The Zebra Room has been a mecca for a cross section of Washingtonians for more than 20 years. Standing at the corner of Macomb Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW, the Zebra Room is an anachronism, a touch of home in a world of McDonald's. Its fans, devoted and legion, eat there either because of its food or despite it.
The Zebra Room is a gathering place for all the diverse elements of its neighborhood, and beyond. It is a place where national and local politicians stop in, retirees shoot the breeze over a few beers, cops and office workers have lunch; it is a place for singles who live in apartment buildings along the avenue, for students, for families.
"It took me a long time to make this place into a neighborhood restaurant," said owner Hal Lake, who looks a bit like Carroll O'Connor but shows none of the prejudices of Archie Bunker, wears gold chains on neck and wrist and retains a bit of his native Brooklyn in his speech.
"I wanted people to feel at home when they come here. . . . If a regular customer goes on vacation we ask them to let us know so we don't worry about them. If they don't show up for a few days we'll give them a call."
The restaurant's name, chosen by its original owners a quarter-century ago for reasons now cloaked in mystery, was reflected in its striped booths and jaunty black-and-white awning.
The striped booths long ago were replaced by black vinyl ones beneath hanging plastic potted ferns. On one wall there is a bronze plaque commemorating the late Dr. Mark (Skippy) Platt, who used to be a Tuesday night regular. Next to it hang real pizzas, laminated, that illustrate the sizes of the Zebra's thin-crust pies. The largest, the table-top size Zebra Special ($24; half price on Tuesday and Thursday), is now deteriorating -- a few months ago a patron poked a hole in it.
The regular customers who gather at a black, semicircular bar behind the dining room are as much fixtures as the ferns and pizzas. They are usually in the same seats, watching the same programs on two flickering TVs, night after night.
Most regulars are single or widowed men in their fifties. Although they are professionally diverse -- firefighter, radio disc jockey, military officer, government worker, politician -- they all find sanctuary there from an indifferent world. Last names are unnecessary and their conversations have a seamless familiarity. Hot topics are World War II, sports, the D.C. Lottery and sex.
"I usually come here at 4:30, go home and eat dinner and then come back here for the rest of the night," explained Jack Ellis, 55. ". . . I live just across the street, so I don't have to worry about DWI (driving while intoxicated)." Ellis ordered a "brunch beer" at 10 a.m. one day from Peggy Stevens, the day manager and sometime bartender, who already had his glass chilling behind the bar.
Stevens has been working "on and off" at the Zebra Room for 26 years. Her family lived above the restaurant in Apartment 1 when she was growing up. She drank her first legal beer at the Zebra Room when she turned 18, and after she married she simply moved to Apartment 2. Even after moving to Bethesda 19 years ago she continued working at the Zebra Room. To regulars she is like an indulgent den mother.
"Take your medicine," she told George Healy, a retired fireman, one night recently.
Stevens and her customers recalled some of the restaurant's unforgettable customers: "Up-and-down Sam," the elevator repairman; former speaker of the House Carl Albert; Mr. Babbersham ("a real sweetheart," said Stevens), who eats nearly every meal at the Zebra Room. "Then there was Admiral Purvis, head of the 10th Fleet," said Healy. "They never even had a rowboat."
"We're just a family," stated Ellis. "A big drunken family."
"And the wake we had here about four years ago!" recalled Stevens. "A National Geographic photographer was killed overseas but said in his will that all his friends should gather here and have a good time. It was lovely. The whole place was decorated with heather. Even brought in a bagpiper."
"Yeah," said Healy gruffly, recalling the interruption, "squealed those bagpipes all night long."
All it takes to be one of the gang at the Zebra Room is a good personality, said a customer who wished to remain anonymous. "If you've got no personality, you never get in. Period."
Like Stevens, most of the waitresses and waiters have been working at the Zebra Room five years or more. Chef Wallace Hughes has been there 22 years.
Lake himself -- father, confessor and friend to his customers -- was affectionately dubbed "Prince Hal of the Lake" by one of the regulars.
He and his employes move around the Zebra's dining room and bar as if in their own homes. Many customers are served dinner without ordering as the waitresses remember their choices of many years. They chatter about families, memories or current events.
In the evening, the students dominate. A few years ago Lake installed an alarm system on Zebra Room urinals to prevent their being ripped off the wall of the men's room by student pranksters. One night Lake answered the alarm to find a young man tearing the room apart. In a rage, the student picked up Lake and tossed him on the floor.
After the student's arrest, he apologized to Lake and explained that he simply had lost control of his life. Instead of pressing charges, Lake spent a day in court trying to clear the student's record so he could continue on to law school.
"He's a lawyer here in town." said Lake, pleased to give the story a happy ending. "Yes, he still comes to the Zebra Room."
Lake said his enthusiasm for the business waned only once, after the death of his eldest son in a car accident nine years ago. He put the Zebra Room up for sale then, but after two offers, decided he could not imagine life without it and abruptly took it off the market. He said he will run it indefinitely.
Lake calls his restaurant "The Washington Cathedral Annex" because bellringers and choir adjourn from the cathedral to the Zebra Room after practice. The Zebra Room is also the meeting place for Mensa (a society for people with high IQs) and many other groups.
Many local and national politicans have frequented the restaurant, according to Lake and Stevens, including John Anderson and Walter Mondale. Mayor Marion Barry and City Council member Polly Shackleton have been customers too, they said.
"Hubert Humphrey came in here one night when he was a senator," Lake recalled. "He said, 'I just want to see the dive my son hangs out in.' We had a conversation for about an hour -- really nice."
And Dr. Mark Platt of the bronze plaque?
"Dr. Platt was 39 years old, a doctor at Children's Hospital," Lake recalled. "He used to come here with half the doctors from Children's and his wife, Janice, who is a physical therapist. They'd have 15 or 20 people here on Tuesday." Platt, a pediatric neurologist, was believed to have died of hepatitis, a Children's Hospital spokesman said.
"We just put the plaque up a month ago," Lake said. "It was his wedding anniversary."
Lake's said his wife, Anna, a psychiatric social worker, would like to redecorate the Zebra Room. " 'Buy new booths. Upgrade the place,' " he said she tells him.
" 'Okay,' " Lake said he finally agreed. " 'I'll buy new booths, but they'll be the same ones that I had before.' "
As he reminisced, Lake fondly recalled one of many impromptu musicales the Zebra Room has seen. The daughter of a longtime customer became an opera singer, studied in Milan, and last summer returned to Washington for a visit. Lake persuaded her to give a concert at the Zebra Room.
"She got a standing ovation," Lake remembered wistfully. "Sang from Carmen. It was beautiful."
Prince Hal of the Lake savors the sweet memory of that evening in his kingdom.