Meals & Deals

If you really want political entree in D.C., the places to go are two new power restaurants, where the meat isn't the only thing being cut.

September 05, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sure, you could wait in line for a White House tour. You could roam the halls of Congress. But if you want a glimpse of the real power brokers and bloated bankrolls that run the nation's capital at the start of the 21st century - the lobbyists, pollsters, political consultants and media advisers - just go to lunch.

In the last year, Washington's dining-out scene has taken a new twist with the presence of two power-themed restaurants owned by - and designed for - the town's deal-makers and influence-peddlers.

A short cab ride from Capitol Hill is the Caucus Room, a pricey, brass- and cherry-wood-appointed steakhouse owned by an all-star bipartisan bunch: 65 lobbyists, consultants and well-connected executives led by Tommy Boggs, D.C.'s most prominent Democratic lobbyist, and Haley Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman, now a lobbyist, who is said to be considering a run for governor of Mississippi.

On any given day, you will find nearly as much hand-shaking and back-slapping going on among the business-suited patrons as you'd find at a Bill Clinton rope line. You will find deputy Cabinet secretaries, lobbyists and chiefs of staff over-indulging in lobster bisque, Kansas City strip steak and pecan pie. And you will find everything BIG: wine goblets the size of punch bowls, slabs of beef the size of Washington egos, many of which are being fed right here.

"Thick steaks, strong drinks, a lot of political chat - that's a hard combination to beat," says Barbour, working the main dining room recently after polishing off his Caesar salad.

Across town is West 24, a more relaxed, Southern-inspired restaurant where the politically mismatched celebrity couple, Democrat James Carville and Republican Mary Matalin, are trying another combination at their year-old watering hole: Louisiana Cajun cooking, jazz music and an understated political hum.

There's far less of an elite, macho, let's-make-a-deal ambience at West 24, and, because it's closer to Georgetown than Capitol Hill, a little less celebrity spotting, too.

"We're not going to make it as a power restaurant - we don't have the location," says Carville. "We're a cross between a neighborhood restaurant and a little bit political tourist spot."

Indeed, Carville himself, often tucked in a corner lunching on his favorite entree (crispy catfish) or signing autographs for patrons, is much of the attraction. Asked how much of a draw the Carville/Matalin presence is, general manager Kathleen Pantano says without hesitation, "Total."

A call to serve

The high-profile owners have drawn their share of notables - management keeps a list that includes lawmakers, past and present, and such assorted celebrities as Bo Derek, ex-Redskins coach Norv Turner and former President Clinton, who attended a book party there last October for his longtime strategist, Paul Begala.

These days, thanks to Matalin, a former GOP pundit who is now counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, loads of Republicans are settling in for a bowl of crawfish chowder or jerked duck leg salad prepared by respected Washington chef James Reppuhn.

Carville, the tart-tongued partisan who rose to fame as Clinton's political guru, shrugs when asked about doing business with his Republican clientele. "It's green, man," he says. "We'll take anything but Nazis and Communists."

West 24, named for its address on 24th Street on the West End, was originally conceived as a purely political theme restaurant called Sound Bites - where a rolling track of famous political sound bites would play in the background. (One can only imagine enjoying your passion fruit creme brulee to Carville's own 1992 mantra, "It's the economy, stupid!")

But management ran into licensing problems, and the sound bites gimmick was scrapped in favor of blues music and a tasteful setting of honey-blond wood, sponged yellow walls and bright oil paintings, some direct from the Carville-Matalin home.

The Clinton Democrat and Bush Republican are partners with Todd DeLorenzo, manager of Carville's Washington office who had always dreamed of opening a restaurant, and New York restaurateur Henry Amoroso.

"We did it as a favor to a friend, but it's ended up being a lot of fun for us," says Carville, who loves to cook and challenges any Baltimorean to match the all-lump crab cakes he whips up at home. (The restaurant's crab cakes, on the other hand, have less crab and more filler.)

Room with many views

At downtown's Caucus Room, the platinum-plated roster of those who invested in the place - most of them frequent customers, as well - also seems more responsible for the flavor of the restaurant than its manly man chops, strips and racks.

"This is the epicenter of the political culture here," William K. Wernick, Caucus Room vice president, boasts unabashedly. "If deals are getting cut, it's happening here."

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