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When Washington's elite denied at twin delis

When Washington's elite denied at twin delis

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SHRIBMAN

There were many power brokers in the old Washington, hidden figures of influence never referenced in civics textbooks or examined in graduate-level political science seminars. There was the operator of the center elevator on the Senate side of the Capitol, the one reserved for lawmakers' use, and thus the keeper of all the information about who was coming and going. There was the superintendent of the press gallery, the man with the bulging belly you had to take out for a boozy, expensive meal if you wanted a parking pass. There was the sandwich lady in the Capitol snack bar, who by caprice or calculation decided how much chicken salad was in your take-away lunch.

Then there were Duke and Mel.

Duke died 23 years ago. Mel died just the other day at age 90.

But the world of Duke and Mel -- when the capital marched to the rhythm of clinked cutlery at two delicatessen-style restaurants -- died years ago, and we are paying the price.

Duke and Mel needed no last names in political Washington, but for our purposes here they were Duke Zeibert and Mel Krupin. Duke was a restaurateur but really was a rapscallion. Mel was his maitre d' and later ran his own restaurant, virtually identical to Duke's, but in time, a resented rival.

Those establishments were where Power Washington ate -- where superlawyer Edward Bennett Williams and Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and pretty much the entire congressional and White House leadership dined often but, alas, not all that well -- though the crab cakes were the best in town, maybe the best in the Chesapeake region, at least then.

But the crab cakes, and the steaks, and the matzoh balls and the chicken in the pot, and even the calf's liver and the steak tartare and the dreadful broiled fish, overcooked and underseasoned -- none of that on the twin menus of mediocrity was the point. The point was being there, being seen, seeing others, and enjoying a conviviality destined to disappear.

Mel's death in this cursed summer of 2020 didn't bring that world to a close. It ended years ago, when the parties took on ideological rigidity -- eventually the most liberal Republican was more conservative than the most conservative Democrat -- and when Washington lost its sense of humor and when politicians couldn't even lie anymore about battling on the floor by day but dining together at Duke's or Mel's by night. The days when Sen. Joe McCarthy spent weekends at Hyannis Port -- no credit to the Kennedys -- and when the conservative Sen. Bob Dole and the liberal Sen. George McGovern could work together to fight hunger -- to the great credit of both -- are long gone.

When my wife (in 1979 almost a decade from joining The Washington Post) and I (more than a dozen years before becoming Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe) celebrated our first wedding anniversary, we took the $20 my grandmother sent us and went to dinner at Duke Zeibert's. We were working in Washington, but truly we were tourists at Duke's. And though we were in our mid-20s, we knew that this was the place: the place where deals (sometimes shady) were made and tales (only occasionally true) were told.

And there that September night 41 years ago, at a large table, were Tip O'Neill (the onetime denizen of Barry's Corner in Cambridge, Massachusetts, newly installed as House speaker) and Eddie Boland (once the registrar of deeds in Hampden County in southwestern Massachusetts, but then the chair of the House Intelligence Committee) and, presiding over the lot, Robert L. Healy (the son of a Globe mailroom man who became the paper's Washington bureau chief). I'm sure Bob picked up the check.

Years later, Duke's was the site of a classic generational clash of cultures. James Reston, the once-powerful journalistic voice of reason and respectability, invited The Wall Street Journal's Albert R. Hunt Jr., who had inherited Mr. Reston's unofficial title as the leading bureau chief in the capital, to lunch.

The two talked of Kennedys and kings, with a sprinkling of Bushes and an ample serving of bull, and then the discussion turned to Mr. Hunt's high profile on television. This offended Mr. Reston's sensibility; he was of the era of diplomats in striped pants and was a keen observer of who sat below the salt at the diplomatic soirees that defined the cadence of 1950s social Washington. To Mr. Reston's mind, Mr. Hunt's presence on the "small screen," as television was then derided, was disrespectful of the totems of journalism, though today it would be considered unremarkable. He told Mr. Hunt he must be having a midlife crisis, to get over it, and to get back to work.

This was a different Washington, before truly good food and truly expensive restaurants and when the biggest threat to the old order was the new breed of lawmakers inevitably described, acidly, as having blow-dried hair. Newt Gingrich and his pugilistic style were 16 years in the future. There was a corrosive side to this Washington, when Barack Obama was just entering Occidental College on scholarship; the city was segregated, few Blacks had positions of influence and almost none dined at Duke's or Mel's.

That deplorable part of the old Washington is not worth a moment's mourning; it lasted too long, and the old networks, and the white supremacists who were the Democratic chairmen of powerful congressional committees, only helped perpetuate it. Women, too, largely were excluded from power, though not from Duke's or Mel's, and indeed the only person I knew with a running tab at Duke's was a female reporter at The New York Times.

In the early 1980s, the famous food critic Mimi Sheraton decided to evaluate the curious phenomenon of Mel's and Duke's. Somehow I was invited to join her entourage, and I remember her Manhattan horror at the fare, especially the roast beef hash, which she described as "gray-brown and desiccated, and the syrupy thick sauce suggested cafeteria steam table mushroom gravy." Plus she wondered why the chicken soup with noodles and a matzoh ball was served with a baked potato.

Today such tired menu items have disappeared, victims of more cultivated tastes and more disciplined diets. No one mourns the baked potato with the chicken soup. Everybody should mourn the affability with which it was served -- and devoured.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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