Despite Jimmy Carter, lunch is alive and well in Washington. But it is a different rite than it was before his presidency.
Carter was the president who launched an attack on the notorious three-martini lunch. He not only scorned the business lunch culture, but he also changed the tax law so that only half the cost of a business lunch can now be deducted.
Carter became a dirty word in the restaurants of Washington. Yet the change in lunch habits may have occurred anyway.
During the Carter years, drinking at lunch slowed to a stop. There is hardly any drinking at lunch these days: Headwaiters proffer wine lists to shaking heads.
It was not Carter’s jiggling the tax code that killed the three-martini lunch, but rather a great social change that coincided with his time in Washington. For complex reasons, the decision-makers of the big cities dried out in the 1970s. My guess is that the world became more competitive, secretaries were not prepared to cover for their intoxicated bosses, drunk-driving laws tightened and health became an issue.
For me, the old-time Washington lunch was exemplified by a wonderful man, a great friend and a tremendous lobbyist. His name was Tom Clark and he represented the nuclear interests of the General Electric Company in Washington. Clark—who, alas, died more than two decades ago–was the uncontested master of the Washington lunch. And, yes, he drank three martinis with his lunch every day.
Clark was an American patrician, a kind of nobleman. He was also marvelous company and a skilled lobbyist. His principal tool was lunch, but he did not roam from restaurant to restaurant. He ate his lunch every day at Le Provencal, a classic French restaurant, where he always sat at the same large, round table.
Clark’s guests were a who’s who of Washington movers and shakers. There would be a Cabinet secretary at his table, maybe a senator and often a House member. I was one of the regulars at his round table. As a reporter, these feasts were valuable but mostly fun. You could drink anything you liked so long as it was distilled, fermented or brewed. There was a large menu, but most of Clark’s guests followed his lead and ordered grilled Dover sole.
Well, there are no more long, three-martini lunches and grilled Dover sole has given way to a new kind of eating: stacked, fusion food favored by the dieting classes in Washington. Of course without alcohol, three-hour lunches are out. Now we choke down the ersatz food with bottled water, ice tea or diet soda. Tom Clark would not have approved.
It is the shorter lunch that has allowed the development of that gastronomic and political horror: the power breakfast. All over Washington power-brokers are breakfasting with people from Capitol Hill, the media and the political financiers, who are the kingmakers.
Eating around Washington is really not about deals and arm-twisting, but rather about opening and keeping open channels of communication that later might be used to push a lobbying message. In the days when the martini ruled, it was a bit about communications, but mostly it was fun. It was just that it was more productive to have fun with a Cabinet member or an important senator than, well, your neighbor.
In the old days, the greatest lunch place in Washington was another French restaurant: Sans Souci. Its headwaiter, Paul, was known for his prodigious recall of names. You had to fight for a reservation and fight to be seated at a good table. The most important table–in a restaurant that was fairly small and had terraces of tables–was the Kennedy table. At this table, Kennedy family members dined with their White House and media friends. Columnist Art Buchwald was often seen with Ethel Kennedy. A cheery hail from that table as you passed by and you were on the A-list.
Today, there is nothing that looks like an A-list in Washington, and no restaurant dominates political and media circles. Also since the Carter presidency, White House staffers have favored the White House mess over restaurants.
Only retired people dare quaff midday martinis these days. As Rudyard Kipling noted, “There’s sore decline in Adam’s line.” –For North Star Writers Group