File under "Oh, How the Mighty Have Fallen": Sans Souci is now just a pile of broken bricks, envelopes of crumbling newspaper clippings and remembered heartburn. The restaurant closed in 1983. Now they've torn the building down.
Once it was just a reservation (three days ahead) away from the White House. From its tables, crowded together like people around a cocktail buffet, one might have overheard the plotting of Watergate and other cataclysms of the '60s and '70s.
"Before the Sans Souci, there was no Power Lunch. Sans Souci got the power after I went there," says columnist Art Buchwald. The Sans Souci savant has been credited with inventing the place. Indeed, it's said that the wreckers didn't dare tear down the building at 726 17th St. NW until Buchwald left for the Cape.
"Everybody who was indicted because of Watergate ate at Sans Souci. We used to buy them a drink before they left for Allenwood prison. The day that Carter threatened to end the three-martini lunch as a tax deduction, we sent three martinis to Michael Blumenthal, the treasury secretary, at the next table.
"Sans Souci was theater," Buchwald says. "You entered from stage left, took your bow and were escorted to your table."
In fact, the restaurant was shaped like a theater, with orchestra and balcony. One journalist remembers lunching at Sans Souci as a cub reporter with a colleague who lectured on the placement of guests according to their current status on the front page. Then Henry Kissinger, at the height of his power, walked in and was conducted to the table she had condemned as the worst.
"Every table was a good table," insists Buchwald. "Sans Souci didn't have a Siberia."
To reach the nirvana of being seated, you had to be vetted by Paul DeLisle, the mai~tre d'ho~tel, whose delicate distinctions among the great, the were-great and the will-be-great set a standard never equaled in Washington.
Buchwald once wrote that "Paul was the real reason we came there. The food was never all that great. But Paul was the dream maitre d'. He was kind to everybody, even when he had to turn them down. It was a club."
When Buchwald was a small boy, he was enchanted by columnist/broadcaster Walter Winchell, who covered his beat from a table at the Stork Club. So when the humorist came back from the cafe's of Paris and the columns of the International Herald Tribune in the early 1960s, he set up a regular table at Sans Souci, a front-row seat on Washington.
The martini lunch, if not first stirred there, was certainly celebrated at Sans Souci on July 14, 1976. That was the day First Lady Betty Ford took President Gerald Ford there for a birthday lunch. He had two martinis and a chef salad. Mrs. Ford had two gin and tonics, salad, dover sole and potatoes. They both had cake. The bill: $25.
The restaurant lost its cachet -- not because McDonald's moved next door, or when the help went on strike, or the night the lights went out, or even when more and better restaurants opened, but when Paul DeLisle left in January 1979 in a dispute with the owner, Bernie Gorland, who had bought it from founder Gus Diamond.
DeLisle himself -- a dishwasher at the British Embassy, a waiter at Place Vendome and maitre d' at Rive Gauche before starring at Sans Souci -- went on to be managing director at the Jockey Club until Feb. 6, 1983, when he died at the age of 55. George Sardelis, the maitre d' when the place had already become Il Nuovo Sans Souci, a Franco/Italian restaurant, is now captain of waiters at Maison Blanc. Georges Torchio, once captain at Sans Souci, is now maitre d' at Maison Blanc.
A new 12-story office building is going up on the site, to be called 705 Seventeenth Street, developed by Manufacturers Real Estate and designed by Keys Condon and Florance. "Permitwise, we're an addition to the Metropolitan Club," says J. Paul Bright III, manager of Manufacturers' Washington office. "From its halls, it will have a swimming pool and squash courts. Our building is set back to preserve its dining room's view down 17th Street. We have our own, rather grand, entrance."
Bright said his company has investors lined up to open a restaurant on the building's second floor, a space just a little smaller than Duke Zeibert's. George Sardelis is one of those interested. "It should be called the Sans Souci," Sardelis said.
Perhaps today Avec Souci -- with, rather than without, care -- would be more appropriate.
So raise a glass of bicarbonate of soda to toast the passing of the Sans Souci -- and its coming again