For Cafe Milano’s 25th-anniversary celebration last month, a maze of tents was erected on Prospect Street in Georgetown, and crimson carpets were rolled out for the more than 1,200 people who had RSVP’d. The entire street was shuttered, which seemed only to lend more importance to the affair, though it forced a series of black-tinted SUVs to deposit BET mogul Bob Johnson and television talking heads Wolf Blitzer and Greta Van Susteren, along with a few Real Housewives, on Wisconsin Avenue, leaving them to totter the rest of the way to the restaurant.
For many, it was a prized invite. And that was before Michael Jordan rolled in.
When Bon Appetit gave Washington the title of Restaurant City of the Year in 2016, it described a town where you could eat goat lasagna and locally sourced vegetarian tacos and bitter melon with black bean confit, where there are great chefs and eager diners.
But it snubbed the Washington restaurants whose main attraction has never been the food. At Cafe Milano, it has always been about whoever is walking in the door.
Last weekend, it was Kennedy Center honorees Lionel Richie, Norman Lear and Gloria Estefan, who mingled at a Friday night party with the likes of Gen. Colin Powell and chef José Andrés. Sometimes, it was Prince.
The late rocker arrived a few years back at 1 a.m. with Stevie Wonder in tow after a searing night of concerts.
“They left at 6 a.m.,” recalls Laurent Menoud, Cafe Milano’s do-it-all maitre d’ of 24 years.
Or Lebron James, who has been known to commandeer a private room and play his own music, on his own portable speaker.
There aren’t many restaurants like Cafe Milano left in Washington, that offer discretion and a clubby scene and will open at any hour and make you a lasagna, even if it’s not on the menu, if that’s what you’re hankering for. Particularly if you’re someone.
Cafe Milano opened on Nov. 3, 1992. It was Election Night in Washington, when approximately half the town loses and half the town wins, but everyone has good reason to find their way to the bottom of a glass of Scotch.
The bar hopped from night one, everyone seems to agree, because of Franco Nuschese, Milano’s soigné owner, who had restaurants in Las Vegas and had been general manager at Bice, one of the District’s premier Italian restaurants (and a training ground for chef Fabio Trabocchi and his wife, Maria, who went on to open Fiola).
Nuschese, who is given to wearing Zegna and Prada, framed and hung silk neckties and designer scarves on the walls — Moschino, Gianfranco Ferré, vintage Versace (Gianni era, because it matters) — and named pasta dishes after fashion designers, too.
Before Milano had even opened, Nuschese said in an interview, he’d invited his regulars, turning the opening night of his new endeavor into a by-invitation-only party.
It took less than a year for the place to establish a reputation as the city’s swingingest pasta joint. (Some credit due to the fabulous Marlene Cooke, the fourth wife of then-Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who left Milano one Tuesday night in 1993, hopped into a Jaguar convertible and was promptly nicked for drunken driving, with her handsome young companion, who you probably have guessed was not Jack, clinging to the hood of her car.)
In those heady days, The Post’s then-food critic, Phyllis C. Richman, wrote that Cafe Milano was “designed to make you feel awfully close to the center of the universe.”
As for the food, she deemed it “too-tame.”
Washington “was always full of plenty of other restaurants,” says longtime Washington food critic Todd Kliman. “I’ve never had the impression that people went [to Milano] for some kind of gastronomic experience, or that they wanted an exquisite Italian meal.”
They went, he muses, because it made them feel important, because diners believed that some of the power that seems to concentrate in its butter-yellow dining room might rub off on them.
Exerting his own gravitational pull was Nuschese, who is given to a tinge of hubris (blame Las Vegas) that seems particularly useful in his line of work.
“We try always to recognize people. It’s no secret,” he says, referring to his guests not as customers, or even diners, but as “clients.”
“It is our business.”
The restaurant was a place you went “to see and be seen,” recalled Bernard Koissy, a Potomac banker, at the anniversary party. “And also, if you wanted to pick up the nice ladies. . . .”
He drifted off, perhaps thinking of the ladies, like Marlene, who used to occupy the bar stools, often dressed in some strappy little thing designed by Karl Lagerfeld, underwear optional.
They’re long since gone. “The bar used to be more busy at night, late night,” Menoud says. The evenings used to drift into early mornings. “Now, the bar scene has shifted to 14th Street, Clarendon, Shaw. There’s not so many young professionals in Georgetown anymore.”
Now, they’re at the boîtes that buzz under the dim light of Edison bulbs, serve cocktails in glasses shaped like bugs and offer endless helpings of foie gras and uni and cacio e pepe.
This year, Michelin doled out 17 stars to Washington-area restaurants. There was none for Milano.
The Georgetown mainstay was also absent from Washingtonian’s list of the city’s 100 “very best” restaurants. And though the Post’s current restaurant critic, Tom Sietsema, has mentioned Cafe Milano a few times in the past five years, once was only to describe another restaurant (which shall go unnamed) as “Cafe Milano for VIPs who care what’s on their plate.”
But corner Mark Ein, the Washington venture capitalist and society fixture, just outside a roped-off corner of famous people at Milano’s anniversary and ask him why the restaurant endures. “It’s always been about the people,” he says above the din. “They always make you feel like this is your home.”
Another partygoer ticks off a list of new, hip restaurants he frequents. But don’t tell Franco, he adds anxiously.
Nuschese is aware of the competition. He has eaten elsewhere in Washington. And well.
“Great food,” he concedes. But, he says dismissively, “they care less.”
A restaurant anywhere that makes it to 25 is a wonder.
After all, rents spike. Lately, whole neighborhoods go out of vogue. Tastes change, too, and trends are especially cruel to restaurants we think of as hot, drawing in cachet-chasing guests one day, siphoning them away the next.
Just look at the early 1990s, when Cafe Milano opened: Red Sage, also opened in 1992, was as hot as the ghost peppers it sneaked into its dishes. Citronelle, a wall-to-wall scene of white tablecloths and French je ne sais quoi, was a scene. There was Vidalia, sumptuous and Southern in a way that seemed timed to match Washington under its new Arkansas-bred president; Jean-Louis at the Watergate, all soufflés and decadence; and Nora, serving cuisine so new, this very newspaper used quotes around the word “organic,” as if it were a foreign term.
Each and every one, gone.
With its terra-cotta floors and Georgetown address, frozen forever in mid-1990s amber, Cafe Milano might have gone that way, too. (The recession that began in 2007, Nuschese says, was a particularly difficult period.)
“We’re not a starred Michelin restaurant,” Nuschese concedes. “But if you’re asking me to have a star Michelin dinner — yes, we do that.” Great meals happen in the restaurant’s private rooms for smaller parties all the time, he says. And everybody else, approximately 300 diners a day, get Milano’s hospitality, which is to say almost anything they want.
“I probably have the names and table preferences of almost a thousand people in my head,” confirms Menoud, whose job is to accommodate them all, to seat Republicans far from Democrats and know, before he has even ordered, what Michael Jordan will be drinking. “I have to know who they are. It’s like a chess game.”
The names and faces Menoud must know instinctively these days include Rex Tillerson and Tiffany Trump; the people in President Trump’s orbit are only the latest generation of Washington suits to dine at Cafe Milano. (People often credit Nuschese and his staff with discretion. What Cafe Milano practices, in truth, is something in between – a little Fort Knox, but also a little Page Six.)
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt dined there in better times. So did Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas (on the same night as the Jolie-Pitts, everyone who is anyone will tell you); Jordan (repeatedly during his Wizards days); Andre Agassi; Geraldine Ferraro; Plácido Domingo (so frequently during his tenure with the Washington National Opera that a private room is named for him, and his face is painted on the ceiling); King Abdullah of Jordan; and all the former presidents and their wives from the past 25 years.
Even the Panzanella J.K. on the Milano menu is not a reference to “just kidding,” but to former secretary of state John Kerry, who’s said to love the stuff. One wonders whether the polpo arrostito may soon get an S.M. — that’s how often Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has been spotted on Prospect Street these days.
Another administration, another clique bound for Milano.