Washingtonians at Play
Unchanging pastimes in a changing dc
William H. Sullivan to Duke Zeibert, May 10, 1967
Washington’s booming dining scene owes its start to the personalities and cultures that pepper its past. That’s why the RAMMYs – D.C.’s restaurant awards – names its top prize after Duke Zeibert, a legendary restaurant owner beloved by politicians and celebrities alike. His downtown establishment, Duke Zeibert’s Restaurant, was famed for its Jewish comfort food and the charisma of Zeibert himself, who floated among tables, never forgetting a name. The dining experience at Zeibert’s so impressed Billy Sullivan, owner of the Boston (now New England) Patriots, that he wrote this heartfelt thank you letter after announcing pre-season games against the Washington Redskins and then-Baltimore Colts in 1967.
The Lotus Menu
The Lotus opened in 1928 as D.C.’s first cabaret. Under the auspices of its owner, immigrant Dick Gee Lam, the swank Chinese supper club dazzled diners with live music, dancing day til night, and revues of showgirls working the ringside tables. The Chinese and American sides of this 1943 menu remain distinct, but the sultry souvenir on back hints at other fusions.
Olmsted's Customers Traditional Election Poll, 1960
Olmsted Restaurant, two blocks east of the White House, injected a little fun into presidential elections by letting customers pick the next leader of the free world along with their entrée. This Olmsted ballot for 1960 poses the choice of Richard Nixon or John F. Kennedy. As it happened, Kennedy’s victory that year delivered a short-lived boon for the restaurant. In a classic bit of Washingtonian espionage, an anonymous White House source leaked Kennedy’s favorite haddock stew recipe to Olmsted owner Jimmy Brahms. Brahms re-created the dish and the steaming bowls sold swiftly until the administration kindly asked him to stop calling the fishy stew the "Kennedy Special."
Report of Restaurant Survey, April 17, 1950
During the civil rights era, politics and dining intersected in a more significant way. In 1949, a grass-roots committee formed for the sole purpose of desegregating D.C.’s restaurants. Led by legendary activist Mary Church Terrell, then 86, the group tested restaurants’ compliance with an 1872 anti-discrimination law that had mysteriously disappeared from the books but was never actually repealed. Once a month, the committee sent small interracial groups to local eateries to request service. This report documents the wide array of reactions they received at 58 white-owned restaurants. Because of the group’s efforts, by 1953, every D.C. resident had secured a rightful place at the table.