Whether power hungry or out for a quick bite, Dems light up bistro scene

May 13, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

Wanna party like a young Clintonite? Drop by the Andalusian Dog. Order Pete's Wicked Ale. Talk Hillary, health care and the assault gun ban. Or, better yet, talk about how busy you are, your 12-hour workdays, your nonexistent social life. . . . But no matter how much fun you're having, high-tail it home for "Nightline."

New York club kids they're not, but twentysomething Clinton staffers, along with senior officials, are being credited with pumping up the bar-and-bistro scene in the nation's capital.

Whether it's aides eating sushi on the rooftop deck of Perry's or Hillary and Bill dining on organic fare at Restaurant Nora, the administration is helping the district's image after dark.

So what if they wear their campaign T-shirts into clubs? Name-drop Supreme Court nominees by the bar? And call it a night long before last call? They're young, in power and ready to relax -- at least until their beepers go off.

"Everybody is looking at the Washington dining scene now," says William Lecos, executive vice president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. "The Clintons have raised the profile of many restaurants in town. Dining out is a regular part of their lives."

And when Clinton insiders like George Stephanopoulos raise their forks, the world, or the media world at least, watches. If what restaurateurs say is true, he's had breakfast at the Four Seasons, lunch at the Hay-Adams, dinner at the Red Sage, sushi at Perry's and drinks at the 9:30 Club.

"We've created an industry for late-night dining," says Nancy Soderberg, staff director for the National Security Council who frequents the Southern-style Georgia Brown's and the Red Sage, the nationally acclaimed Southwestern restaurant. "It's got serve after 10 and preferably have lots of appetizers. . . . The thirtysomething [staffers] who are working on policy until 9:30 want a quick bite to eat and then to go home."

Eat and run

But even while socializing, Clintonites keep in touch with the office.

"Everywhere I go I take a cellular phone and beeper, especially to restaurants," says Ms. Soderberg, 36, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Adams Morgan. "My friends have learned not to leave [for a restaurant] until I'm out the door. And if someone is meeting me, they know to bring a magazine."

The younger set frequents trendy Adams Morgan and the 14th and U street corridor known as the New U. Clubs like State of the Union, with its Russia-meets-America motif, and coffee bars like the '50s-influenced Zig-Zag Cafe are among the hot spots to unwind in after another long day

helping to run the country.

The atmosphere is neo-Bohemian -- a politico's view of Greenwich Village -- and it's markedly different from Bullfeathers, the Capitol Hill haunt where Republicans hung out.

"Washington attracts the nerdy types," says Chris Murphy, 25, a program officer for AmeriCorps, the president's national service program. "If you give those people the chance to feel hip and cool, they'll lunge at it. . . . The Republicans in the Bush administration wanted to pretend they were grown-ups. When they would go out, it was like some yacht club deb party."

Politics aside, club owners and restaurateurs are simply glad to be in the hospitality business in D.C. these days.

Getting out more

"You feel so . . . wanted," enthuses Nora Pouillon, chef-partner of Restaurant Nora, a favorite with Clinton types. "Washington has always been a sleepy town on the food scene. Until recently, there were two types of upscale restaurants: French or a steakhouse. But this administration is into the lifestyle of the '90s. They're not intimidated by lemon grass or miso or frisee."

Adds her partner Steven Damato, "Look at Clinton. He's probably eaten in 15 different restaurants in Washington alone. Bush and Reagan together probably didn't eat in that many during their entire 12 years."

You can see the Clinton influence in certain menus. While true Arkansas restaurants like Doe's Eat Place haven't infiltrated D.C., there has been a flurry of Southern-style restaurants opening in the last year.

"Five years ago, I was considered a maverick for doing Virginia cuisine," says Will Greenwood, executive chef of the Jefferson Hotel, who was a finalist for the White House chef's job. "People in Washington hadn't had black-eyed peas or turnip greens."

But while the Clintons have had an effect on changing the restaurant scene, they've also made attempts to work within established power dining circles.

"When the president and first lady had dinner with Bob Dole at Duke Zeibert's last summer, it was a very effective gesture," says Chuck Conconi, editor-at-large of Washingtonian magazine. "It was proving that the president isn't going to be isolated by the little children's brigade he has at the White House."

Clearly some find the young Clinton crew lacking in social graces.

Answering the call

"They're still in that mode: 'We have no time for anything. We work 20 hours and we wear our beepers at night,' " says Mr. Conconi. "It's this pretense of showing how busy they are. I've been in this town 30 years. . . . Anyone who's at the beckon and call of their beeper isn't giving their best to government."

And it doesn't add cache to every club to have presidential staffers as regulars. When Tina Plottel, 22, an editorial assistant at Washington City Paper, nearly bumped into George Stephanopoulos at the 9:30 Club several months ago, she was surprised that someone in politics would be attending a concert by the hot alternative rock group Counting Crows.

It was the first thing she mentioned to friends about her evening, but it hasn't increased her interest in government.

"I'm not politically minded," she says. "I don't go some place hoping to run into David Gergen."

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