WASHINGTON — Lunch is served two ways at Blackie's House of Beef--with Rush Limbaugh or without.
The meat-and-potatoes restaurant about a mile from the White House is one of a growing number nationwide to feature a "Rush Room," where the faithful can dine without missing the blustery conservative talk show host's midday radio show.
They're listening to Rush over ribs at Barbecue Shack in Florence, Ky., and over bratwurst at Bernkastel Festhaus in Daytona Beach, Fla.
At Taste of Texas, a Houston steak joint, he's piped in to diners on individual speakers at each table.
At Blackie's, as Limbaugh rails loudly over the sound system, customers sit in a room decorated with red-white-and-blue bunting and listen quietly, munching on burgers and steak.
There are fax machines set up for them to send their views to the show, although on this day the machines sat dormant.
Limbaugh isn't for everyone.
Many find his remarks about "environmentalist wackos," "feminazis" and "commie libs" more than a little offensive. That's why Blackie's only seats people in the Rush Room if they request it.
Those who do are die-hard fans--or, in Limbaugh lingo, dittoheads. Most find it a heady experience to be around others who talk the Rush talk.
Bill Bates of Olney, Md., loves the guy. So when his friends threw him a 60th birthday party recently, they knew just where to hold it.
Bates, who sat at a table covered with wrapping paper and presents, beamed as he talked about the experience.
"I think it's wonderful, because I am a great Rush admirer," said Bates. "It's so comforting to think that somebody in the public eye like Rush believes in what we do."
His best birthday present: a calendar counting down the Clinton presidency. Only 210 more weeks to go, promises the first entry on Inauguration Day.
Rush Rooms started springing up spontaneously in 1990. Since then, Rush has plugged some on the radio and on his TV show.
"The Rush Room in Washington, we're very proud of it," said Kit Carson, Limbaugh's chief of staff. "We get faxes and letters from it all the time."
"And they serve red meat," he added. "Of course, we're all for that."
Rush Rooms aren't always in restaurants, Carson says. He has heard about ones in hardware stores, even a dentist's office.
Three offensive linemen for the Green Bay Packers--Rich Marin, Ken Ruettgers and Harry Galbreath--have an unofficial Rush Room in their locker room, where they listen to him regularly on a boom box.
"It's nice to know there are so many people out there who know the truth," said Joan Schnabel, a Bethesda, Md., homemaker who listens to Rush every day.
She and her friend Nilda Beaumont persuaded their husbands to take them to Blackie's Rush Room.
Schnabel, Beaumont and other Rush Roomers share Rush's disdain for--among other things--President Clinton, environmentalists, multiculturalists, avid feminists, Congress and "the liberal media."
"It's not what the newspapers say," Schnabel warns. "It's what they're leaving out."
Most Rush Rooms aren't salons--people don't wander from table to table discussing the issues of the day. But there is a clubbiness in the shared laughter at Rush's jokes and collective groans at mentions of favorite scapegoats--such as Clinton or Gloria Steinem.
Ron Vandament, who started playing the show at the Barbecue Shack about a year and a half ago, says he's even seen a romance blossom because of Rush.
The woman came with two friends. So did the man, he said.
"The women were screaming, 'Who is that idiot on the radio?' and the guys were saying, 'He's a genius, that's who.' One of the couples started dating and they plan to get married the first part of next year," Vandament said.
"I darn well better cater it."