Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled Duke Zeibert’s name and mistated the year his restaurant closed. This version has been corrected.
The space in the Cabin John Mall in Potomac, Md., had seen a series of restaurants come and go: the Deli Den, Hoffberg’s, the Celebrity Deli . . .
So when the Attman family decided in 2013 to expand their Jewish delicatessen empire beyond Baltimore’s Lombard Street, they sought a higher power.
“We asked a rabbi to perform an exorcism,” said Debbie Attman, who is married to Marc Attman, great grandson of founder Harry Attman.
Now they have another weapon: Mel Krupin.
Every Monday evening this month, the famed D.C. restaurateur is holding court at Attman’s Delicatessen. You are invited to come and meet him, hopefully while you nosh on a knish.
Mel is 85, a relic from a time when what made a restaurant big in D.C. wasn’t its celebrity chef or its food. It was the big man who ran the joint, the tummler who knew where to seat Caspar Weinberger or Jack Kent Cooke and could kibitz with the customers.
That’s what Mel was, first as the manager of Duke Zeibert’s, at Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW, then at his own place, Mel Krupin’s, on the other side of L Street.
Mel came to Washington in 1968, leaving the New York City meat business to manage Duke’s, which was credited with being the capital’s first New York-style restaurant, famed for its pickles and onions and its namesake’s backslapping bonhomie.
“Let me tell you this: I came to Washington, I didn’t know one person,” Mel said as I nibbled my mandel bread. “I was alone. You know what I felt like? During the Blitz of London, when they took all the kids and they put them on trains to go someplace. I had my suitcase, and I came to Washington.
“I had no relatives, no cousin, no uncle, no friend — nobody.”
Mel was 40 at the time, which shows you how deep his Brooklyn streak runs. (His Borscht Belt-patois is still littered with “Fuhgettaboudits.”)
When the building Duke’s was in was slated for demolition in 1980, Duke announced that he was closing. Mel opened his own restaurant. He took the Duke Zeibert’s menu (with the boss’s blessing, he said) and most of the staff.
“Duke was a customer for three years,” Mel said.
Then, in 1983, rumors started circulating that Duke was coming back — to the new building where the old one stood, just half a block from his one-time manager.
Mel recalled: “Izzy Cohen, the owner of Giant Food, he bought me a button to put on my lapel. It said, ‘I heard already.’ People would come by and say, ‘You heard what Duke is doing?’ I’d turn my lapel: ‘I heard already.’ ”
Mel still smarts at the memory. “Duke never came to me and said he had to open,” Mel said. “He just sneaked by. He took 28 people away from me. He even took a hatcheck girl!”
It was known as the Matzo Ball War, when figures such as Larry King and Edward Bennett Williams had to choose sides: stay with Mel or go back to Duke?
“He outlasted me,” Mel said. “I closed in 1988.” (Duke’s restaurant closed in 1994, and Duke died in 1997.)
Mel ran a few other restaurants after that, and put his name to a deli on Wisconsin Avenue NW. He retired at 70, but “after a while I said, ‘I can’t stay home. I got to do something.’ ”
He saw an ad for a maitre d’ at a K Street restaurant. It turned out to be McCormick & Schmick’s.
“I got all dressed up. I went downtown,” Mel said. “The young lady handed me an application. I didn’t make one out for 35 years. She looked at my paper and said, ‘Oh, Mel Krupin. Your father was a very famous restaurateur. I said, ‘No, I’m sorry to say I’m Mel Krupin.’”
(In fact, his father was a New York City cabdriver. Or, as Mel puts it, “I always said he was commissioner of transportation.”)
Mel worked the lunch shift at McCormick & Schmick’s for 10 years, then moved with his Gloria, now his wife of 61 years, from a Chevy Chase condo to Riderwood Village retirement community in Silver Spring. It has four restaurants, he pointed out.
And for this month, at least, Mel’s a Monday fixture at Attman’s. Ask him how corned beef is made. Or who the cheapest tippers are. Or how he once accidentally stabbed himself in the chest while boning a steer.
Or what the toughest part of running a restaurant is.
“The biggest problem is to keep the help happy and satisfied,” Mel said, “because they can ruin it for you. You can have the best chef and a bad waiter, you don’t get a good rapport with the customer.”
Mel Krupin is all about the rapport.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.