‘Washington Confidential’ on D.C. Dining and Nightlife Circa 1950s
Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer were a couple of New York City newspapermen who had the chutzpah in 1951 to publish a book, Washington Confidential (*), that promised the "low-down on the big town." The writers had earlier published Chicago Confidential, which, according to the dust jacket for WC, "was viciously attacked and vilified by public officials, notables and literary critics all over the country."
The fact that Lait and Mortimer's publisher, Crown, thought such information might help sell the new book said a lot about everyone involved. It said they were way ahead of their time in understanding that scandal and hyperbole sell so much better than facts and reason. (**) Consider what former WaPo columnist Bob Levey wrote about WC on the 50th anniversary of its publication:
One review called the authors "hard-boiled hacks." The phrase may have been too kind.
Their book reads as if Edward G. Robinson had tried his hand at scribbling instead of acting. In Confidential, women are "tomatoes." Alcohol is "hootch." A lawyer who can get you out of jail without the press finding out is a "bluff artist."
I relate this so that you take the following quotes from Washington Confidential with a Batali-sized grain of salt:
"But also in Georgetown is the Hideaway Club. It is known in local parlance as a bottle club. A bottle club is a resort which gets around the law which provides that all liquor dispensaries shall close at 2 a.m. Despite a murder at the Hideaway and a recent Congressional investigation of such enterprises and a flurry of activity by the United States Attorney, there are still at least 500 of these unlicensed places, some say more, in the District..." (page 11)
"Perhaps the most famous hotel is the Willard, at F and 14th Streets. They call it the New Willard now, though the new section was built during Teddy Roosevelt's first administration. For almost a century VIP's from all over the world stayed here. Julia Ward Howe wrote the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' in one of its rooms. Now its cocktail bar is a hangout for lonesome government girls and other fancy-free women, best time after 5 p.m." (page 13)
"One of the best-known and best is Harvey's, on Connecticut Avenue, near the Mayflower. This is J. Edgar Hoover's nightly eating place when he is in Washington. Like most Washington restaurants, Harvey's has been in business long. It specializes in sea food. The room does a sell-out business and it's almost impossible to get a table at the height of the dining hour. Service by ancient Negro waiters is slow. Best time to eat is after 9, because most Washingtonians dine early; 6 o'clock is the standard time. Many start at 5. Those are the homely habits. Some restaurants close at 8, and a few by 7." (pages 18-19)
"Chinatown...is a focal point for all, whites and well as Orientals, visitors and natives. In this town, where almost everything shutters by mid-night, the Chinese propensity for staying up all night and sleeping most of the day has brought about several phenomena. Unless you are welcome at a bottle club, there is no late place to go to in Washington except Chinatown. Most of the restaurants there are open all night, selling food. More than a few serve liquor after 2 a.m., if they know you, in a tea-pot." (page 59)
"Prince Georges is a long strip predominantly devoted to gaiety, night life, gambling and whoring. At this writing, one of its most famous places is in a barnlike structure called the Crossroads. It has strippers and corny shows. Its huge bar is loaded for a pick-up. In case you do, but are not prepared, 'sanitary rubber goods' are dispensed in slot-machines in the men's room." (page 65)
"Many cocktail lounges and restaurants cater to irregulars. Most of them are near the Mayflower Hotel. The most popular resort is the Jewel Box, near 16th and L, NW, formerly known as the Maystat. It is a cocktail lounge with entertainment by a piano-player, who sings semi-risque lyrics." (page 93)
"Washingtonians imbibe three times as much as you do, friend voter. Except for a few silly restrictions, no place in the country offers as many inducements to the potential alcoholic. The answer is, 14,151 drunks last year created a jail 'housing crisis.' The number more than doubled in the last five years." (page 123)
"There are many hotel grills and lounges, which are night clubs after a fashion, and some cafes; but their chief patronage depends on visitors and government dependents. Both classes are drawn largely from farms and villages, with only a minor proportion from centers of laughter and light. Washington's night life is a dull, dismal and dreary reflection of our Main Streets, hard cider and juke-box roistering." (page 131)
"We will recommend no restaurants here. A list of best-known places in Washington and Baltimore will be found in the appendix. We guarantee none. But Baltimore goes in for good food in the good places, while Washington doesn't know what fine cuisine is. Meals are cheaper in Washington than in New York. Baltimore, with some of the finest restaurants in the country, charges even less." (page 284)
"There are no swank dining places of the grade of El Morocco, the Colony or 21 in Washington or Baltimore. The elite in government service eat lunch in their own private dining-rooms and dinner at their clubs." (page 284)
(**) No doubt a lingering attitude from New York's heyday as a hub for yellow journalism.