The Jockey Club Makes a Comeback

Will the Obamas embrace the Kennedys' favorite watering hole?

12.07.08 10:51 AM ET

In a wonderful bit of Washington symmetry, the legendary Jockey Club, which was a favorite of the Kennedy clan and has been shuttered for the last eight years, reopened its doors this November, just in time to greet another dazzling first couple—Michelle and Barack Obama—as they come to town and place their imprimatur on the capital’s social scene.

The fabled dining spot first debuted four decades ago in the Fairfax Hotel, on Inauguration Eve, 1961. At the time, Washington was a restaurant waste-land. The Jockey Club was created to replicate New York’s famed ‘21’ restaurant with dark paneled walls, red leather banquettes, and subdued lighting; and attracted an eclectic mix of movie stars, leading politicos, diplomats, and international celebrities.

Unlike the Bushes, who basically enjoyed Tex-Mex and went to bed early, Barack and Michelle are hip, urban dwellers who enjoy good food and good wine.

Frank Sinatra used it as a hang out when he was in town. So did Lauren Bacall. I remember interviewing author Budd Schulberg at lunch in the early ’80s and spying Nancy Reagan and chums at one table, Charlie Rose dining with Bob and Elizabeth Dole at another, and Henry Kissinger and George Will at other well-appointed spots around the room. Jackie liked its elegance and fine French cuisine.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, despite the addition of many new first class eateries in both the city and the suburbs, the Jockey Club flourished and retained its power status. But during ’90s, after a series of different owners and the departure of its exceedingly popular Maître d’, Martin, its luster dimmed, its attention to detail faltered and it went out of style. For starters, the Clintons never took to the place. Then there was the ferocious competition from two newer Georgetown establishments: Michel Richard’s elegant and pricey Citronelle and trendy Café Milano.And so, in 2000, the Westin Embassy Row, which owned the landmark Fairfax hotel, decided to dispense with the past, demolished the Jockey Club and came up with California day-glow orange replacement called Cabo. Patrons fled in droves and it closed after a few months.

Milano quickly filled the gap. It morphed into a high profile, high voltage restaurant; a nexus of power, money and glamour. It pulled in all the marquee names: Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan, Placido Domingo, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The Clintons are regulars. So is Dick Cheney. It was hot… it still is. (Myself—I prefer lunch or weekend brunch at Milano. The room is quieter, but still great for people watching.)

The Palm Steak House also helped to fill the void. Its regulars included Tim Russert, Al Hunt, Judy Woodruff, Paul Begala, and James Carville. It was a home away from home for the K street crowd, a raft of well-heeled lawyers and lobbyists, and another place to rub shoulders with a variety of the city’s bold-facers.

I forgot about the Jockey Club until last summer, when I heard rumors it was staging a comeback and didn’t pay any attention until I saw some construction and workers putting up a new Fairfax Hotel sign about a month ago. I went over and found out that in 2006, Boston’s Pyramid Hotel Group acquired the entire property and has spent millions in an effort to restore its mystique. Renowned British decorator Nina Campbell who designed some of London’s chicest and most exclusive dining spots (Anabel’s, Mark’s Club, Harry’s Bar) was brought in to give the jewel of the crown, the Jockey Club, a face lift. She did not restore the dark wood paneling but covered the walls with a honey glazed grass cloth, and opened up all the windows flooding the entire length of the room with light. Gone is the original dark, seductive atmosphere. Everyone is now in the spotlight.

Slowly, by word of mouth, the old clientele is starting to return. “People are really excited about it because they missed it. It’s like finding an old friend,” says one well placed Washington businessman, who prefers to remain anonymous. “A group of big Obama donors told me they went last week and had really good time. I hear a lot of chatter about it.” he added.

But will this translate into patronage? “I think they’re planning to return,” he says.

Both Barack and Michelle are hip, urban dwellers who enjoy good food and good wine. In fact Barack proposed to Michelle over dinner in a fancy Chicago restaurant. She had been pressing for marriage and when they came to dessert, on the plate was a box. In the box was an engagement ring. Michelle could not recall what the dessert was.

And unlike the Bushes, who basically enjoyed Tex-Mex and went to bed early, the Obamas are adventurous eaters and will undoubtedly explore many of the new spots thriving around town. The president-elect is already familiar with Zola (a sleek modern American restaurant), Zatiniya (which features Greek and Mediterranean style fare), and Wolfgang Puck’s two story Asian fusion restaurant, The Source. (Obama is known to be especially fond of Roy’s Hawaiian fusion back home in Oahu.)

In an effort to generate buzz about the Jockey Club’s reopening, Republican hostess Buffy Cafritz and super Clintonistas Ann and Vernon Jordan gave a dinner for seventy the week before Thanksgiving. The event was so successful that the three have rejoined forces to throw a much larger, fancier, bi-partisan soiree the night of Obama’s inauguration. This will certainly attract a bunch of newcomers, stir up pangs of nostalgia and help to put the Jockey Club back on the map.

One major dilemma for general manager Klaus Peters is that so many Clintonites are now part of the Obama administration (some consider it Clinton re-dux). They really eschewed the Jockey Club, preferring to hang out at Café Milano. It may be a problem persuading them to come for dinner.

So in a city now crammed with a plethora of big name chefs is a sentimental journey enough to entice the movers and shakers? Will the incoming Obama crowd truly embrace the world of Camelot?“When we restored this grande dame we made a decision to prepare for the future by bringing back the past,” Peters says. Will we be successful? We’re gonna to find out.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington based journalist, who specializes in profiles and contemporary culture. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Washington Post, Time and Forbes.

Note: This article has been corrected to note that Bogey passed away in 1957, four years before The Jockey Club opened in 1961.