D.C. Restaurants Are Second Offices for Power Elite

Lunch hasn't been the same for Ken Guenther since Jean Pierre closed in August. He knew the waiters and the maitre d'. And it was where he had lunch with Paul Volcker one day last summer to map out a counter-attack on the Bush administration's plan to end the separation between banking and commerce.

"A major piece fell into place that day," recalled Mr. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America. The former Fed chairman agreed to write a strongly worded letter to the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee that was widely disseminated on Capitol Hill.

It was by no means the decisive blow, but it was a part of the process by which legislation progresses - not so much step by step as gulp by gulp.

Tools of the Trade

Good restaurants are to Washington politics what computer screens are to Wall Street trading rooms; the essential medium through which information is exchanged and deals are cut.

Information is traded, strategies are hatched, alliances are sealed. Over a bottle of wine - or more likely, these days, a glass of iced tea - relationships develop. A lobbyist for a money-center bank can find common ground with a liberal member of Congress. Part courtship, part negotiation, it's more than just a meal - it's power dining.

People talk business over meals everywhere, but in Washington - particularly among lobbyists who work Capitol Hill, where privacy is scarce and the atmosphere hectic - business lunches take on special importance.

"If you meet someone on the Hill in their office, you're crammed into a tight space," said Jean Marie Murphy, a lobbyist for the Credit Union National Association. "The phones are ringing, everybody is running around, and people interrupt."

Ms. Murphy favors the 116 Club, an unimposing members-only restaurant located behind the Senate office buildings. It is packed with influential Hill types during lunch.

"There's no sign outside," said Ms. Murphy. "They don't take credit cards, they don't take cash. If you ask for a menu, people turn around and look at you like you're a tourist." (Hint: If you find yourself at the 116, order the crab cakes.)

Where Insiders Go

A few other Hill joints are worth visiting to see insiders in action. Near the Senate office buildings, the Monocle, La Colline, and Two Quail are popular. On the House side, Bullfeathers and the recently renamed Capital Loyal Opposition are old standbys. The Capitol Hill Club, which is the city's Republican Club, is across the street from the Cannon House Office Building, and the Democratic Club is a few blocks away on Ivy Street.

The best restaurants are downtown, though. If you don't have to be on the Hill, you might want to stop by the Prime Rib, Gary's, or Joe and Moe's. Duke Zeiberts is a quintessential power spot located one block from ABA headquarters on Connecticut Avenue.

A few blocks away, Mr. K's is a much favored Chinese restaurant with private dining rooms.

But power lunches gain their aura from the political might of the participants, not the quality of the kitchen. So some of the most prized tables in town don't even have wine lists.

Those spots, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s boardroom or Comptroller Robert L. Clarke's office, are the places you might go if you're favored with an audience with the nation's top regulators.

The reason lies with the tough standards that apply to the executive branch, which follows strict rules that bar officials from accepting free meals.

When Treasury Under Secretary Robert Glauber breakfasts at the Hay-Adams Hotel, a current hot spot for Treasury officials, he pays for his share himself. Ditto for the rubber chicken lunches at which Treasury officials are routinely invited to speak.

So when lobbyists invite a regulator or other official to break bread, they have to keep in mind that their guest will be paying his or her own way.

One popular spot where Treasury officials lunch with industry representatives is Two Continents in the Hotel Washington, right across 15th Street from Treasury. Lunch with iced tea can be had for under $10.

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