant is called Mel Krupin's, and the former David's, the next-door coffee shop, is Mr. M's. The chandelier and the 199 seats are still there, but the walls are gray instead of crimson. "A more New Yorkish look," Krupin says. At the entrance stands a large jar of "Mel's Pickles," a carry-over from his Zeibert days, and one wall is covered with photos of politicians, media and sports figures.
The Wall of Fame is an institution in many power restaurants. It wasn't the Youngs' style. They never did go in for razzle-dazzle.
But Krupin still gets a lot of mail addressed to "Paul Young's Restaurant."