Cafe Society

Psst--is that Bill and Hillary? At this Georgetown restaurant, the meals come with celebrity sightings on the side.

December 30, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Bill Clinton strides into the bar at Cafe Milano and heads for Tom Ridge, who is jollying it up with his aides at their office holiday party. The Department of Homeland Security chief is working on one more drink - "a vodka and Grey Goose," he requests late in this celebratory night - just as Clinton sidles up.

It is a gawker's dream: the D.C. equivalent of the Olsen twins dancing on a table.

"Thank you for what you did," Clinton says as the soon-to-depart Homeland Security chief nods in appreciation. "It's a totally thankless job. Thank you."

If the center of the Washington universe were an actual place, Cafe Milano might get one of the first liquor licenses. Since 1993, when the restaurant opened in Georgetown, it has become a social anchor of the capital, a spot where diplomats, politicians, visiting celebrities and assorted aspirants to fabulousness romp with their own kind until the early morning.

On this night last week, the D.C. hotspot closes for a couple of hours for the security department's holiday party, but when it reopens to regular patrons - former presidents included - Ridge is in no hurry to leave. Clinton heads to a corner table where Hillary Rodham Clinton, his senator-wife, their daughter Chelsea and a group of friends sit down to a pasta dinner near midnight. Around them, Homeland Security brass who haven't gone home continue to enjoy their open-bar bash.

During next month's presidential inauguration, the nightspot will be booked with private parties like the one MGM Mirage Chairman Terrence Lanni has in the works - a bash for 50 politicians, gaming lobbyists and "friends from California."

"We did it four years ago," Lanni says, "and we'll do it again this time."

Anyone who wonders if anything ever changes in Washington need look no further than Cafe Milano. Like a bill that comes up with every new Congress or a career bureaucrat who will never lose his job regardless of who's in the White House, the restaurant retains its role despite the vagaries of time, taste and electoral votes.

"Everybody wants to be seen - that's what we do," says owner Franco Nuschese, an imperial man who, with his clipped hair and crisp outfits, looks like a modern Napoleon. "I am the dream-maker. In this restaurant, I know what it takes to create dreams."

The other night, Robin Williams ate dinner and pirouetted before the restaurant's large plate-glass windows. Actor Nicolas Cage and producer Jerry Bruckheimer entertained in a private room after promoting their movie, National Treasure. Vice President Dick Cheney has eaten there so often it is his official disclosed location. Ever since that night more than a decade ago when Marlene Kent Cooke, then-wife of Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, drove outside the restaurant with a man who was not her husband on the hood of her green Jaguar, Cafe Milano has been parked on the city's power map.

Politics-obsessed D.C.

Though it is known for an international clientele - aristocrats with gold Visas and gold chains, socialites with backless tops and nameless accents - the throbbing Europop and the intercontinental pickups don't really get started until later in the evening.

For much of the night, it's all about politics-obsessed Washington.

At the bar, Jen Bowman whips out her cell phone not to talk about how thin Clinton looks after his recent heart surgery or how Chelsea arrived sans boyfriend, but about how it was the Clinton administration that helped pioneer electronic information storage. Were it not for that technology, a specialty at her Northern Virginia tech firm EMC, she says, those Monica Lewinsky e-mails might have been lost.

Next to her, Tom Polivka, EMC's head of government sales, wants to lobby the Clintons with a splashy bottle of wine. But another patron - a swifter networker - already has sent the Clintons a magnum. Someone dining with the Clintons was quick to cover the bill for the seven-person table as well. The staff reports that the Clintons, who were joined by Palestinian businessman and avid Democrat Hani Masri, didn't pick up the $960 tab.

Ruling this empire is owner Nuschese, who on this night is visiting his native Italy. At 2:30 a.m. his time, he calls his restaurant and gets passed to Ridge. The two have a bond - Nuschese sent food to Ridge's home when the director was holed up with his staff during the Code Orange last Christmas - and the restaurateur makes sure the staffers feel at home.

"This entire bar is the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security," says department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. (Unnerving thought: Who's manning the phones?) Ridge's possible re- placement, department undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, has already left, but others stay and reminisce about the Code Orange of Christmas past.

Nuschese is successful because his restaurant trades in big names, fleshy intrigue, personal connections.

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