The great thing about being in Washington, D.C., at the dawn of an administration is that there are so many new backs to stab. Every four or eight years, fresh faces come in from all over America, and some old faces come back after having piled up mountains of private-sector cash. All of us who live here permanently have to figure out how we can welcome these people, how we can befriend them, help them, and then suck them dry before sending them back to the miserable little places from whence they came.
All of this takes restaurants. For the turning of an administration is a time of accelerated power-lunching. Journalists have to cultivate new sources, whom they will eventually betray. Lobbyists have to find new committee chairmen to flatter and fund. As for the think-tank johnnies, anyone who has ever written an op-ed piece suddenly becomes convinced that he is in line to be named deputy assistant secretary of commerce for Arctic Circle affairs, and so he has to begin subtly assassinating the character of the other wonks around town competing for the same position. I had a friend who said he was looking forward to getting a top administration post just so he could take people to lunch and deny them jobs.
Fortunately, two new restaurants have opened to take advantage of all this mealtime careerism. They come from opposite ends of the great schism that divides the Washington establishment. This schism is not between Republicans and Democrats—both restaurants, in fact, have bipartisan ownership—but between lobbyists, who worship money, and publicity hounds, who worship fame. The Caucus Room (401 9th St. NW; 202-393-1300) is owned by a group of megalobbyists, including Haley Barbour, former head of the Republican National Committee, and Tom Boggs, Democratic lobbyist extraordinaire. In their company, no politician has ever been forced to pick up a check. West 24 (1250 24th St. NW; 202-331-1100) is owned by super-pundits James Carville and Mary Matalin, the First Couple of camera envy.
Before you decide where you want to lunch, you've got to decide what you're in the mood for. If you go to the Caucus Room, you'll get to hear lobbyists brag about their hunting lodges, while at West 24 you might hear pundits brag about their hair plugs. At the Caucus Room, be prepared for a lot of financial name dropping: "I was on the phone with Alan the other day—Al Greenspan—and he was a little concerned about the factory-order numbers, and when I went over to see Dick—Dick Cheney—he was saying a lot of the same things." At West 24, your lunchmate will be perpetually dropping his own name: "You know, as I said on Nightline the other night..."
There are other differences. The Caucus Room is on 9th Street in the area between the Capitol and the White House that once was a wasteland but is now the hottest neighborhood in D.C. The dining rooms are done up in Imperial Ruling Class style. There are vast expanses of mahogany paneling, with Federal-period brass stars nailed to the walls to make you think you're dining on the Senate floor. The tables are spaced discreetly apart, and they're big enough to comfortably accommodate four ample egos.
In Washington anybody who is anybody has a Power Wall—a wall of photographs showing themselves with other prominent people, usually doing the grip-and-grin. The Caucus Room has Power Walls all over the place. The main corridor is lined with black-and-white photos of heroes of the American Century who have never actually eaten here: Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, JFK, Ronald Reagan. Plus there are plenty of real live power figures; I spotted Daniel Patrick Moynihan dining alone with a book at the bar. In sum, going to the Caucus Room is like entering the sort of club you dreamed of joining when you ran for class president in second grade.
As for the food, it meets and sometimes even exceeds D.C. standards. If you go to lunch with Washington folk and ask them about the cuisine, they'll say, "It's good." If you ask them to be more specific, they'll say, "It's quite good." The food at the Caucus Room is good. You can quickly scan the slabs of meat and slabs of fish on the menu without interrupting your conversation about future EPA regulations, and you leave feeling that you got your $70-a-person lunch money's worth without having been distracted from your efforts to manipulate your lunchmate.
While the Caucus Room is everything a lobbyist could want in a restaurant, West 24 may leave pundits somewhat disappointed. It's on 24th Street, a strip lined with new hotels and office buildings utterly devoid of personality. The restaurant is a bit bland too. When you hear that Carville and Matalin have opened up a place, you have visions of a fun Pundit Cafe—like a Hard Rock Cafe with Larry King's suspenders on the wall. But West 24 doesn't aspire to much. The tables look like they were purchased at IKEA. The art—generic sunflower paintings and Venice scenes—looks like it's seen service at several restaurants that went bankrupt. In tone there's not much to distinguish the place from your basic let's-take-the-marketing-department-out-to-lunch suburban bistro.
West 24, where a meal costs about half as much as it does at the Caucus Room, does have a couple of distinguishing characteristics. In the first place, Carville eats there a lot, so you can see him in one of his bright shirts cackling with some buddy. "You're screwed!" I heard him shout to one friend. And second, the food is not your normal D.C. fare. It's uneven, but interesting. I had a nice gumbo, satisfying mashed sweet potatoes and fantastic succotash, but my salmon was undercooked.
The place is okay if you want to get away from people who are stuffy. But if that's what you want, you're in the wrong town, baby. My view is that if you're going to eat out in Washington, you want to be as pompous, bloated and out of touch with regular people as possible. Which is why when I want to give visiting friends a taste of what life is like here for the spoiled and successful, I'll take them to the Caucus Room. If they table-hop well, maybe they can even land an administration job while they're there.