The second that regular customers of the Palm walk through the restaurant’s glass door, Tommy Jacomo’s wheels start spinning.
He knows their names, he knows which table they like, what wine they’ll order, and whether they like to sit facing the door or away from it.
Jacomo, the Dupont Circle steakhouse’s executive director, who has stood watch over that very door for 44 years, can’t explain how he does this, how he maintains a mental database that churns out information faster than an iPhone.
“It’s like a filing system up there,” he says, pointing to his head. “There’s something about their nose or their eyes that’ll make me remember ’em.” When he’s stuck for a name, he uses a trick he heard about years ago and mentally recites the alphabet until he connects a letter to a face.
There’s an actual database in the restaurant’s computer system now, where waiters can track these things. “I don’t need it,” he says.
Now Jacomo, 72, is retiring at the end of the year and taking that vast trove with him. With his departure, Washington, a town where transactions can so often feel impersonal, is losing one of its rare characters, a guy who knew that your kid’s birthday was coming up and when you were working on a big business deal.
The lore of the Palm is studded with cameos by the uber-famous: the time the dining room gave a standing ovation to Joe DiMaggio, the meals ex-presidents enjoyed, or the night Jacomo faux-sparred with Muhammad Ali. But the real story is one of powerful lobbyists and lawyers, with the odd politician or cable pundit thrown in — the people whose cartoon faces line the walls, a tradition that started at the original Palm in Manhattan.
Many of those people dine here multiple times a week, drawn not by inventive cuisine (the steak-centric menu seems oblivious to several decades’ worth of food trends) but by the feeling that they belong here.
“I always tell people it’s the best place to eat in Washington,” says Democratic strategist and talking head James Carville. “And it’s about the 48th-best restaurant. A lot of that is on Tommy.”
Jacomo is not the maitre d’ of film, that cool and reserved character who shows you to the table without a word. Nor is he the corporate greeter reading brightly from a script.
He welcomes regulars with a hug or a backslap. His ties are a tad wider and his mustache a tad longer than the fashion. His voice is like gravel on a Queens road.
And his humor is legendary. Bill Regardie, the colorful former publisher of Regardie’s magazine, who estimates that he has eaten at the Palm as many as 5,000 times, recalls Jacomo once approaching his party, which was packed with well-heeled guests, and asking, with concern, “Who drives the silver Mercedes?” — as if the slick vehicle were being towed or keyed by ruffians. “About five of us get up,” Regardie says, “and Tommy just starts cracking up like he’s pulled the funniest gag ever.”
Jacomo has seen presidents and world leaders in his dining room, but he’s agnostic about fame. “I like to make people feel important whether they’re a big shot or not,” he says.
For Palm regulars, the table is all-important.
Top Washington divorce lawyer Sandy Ain likes a booth, and he likes to sit facing the door, so that other diners only see his dining companions, who might be high-profile clients, from the back.
Regardie is also a booth guy (second on the left, if it’s available), but he likes to sit with his back to the door so that he’s not distracted by all the acquaintances who come in. “One time, I had lunch with a friend who told me I’d been so rude, because I spent the whole meal talking to other people,” he says. “So now I just sit facing away.”
Some regulars like to sit right beneath their caricatures, a mark of status.
But what to do if a VIP’s preferred table is taken? Ain says that’s where Jacomo deploys statesman-worthy diplomacy: “He knows how to manage people and flatter people’s egos — and how to take care of their disappointment.”
Jacomo, though, makes this sound easy. His favorite solution is to steer the table-less to Table 30, near the bustling wood-clad bar. “It’s a completely s--- table,” he says, laughing. “But I tell them that they’re lucky they’re getting ‘the family table.’ It’s where my brother and I used to have lunch every day, so we can call it that!”
Choreographing the restaurant’s seating arrangements, though, isn’t Jacomo’s most delicate task. That would be determining who gets their likeness on the wall. There are no hard-and-fast rules to this process, but Jacomo is the sole arbiter. The caricatures may be famous — there’s Larry King, and no fewer than three of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (each with his name spelled differently, all incorrect). But there are also plenty of names no one would recognize — just good customers, or people Jacomo likes.
Radio producer Marc Sterne, who works for the “Tony Kornheiser Show,” recalls when Jacomo surprised him by mounting his caricature on the wall. They had met when Sterne was working on a local radio show and booked Jacomo for segments. Sterne visited the restaurant and was taken aback by the VIP treatment he got. “I’m this piddling producer guy, and Tommy’s giving me a bear hug, and I felt important,” he says. “And later, when I had my picture up — if I live to be 150, I don’t think anything would be cooler.”
But there’s only so much wall space, and taking down a drawing to make room for others is fraught. “You might have someone you haven’t seen in 35 years,” Jacomo says. “You take them down and, goddamn it, the next day, the family comes and the grandkids are crying, going, ‘Where’s Poppy?’ ”
But Jacomo clearly relishes the process, perhaps because the drawings make him feel as if he’s amid a crowd of friends, even when the restaurant is empty. “When it’s closed, I’m like Nixon,” he says, referring to a possibly apocryphal story about Richard Nixon roaming the halls of the White House, conversing with the portraits of former presidents. “I talk to them all.”
Jacomo arrived in Washington in 1972, after his brother, Ray, asked him to come help him open the Palm. Tommy, then a ski instructor in Vermont, had been a bar-back at the New York Hilton and, more important, had some carpentry skills. Ray needed him to help finish the restaurant interior.
He figured he would stay for a few weeks. He never left.
Maybe the lure was in his blood. Jacomo is a third-generation restaurant guy: His father was a bartender at the Waldorf Astoria and his grandfather was a steward there.
But a better explanation might be found in the way he describes the appeal of his other pursuit, betting on the horses: “I just like being in the action.”
He had some wild days, before he got married and had two daughters, now 28 and 25. He once drove his motorcycle through the restaurant dining room. In 1977, he was arrested and later acquitted on cocaine charges.
Over the past 44 years, he’s seen a lot of change: the demise of the three-martini lunch. The advent of pagers, then BlackBerrys and smartphones, meaning that no one was ever really off the clock.
Diners’ palates became more refined, and Washington’s restaurant scene exploded. “It used to be just, ‘Red or white?’ and ‘Steak or lobster?’ ” he says. “People are much more sophisticated now.”
Which is all very well and good — there’s a larger salad selection and even an ahi tuna appetizer on the Palm menu these days — but Jacomo becomes comically animated when considering the effect of cooking shows on the dining public. “They watch three of ’em and think they’re a chef,” he says. “Now, everyone’s a freaking gourmet!”
Jacomo had hoped to work for another three years or so, but last year, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Surgery was successful, but his lungs collapsed twice, and now he totes an oxygen pack with tubes that snake past his signature mustache.
He plans to still come in sometimes from his home in Manassas, Va., maybe once a week, to check on things. General Manager Michael Melore has been overseeing the dining room in his stead and has inherited the mantle of keeper of the caricatures.
As he eases into retirement, Jacomo, the guy who remembers everyone’s name, is just as much of a VIP as the powerful people he welcomed into the Palm for more than four decades, his boldfaced friends say.
Carville cops to dropping Jacomo’s name. “He’s a fashionable friend to have,” Carville says. “It’s like being buddies with the attorney general.”
And Regardie thinks that the restaurant gave his friend from Queens stature alongside senators and TV stars. “In a restaurant of big shots,” he says, “Tommy was a big shot.”