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Pass the Politicos : Schmoozing: Armed with cellular phones, legal pads and appetites, Capitol Hill's power elite march into landmark eateries to make their deals.

March 17, 1994|BARBARA SLAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — It's 1200 hours and Nancy Sherwood and Joseph Day are at their battle stations near the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Soon the invasion begins, building to a crescendo in about 15 minutes as a blue- and gray-suited army sweeps past the line of presidential portraits and pseudo-mahogany wainscoting to where Sherwood awaits.

A commanding maitresse d' in a short black dress and pearls, she confers constantly by phone with manager Day upstairs as they deploy the incoming troops.

"Only one table left," Day reports to Sherwood at 12:25, contentedly surveying a field of well-heeled patrons in red banquettes flanked by photos of hundreds of notables who've dined and dealt at the Occidental Grill over the last nine decades.

The Occidental, a survivor of battles as pitched as the political struggles that periodically change the occupant of the mansion next door, is one of a dozen Washington restaurants currently in favor among politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers and lobbyists who, even in the austere '90s, still gotta eat.

Indeed, relieved restaurateurs from Dupont Circle to Capitol Hill talk hopefully of the example set by the new commander-in-chief, who appears never to have met an entree he didn't like.

"The big difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the Democrats eat out more," said Steven Damato, an owner of Nora's, a not-new but newly trendy restaurant near Dupont Circle that serves organic food.

"President Clinton is all over town; these guys are all over town. Clinton and every Cabinet official have been here."

Damato also praised the Administration for being serious about reforming health care but not for the reason one might think.

"Every conceivable health group from nurses to gynecologists to drug companies has come to Washington to lobby," Damato said gratefully. "It's benefited the restaurant industry enormously."

Besides Clinton, who came for dinner, Attorney General Janet Reno, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and White House Chief of Staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty have eaten at the Occidental, a lunchtime haunt of high-powered lawyers.

"The Occidental is the one where the hidden business gets done," said Ben Giliberti, a Justice Department lawyer who doubles as wine critic for the Washington Post. "It's not as flashy as Duke Zeibert's and you'll see more cellular phones in the Occidental than anywhere else in the city."

Reconstructed in 1986 along with the adjacent Willard Hotel, the old Occidental was the scene of the ultimate power meal: In October, 1962, a KGB agent passed to then ABC State Department correspondent John Scali the Russian offer to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuba, which eventually defused the worst superpower confrontation of the postwar era.

Nothing so momentous has happened in the culinary world since, though a truce meal, albeit unsuccessful, was staged last year between Clinton and his Republican nemesis, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, at another Washington monument, Duke Zeibert's.

Like the Occidental, a veteran of Washington's restaurant wars that lost its original home to a wrecker's ball, Duke's is chopped liver to the Occidental's charred tuna.

One of several establishments that sell ersatz New York Jewish comfort food to primarily middle-aged males, Duke's is home away from home to CNN talk-meister Larry King and the owner of the Redskins football team, Jack Kent Cooke.

"Do I come here often? Oh heavens, no. Only five days a week," joked Cooke as he vacated Duke's premier booth about five yards into the cavernous dining room overlooking Connecticut Avenue.

Conspicuous at the restaurant entrance are glass cases housing three Super Bowl trophies won by the Redskins.

"I'm privileged to put them here with dear Duke," Cooke said. "He's truly an icon in this town--a genuine one."

An octogenarian, like Cooke, Zeibert has passed management of the 45-year-old establishment to his son, Randy. To hear the patrons tell, however, nothing about the place has changed.

"They give a good fast lunch with meat and potatoes," said Tom Korologos, a premier lobbyist who says his client list includes the National Rifle Assn. and Anheuser Busch.

Korologos, who has done more than his share of power lunches since he arrived in Washington in 1962, asserted that the institution was on its way out and being replaced by the power breakfast.

"In the old days you had semi-unlimited expense accounts and the ethics rules and deductions rules were different," he reminisced. "Now you can't take some poor slob making $57,000 a year to the Watergate because that guy has to buy his own lunch."

Korologos, whose salary is obviously somewhat larger, said he does his early morning networking with the likes of Washington Post top executive Katharine Graham and veteran deal-maker Bob Strauss at the Hay-Adams hotel, where orange juice and eggs can run $30. As for lunch, he said, "I buy more lunches in the slop shop in the Senate basement than I do at restaurants."

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