As a freshman at Georgetown University in 1948, Richard McCooey walked the nearby streets and dreamed that someday he would run a student rathskeller and restaurant within easy reach of the campus.
Fourteen years later, at the corner of 36th and Prospect streets in Northwest Washington, Mr. McCooey opened 1789. Over the years, it served the likes of House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), Vice President George H.W. Bush and the parents of thousands of Georgetown students. In 2011, President Obama took German Chancellor Angela Merkel to dinner there.
Why a restaurant named 1789?
Mr. McCooey was a history buff. Among other reasons, it was the year that the first U.S. Catholic bishop, John Carroll, founded Georgetown, the first U.S. Catholic college. It was also the year that the state legislature made the port of Georgetown a Maryland town.
Mr. McCooey was a literature buff, too. And in the basement of 1789, he operated the student rathskeller he called The Tombs. The name came from a line in “Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town,” who “lunched at the tomb” in a poem by T.S. Eliot. (Bustopher was Mr. McCooey’s nickname when he was in the Air Force.)
The Tombs was a gathering spot for Georgetown undergraduates and high school students with fake IDs. Periodically the university’s a cappella singers, The Chimes, serenaded customers.
In 1975, in two adjacent properties to 1789, Mr. McCooey opened “F. Scott’s,” a nightclub with an art-deco ambience, named for novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., a lifelong friend of Mr. McCooey’s, remembers calling his old high school classmate on nights when he was working late as secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter. He wanted a drink and a sandwich with his staff in a place where he wouldn’t be bothered.
“Come on around to the back of F. Scott’s,” Califano said Mr. McCooey would tell him.
Mr. McCooey ran the three businesses until 1986, when he sold them to the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, where he later worked as a consultant.
Mr. McCooey died Aug. 6 at a hospital in Greenwich, Conn. He was 83. The cause was complications from cancer and cardiac arrest, said his wife, Karen. He lived in Washington for most of his adult life, moving to Greenwich earlier this year to be nearer to relatives.
Richard Joseph McCooey was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 14, 1930. In 1952 he graduated from Georgetown, where he was a leader on campus and, in his senior year, “President of the Yard,” a position he later was said to have held for life. He served two years in the Air Force, then worked in advertising in New York.
In the early 1960s, he came back to Washington at the express invitation of the Rev. Edward B. Bunn, president of Georgetown University. Father Bunn shared Mr. McCooey’s dream of a rathskeller and a high-end tavern as unofficial extensions of the university, and he wanted Mr. McCooey to make it happen.
On the site they would later occupy at 1226 36th St. NW sat the Hilltop Cafe and a Chinese laundry. Georgetown University bought the real estate, and Mr. McCooey bought the cafe. The laundry’s lease expired. Mr. McCooey took over the property and got ready to open two new restaurants.
He had that “rare collector’s eye for decorative artifacts,” said J. Garrett Glover, an executive in the Clyde’s organization and a Georgetown alumnus.
From the lobby entrance of the old Evening Star newspaper building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Mr. McCooey salvaged a “stone-black marble counter and black-veined white marble front,” which he would use for a bar in 1789, Glover wrote in a history of the restaurant. For the bottle display shelf, he “jerry-rigged a 16th century monk’s pew . . . with vulgar carved woodenheads and gargoyles” from an Irish monastery, according to Glover’s account.
With Clyde’s, his work included design and decoration of a variety of restaurants in the Washington area and beyond. He also worked on the Union Street cafe in Alexandria and the dining room at the Moscow Marriott Royal Aurora Hotel.
He was 55 when he sold his restaurants to Clyde’s. In a Washington Post interview at the time, he described the move as a “midcourse correction. I don’t want to carry the burden of 165 employees. I don’t want the responsibility for all the details, and I’ve never been comfortable running a business.”
In 1990 he married Karen Magnier, who would become a partner and associate in his restaurant consulting operation. It was his first and only marriage, and she is his only immediate survivor.
Before that he “was married to his restaurants,” she said.