At The American Cafe, a popular Georgetown restaurant and catering service, there's a sandwich called the Californian, consisting of avocado, Swiss cheese, alfalfa sprouts, mushrooms, onions, spinach and tomato on a double twist roll.
A few block away, at Ziggy's Deli, Carry Out and Cafeteria a sandwich called the Californian also appears on the menu and it, too, has avocado, Swiss cheese, alfalfa sprouts, mushrooms, onions, spinach and tomato on a double twist roll.
Such a simlarity about the Californian and a dozen other items on the two restaurants' menus is more than coincidence, the American Cafe charges. In fact, The American Cafe thinks it is plagiarism and has filed a $1.1 million damage suit in D.C. Superior Court against Ziggy's.
"I can't believe it," said Mark Caraluzzi, American Cafe's premier chef and part owner. "Everyone from the man who peels our carrots to our dishwasher read their menu and said, 'They can't do that.'"
So, Caraluzzi and his two partners walked into court last week asking for the damages and demanding that Ziggy's immediately stop selling "the continental," "The Californian," and the other sandwiches and menu items which also appear on The American Cafe's menu.
Ziggy, who is actually 73-year-old restaurateur Harry Ziegler, doesn't see what all the fuss is about, but he won't comment on why his menu is so similar to that of The American Cafe.
He notes that he has been in the food business far longer than any of the three under-30 owners of The American Cafe who raised $20,000 to open their restaurant at M Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW in 1969 and now gross $1 million a year from that facility and one on Capitol Hill.
"We made no attempt to trade on their name," Ziegler said. "As long as we serve good food, the customer will buy it. A menu written by William Shakespeare is not going to help us if we don't serve good food."
Ziggy's lawyers contend that Ziggy has done nothing illegal. The American Cafe menu is not copyrighted, said one attorney representing Ziggy, the names of the dishes are not trademarked and Ziggy made no attempt to pass off The American Cafe's food as its own or misappropriate its advertising copy.
Ziegler said he believes The American Cafe's owners filed suit because they were jealous and "resent" the brisk catering business he enjoys. A Superior Court judge has agreed to set a hearing in the case for later this month and Ziegler said his defense will be simple: "We make a good sandwich. We make very, very, very fine food."
"It's the great sandwich war," said one attorney and a result of the fiercely competitive restaurant business in Washington, especially the subsidiary lunchtime catering services to downtown office buildings.
It is The American Cafe's catering menu -- not the regular restaurant menu -- which allegedly has been copied.But Ziggy's attorny, Thomas J. Bacas, said that restaurant's position is simple: "You can't patent a sandwich."
The unusual battle between the two popular restaurants began when a long-time American Cafe customer brought Ziggy's menu to the attention of The American Cafe's owners. The American Cafe's and Ziggy's menus are virtually the same in appearance, design, and even type face, with some 15 menu items called by the same name with the same ingredients or description.
For example, the American Cafe has a house sandwich (rare roast beef on a croissant) which bears the name of the restaurant. Ziggy's has a rare roast beef on a croissant offering "The American" instead of "The American Cafe."
On the Reverse side of its menu, The American Cafe's promotion material had allegedly been copied, the restaurant's owners charge. "The American Cafe takes great pride in welcoming you in celebration of the coming of age of American food," the menu reads. After substituting its own name, Ziggy's menu makes exactly the same claim.
"That," says The American Cafe's Caraluzzi, was the clincher." He calculates that 60 percent of The American Cafe's menu has been copied. "If it were a couple of items, I wouldn't care much. But to take not only the recipe and ingredients but to lay it out on the same kind of paper and hype it in the same way -- that's too much."
Ziegler opened his restaurant, at 1015 18th St. NW. He also once owned Dupont Circle's popular lunch spot called "Telly's." He says the lunchtime crowd at Ziggy's is so large that "some days, you can't get in."
The American Cafe, according to its owners, has developed a special clientelle. They said they spent $25,000 on food research alone and spent six months developing their menu. Every food item listed on The American Cafe's menu, the lawsuit claims, is the product of hundreds of extensive taste tests performed by such experts as James Beard and celebrated French chef Jacques Pepin, as well as "people simply gathered on the streets."
Not only are the names and the descriptions of the products copied, the lawsuit charges, "but the very unique combination of ingredients have been copied. The combination of pate, roast beef (and other ingredients in The American Cafe's Continental sandwich) is hardly drug store fare."