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John Laytham, who helped Clyde’s restaurants prosper, dies at 74

John Laytham at 1789 restaurant in Washington.
John Laytham at 1789 restaurant in Washington. (Clyde's)

John G. Laytham, the co-owner and chief executive of Clyde’s Restaurant Group who joined the business 55 years ago as a dishwasher and helped build it into a $135 million-a-year operation with 13 restaurants in the Washington area, died Jan. 3 at a hospital in Washington. He was 74.

The cause was heart disease, according to a spokesman for Clyde’s.

Mr. Laytham was a Georgetown University freshman in 1963 when he began washing dishes at the first Clyde’s three months after the eatery opened near the college. He wanted only a little cash to pay for weekend dates, he later told Washingtonian magazine.

By 1968, at the age of 22, he had been named general manager by the founder of Clyde’s, Stuart C. Davidson, who two years later made him a partner with a 20 percent share of the business.

Davidson was among the first to take advantage of a change in the D.C. liquor laws when he opened the first Clyde’s. The new regulation allowed restaurant-saloons to serve hard liquor to customers both at the table and at the bar. Previously, such establishments could serve hard liquor only at the table.

“It’s more fun to eat in a saloon than to drink in a restaurant,” Davidson said at the time.

Operating out of what had been a sawdust-on-the-floor hangout for motorcycle riders, that first Clyde’s drew a new and different clientele, young and upwardly mobile, offering what it described as an “American” style menu in a spruced-up decor.

Stuart Davidson, who founded Clyde’s, dies at 78

Mr. Laytham rose fast in the Clyde’s pecking order. It was his idea to open on Sundays for brunch, which soon became Clyde’s busiest day of the week. Clyde’s “expansion was largely the result of John’s vision,” the company said in its obituary announcement. Davidson died in 2001.

Over the years, Clyde’s expanded locations in Northern Virginia and Maryland. It also acquired the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington at an auction and operated several other restaurants in the District, including The Tombs, 1789 Restaurant and The Hamilton.

The restaurants, which have a workforce of about 2,000, are similar but not the same. Menus vary according to individual chefs, and each venue is a bit different, with quirky details. The Chevy Chase Clyde’s has an electric train running along a track high on the wall.

John Gibb Laytham was born in Glen Ridge, N.J., on Nov. 12, 1944. His mother was a homemaker, and his father owned a Pennsylvania iron foundry. He came to Georgetown to prepare for a career in the Foreign Service but changed his mind after working at Clyde’s.

His first marriage, to Janet White, ended in divorce. Their daughter, Hilary Vice, died in November.

In 1981, he married Virginia Idol. In addition to his wife, of McLean, Va., survivors include a son from his first marriage, Gibb Laytham of Chevy Chase; two brothers; two sisters; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Laytham confessed to Washingtonian in 2012 that of all the Clyde’s locations, he had a soft spot for the original. “I still love Clyde’s in Georgetown,” he said, “and I still like having a good cheeseburger.”

Of Clyde’s founding pair, Mr. Laytham had the reputation as the more enthusiastic “foodie.” “He gets excited talking about fresh squid,” The Washington Post reported in 1988. “While on a vacation in Nantucket, he liked a domestic Camembert so much that the company ordered 72 pieces of it the next week.”

“Snappy” was one Mr. Laytham’s favorite expressions for something he liked, said Clyde’s president Tom Meyer.

He wanted the decor of all the Clyde’s restaurants to be “snappy.” He wanted his servers to be “snappy.” And he wanted the food itself to look “snappy.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the last name of Clyde’s president Tom Meyer as Myers. The story has been revised.

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