Washington's power restaurants

Simon Kelner
01 April 2014

Power dining doesn't get much bigger than defusing the Cuban missile crisis over lunch. Even today, the real deals in Washington DC are being brokered in its restaurants. Simon Kelner dines out with the insiders

It is just after 5am and I'm standing on my hotel balcony to watch daybreak over the White House. The morning is already warm, the precursor to another sultry Washington day, and the first light gives the scene an ethereal feel. In the stillness of dawn, surveying the somnolence and serenity of a global centre of power, you can be forgiven for thinking the world is a calm, peaceful place. 

Washington DC is the kind of town that inspires illusions. The city is grand and ordered, and the courtesies of the old south are still much in evidence, but you know that's not the real story. The real action takes place out of public view, in a language we can barely understand. As one veteran DC observer said to me: ‘This place was built on a swamp. Today it's just a different kind of swamp.' In New York or Chicago, money talks. But in Washington it's the low rumble of political intrigue. In DC's bars, restaurants, even hotel lobbies, deals are brokered, reputations are won and lost, and political subterfuge is planned by men - and it is predominantly men - with name badges round their necks. 

For the first-time visitor, it's quite a difficult place to get a handle on. Essentially, it was designed in 1790 as the centre of an empire and, even today, the city has a distinct imperialist feel. The monumental scale of it is awe-inspiring and humbling: everywhere you turn, you are invited to marvel at neo-classical architecture, or you are dwarfed by a statue to one of the nation's founding fathers, or you stumble upon a plaque to denote a milestone in American history. But the modern business of politics, by its very nature, is conducted largely in the shadows, and is a messy affair that does not inspire lofty sentiments and grandiose ambition. 

Thomas ‘Mack' McLarty is, literally, a Washington insider. He worked within the White House as Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff, and has lived in DC for several decades. He believes that the current gridlock in America's government - a budget has not been passed in the Senate for seven years - is partly the result of demographic changes in Washington itself. ‘Members of congress used to work and live here,' he says, ‘and because of that they established friendships across the political divide. A level of trust was built up. Now, they arrive on Tuesday and go home on Thursday, and there isn't the time to develop that same camaraderie. And this, in turn, weakens the desire to find compromise. I feel we have lost the sense of common purpose that is the hallmark of a great working democracy.'

McLarty, a trim, neat, 67-year-old from Hope, Arkansas, is talking in the dining-room at the Hay-Adams Hotel - his usual corner table where he has had ‘several hundred lunches' of salmon or crab cakes - and is still a political force in DC. He has his own consulting firm, and gives strategic advice to more than 150 companies worldwide. ‘I don't do any lobbying,' he says firmly. And of his time in the White House, McLarty says it was ‘the worst and best job in the world. As Chief of Staff, my role consisted largely of trying to catch javelins, but on the other hand, I was only 14 steps away from the Oval Office.' He says that he was very conscious of living in a bubble when in the White House, something his master felt, too. He tells the story of how President Clinton was going up in a White House lift, and his aide had pressed the wrong button. The doors opened on a reception in full flow. ‘I'm sorry,' said the aide, ‘there are people here.' ‘I know,' replied the President, ‘I used to be one.' Clinton used to escape by going to a neighbourhood Italian restaurant called Nora's in Georgetown, while McLarty would meet contacts and friends at the Hay-Adams - ‘Their dining-room is like the commissary, only a little more elegant,' he says - or at the Monocle, a steak and seafood restaurant on Capitol Hill, which has been a favoured place for politicos for more than half a century.

Next door to the Hay-Adams is the office of Greg Casey. Full of political memorabilia and chesterfield sofas, this is the home of BIPAC, an organisation that helps business understand politics and of which Casey is the CEO. Like McLarty, he's a fixture on the Washington scene: he's lived in DC for 26 of the past 30 years, and he speaks with authority on the swirls and eddies in politics. He should do: he was sergeant-at-arms at the Senate for two years until 1998. As well as being the only man who could arrest the President, this position confers on him the responsibility to look after every head of state and foreign dignitary who visits the Senate. He kept a record, in what could be called a personal visitors' book, of everyone he met while in office. He proudly shows me the book, in which there are messages from kings, queens, prime ministers and religious leaders. Casey had made his own notes, too. Vaclav Havel was ‘a fun guy' and John Howard was ‘a fired-up kind of guy', while his assessment of the Dalai Lama would not be considered controversial: ‘A very nice man.' 

Casey has met every American president since Nixon, and was perfectly at ease dispensing sobriquets for them, too. Nixon: ‘formal'. Ford: ‘regular guy'. Carter: ‘didn't get him'. Reagan: ‘inspirational'. Bush: ‘nice man, no pretence'. Clinton: ‘he could connect with people'. George W: ‘misunderstood and underrated'. Obama: ‘not warm and fuzzy'. Casey is typical of a breed of Washington insider: urbane, articulate, worldly-wise, and always willing to synthesise complex issues for the uninitiated. Like McLarty, he believes the political rules of engagement have changed, and not necessarily for the better. ‘This is a tough city to live in,' he says. ‘The traffic and the humidity are bad enough, but it is an aggressive, uptight city. It's not as much fun as it used to be when the media had more access to politicians, and before regulations curbed lobbyists' movements. That said,' he says, ‘I am not here because I love the cherry blossom in April. The city still gets my adrenaline pumping.'

Around the corner from Casey's office, and still only a javelin throw from the White House, is BLT Steak restaurant, which, at lunchtime, is full of DC's glossy elite dining on crab cakes, lobster rolls and the latest piece of juicy political gossip. There, away from the heat on the street, I meet Elizabeth Thorp, blogger and a veteran of public affairs and PR with finely tuned antennae. 

‘I arrived in Washington 21 years ago,' she says, ‘and the nature of the city changes depending on who's in the White House. Obama has brought out the younger people.' The last time she visited BLT, she says, her handbag was checked by security, the clear indication that someone important was coming for lunch. Minutes later, Michelle Obama arrived. ‘You're always likely to see someone famous in the street or at a restaurant.' She says the power tables du jour are at the Edgar Bar, the Mayflower Hotel, Café Milano in Georgetown or at the venerable Hay-Adams.

When it comes to venerable, it's hard to beat Kenneth Duberstein. Almost as much of a fixture in DC as the Lincoln Memorial, Duberstein, a tall bear of a man who retains vestiges of his New York twang, was Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff in the late 1980s and has stayed in town ever since, serving on a number of public bodies and sharing his wisdom on politics, most notably as an advisor on the critically acclaimed drama set in the White House, The West Wing. ‘I tried to bring a touch of reality to the show,' he says. He was, of course, being unduly modest. The West Wing was a programme of coruscating dialogue and dynamic characterisation that gave the viewer a proper sense of being taken into the very heart of American government. In fact, Mack McLarty says that working in the White House was like ‘being in The West Wing but without a script'. He adds that what the programme did most successfully was to ‘capture the ups and downs of working in the White House, and the speed at which decisions are taken'. 

Duberstein, like McLarty, laments a time politicians would get together in the bars and restaurants of DC and thrash out their differences. ‘Reagan and Tip O'Neil [Democrat Speaker of the House] would spend all day arguing and then, at 6pm, they'd get together and have a drink to work things out. Relationships matter,' he
says, ‘and that doesn't happen now, which is one of the reasons why we have dysfunctional government.'

It is 25 years since Duberstein worked in the White House, but he is quick to recall what his job meant to him. ‘Every day I drove through the White House gates, I felt a huge sense of pride in my country.' He and McLarty agree, however, that it was very easy to feel cloistered in this environment. ‘When the door was locked behind him,' McLarty says, ‘Clinton used to say: "Welcome to the jewel of the Federal Penitentiary System."' And, for Duberstein: ‘I had to escape from time to time.' For him, it would be for breakfast at Hay-Adams, lunch at the Jockey Club or dinner at the Palm. This was where a lot of business was transacted. Things may be different today, but these establishments still thrum to the rhythm of government deals, and are where the BlackBerry-toting classes go to make and break promises.

Washington is a city of trees, parks and monuments, of politeness and ambition, and where most things happen below the surface. It's the centre of the political world, but essentially a small town (population: 650,000). It's where, for more than 200
years, decisions which affect us all have been taken. That's an awful lot of history. That's an awful lot of politics. And that's an awful lot of crab cakes.