Looking Back on D.C.’s Culinary History
Duke Zeibert's: Larry King's favorite place for roast beef hash.
It's become fashionable to claim that D.C. has come into its own as restaurant town. I'm sure I've uttered something along those lines myself, but here's the problem with such a statement: It tends to ignore the past or at least assume D.C. didn't have much of a restaurant culture before, say, the arrival of celebrity chefs.
This, of course, is patently false. Which is why I've enjoyed a couple of recent media pieces that have delved into D.C.'s culinary past.
The first was the Kojo Nnamdi Show last week in which the host and three guests dredged up lots of memories of D.C.'s old nightclubs and restaurants — and the characters who frequented them. The program was the opening installment in Nnamdi's series, which promises to explore the District's "modern food culture and [see] how it's been influenced by the past."
Nnamdi's even soliciting memories as part of his campaign to keep our culinary past live. It sounds like a worthy project to me.
Then on Sunday, metro columnist John Kelly wrote about the 14th Street corridor — the one from the 1940s and '50s, long before the current strip had attained any sort of culinary cache. Kelly briefly chronicles the historic corridor's slide from supper clubs and jazz houses to strip joints and burlesque houses:
When it opened in the late 1940s at 824 14th St. NW, the Blue Mirror was a classy supper club that owed its azure interior to Charlie Zeller, Washington's "foremost nitery designer." (He also designed the Rainbow Room and Annapolis's Anchor Room.)
You could catch Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong at the Blue Mirror, Nat King Cole, the Ink Spots and such now-forgotten entertainers as Lisa Alonzo and Her Tropicaires, who in 1950 introduced a new dance style to Washington: the mambo. "It's kind of South American bebop with lots of rhythmic ad libbing," wrote The Post's Georganne Williamson.
This was the heyday of a certain kind of Washington nightlife scene, when live music seemed to spill from every other door: jazz, Dixieland, bluegrass. . .
In the late 1950s, however, the tenor of the Blue Mirror changed, as it did for so many of the clubs along 14th Street: Casino Royal, the Merry-Land, Benny's Rebel Room. The management turned to burlesque. A 1961 Post story counted four strip houses and two belly dancer clubs in the neighborhood. The author noted the Blue Mirror's beginnings as a jazz club: "But jazz didn't pay so they turned to the money makers, the girls."
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