- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2001

Will toothsome crabcakes and discreet decorum be sacrificed at the altar of tony progress?
Hot rumors fly amongst the breaded backfin: The beloved Jockey Club may soon close, only to reopen as a California-style bistro with big windows and fusion cuisine.
Well, thats one worst-case scenario that is slowly circulating about town like old motor oil. The rude flash of reinvention would jolt regulars attuned to the hypnotic effect of dark woods and perfect Dover sole of this most civilized eatery.
Change has not been much of an option.
This is a restaurant — the word "club" in its name is not much of an exaggeration — where a riot was barely averted a year or so ago when the traditional red-and-white-checked tablecloths and napkins disappeared, but only for a week until the old ones could be retrieved.
Fame has feasted here since it was one of Jackie Os faves when she was still Mrs. Kennedy. Some of those regulars have included eight presidents and their wives, Republicans and Democrats alike, though it has done better in Republican years. Such politicos as Eugene McCarthy, Bob Dole and Jack Kemp are familiar faces in the soft lighting favored by the ladies, and Hollywoods Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart and Frank Sinatra — who once rumbled in a dim aisle — made the scene when they were in town, which was often.
Warren Beatty preferred a table in the back room. So did his sister, Shirley MacLaine. Once or twice, they held court at separate tables at the same time.
The rich, the famous, the infamous, the outspoken and the tight-lipped — all have found a haven that has remained virtually unchanged for four decades. Big deals, spooky secrets and sweet nothings are also on the menu, famous indeed for crabcakes, sole, tenderloin and a chicken salad much favored by Nancy Reagan, who lunched at a corner table in the front room.
But something is afoot.
"We are in final negotiations with a third party to become the operator of the Jockey Club, and they would have the responsibility to make changes happen," said Michael Bakker, general manager of the Westin Fairfax Hotel, which has housed the restaurant since it opened on the eve of John F. Kennedys inauguration as president in 1961.
"Perhaps they will make the original concepts go away, and be replaced by a new idea. But I cannot say. We are still in negotiations and there wont be any announcements for four to eight weeks," Mr. Bakker said.
There is some melancholy in his voice.
"So therefore," and Mr. Bakker paused, "I have no comment."
Neither does New York-based Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, which bought the hotel back in 1998 when the Ritz Carlton chain abandoned it in the middle of the night and fled with the sign out front. For several months it was a hotel with no name, though the Jockey Club survived as the Jockey Club.
One Washington insider says rumors of a new and improved Jockey Club have plagued the staff for about eight months, along with touchy conversations with union representatives.
The mysterious "third party" remains unnamed.
"Its not us, unfortunately," said a spokeswoman for Capital Restaurants Concepts, which owns 14 Washington restaurants, including Georgia Browns and Paolas.
What could the Jockey Club become? The mind reels.
A persistent rumor has the intimate spot turned inside out, with new windows overlooking Massachusetts Avenue, or at least 21st Street, and a menu void of such things as "Steak Tartare with Pomme Souffles" or the deservedly famous "Jockey Club Crab Cakes with Sauce Meuniere."
According to Mike Mounts of the National Restaurant Association, the most popular cuisine "styles" are Italian, Mexican and Chinese cooking, none of which would particularly suit the sedate environs of the current site.
Who knows? Perhaps the Jockey Club could be rechristened the Hockey Club and become a sports bar. It could go all stainless steel, neon and sushi as the Sake Club; or perhaps serve prodigious amounts of down home comfort food as the Stocky Club. Theres always the Shocky Club, or the Rocky Club or the Schlocky Club, for that matter.
In an age where theme dining rules, "restaurants have to evolve, have to reinvent, at least every three years to survive," said Jennifer Kramer Williams of Restaurant Marketing Magazine, an industry publication, which may or may not know anything about Washington tradition. This town still nurtures what is becoming a rarity in the business.
"The personality-driven restaurant has always thrived here," said Linda Roth, a public relations consultant for area restaurants and hotels.
"Cuisine is not prime appeal for powerful people, its who takes care of them. Look how long manager Tommy Jacomo has been with the Palm — 30 years. There has always been a Billy Martin associated with Martins Tavern. And just look what happened when Duke Zeibert left Duke Zeiberts. It closed," she said.
No one will know the true fate of the Jockey Club for at least a month, and if the massive redecorating scheme proves true, the venerable old place could be closed for months.
"This is all unsettling. It is disquieting," said one soft-spoken political consultant who professed his genuine and long-lived affection for the quiet, woody confines of the Jockey Club of yore.
"Where will we go now?" he asked. "I cannot think of anywhere else in town that can support a decent conversation."


LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide