Every town has one: The restaurant owner who knows everyone, hears everything, and tells no one. In the nation’s capital, that would be Mel Krupin. Now 81, Krupin sat down at Hunter’s Inn in Potomac, Md., to share his recollections as the consummate Washington insider for more than four decades.
The son of a Brooklyn taxi driver, Krupin was introduced to the restaurant business working for the Ritz Carlton in New York and then for a hotel meat supplier.
In 1968, a friend put him in touch with the legendary David “Duke” Zeibert. Zeibert was looking for a manager for his Washington restaurant on L Street Northwest at Connecticut Avenue.
Duke’s was a place where everyone went to see and be seen. Members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, White House aides, sports team owners, and law firm partners all descended on the restaurant for power lunches.
They hoped for the day when Duke would greet them by name. Zeibert wore short sleeve shirts and never carried a watch. He would ask his manager Krupin for the time.
“You know Duke never took reservations,” Krupin says. “He would make people come and stand in line, and then he would say Justice [Arthur] Goldberg, come over.”
Law firm founders like Paul Porter of Arnold & Porter and Edward Bennett Williams of Williams & Connolly were regulars, as well as media stars like Art Buchwald and Larry King.
Every president from Harry S. Truman through Gerald Ford dined at the restaurant.
“Mel knew everyone, and they knew him,” Plato Cacheris, another regular and one of the country’s top criminal defense lawyers, tells me. "He made you feel welcome.”
“Paul Porter would come in at night, sit at his table,” Krupin says. “He loved to drink. He was 6 feet, 5 inches tall and must have weighed 280 pounds. When he got up or he fell down, I had to walk him out of the restaurant. I would let him lean on me, and I was like talking to him, not holding him up, but he would put his hands on my chest, and I walked backwards. I didn’t want people to think that I was helping him out.”
One day, the restaurant was busy, and Zeibert said, “Paul, I don’t think that I’m going to have [a table] for a while.” Porter never came back. He died in 1975 after choking on a piece of lobster at the Palm.
After Elizabeth Ray became infamous, the divorced Duke began going with her and taking her to parties. A voluptuous, 33-year-old blonde from North Carolina, she told The Washington Post in 1976 that she was on the payroll of a married congressman for the sole purpose of having sex with him. The congressman in question was Wayne L. Hays, a Ohio Democrat who was chairman of the powerful House Administration Committee.
“I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone,” the Washington Post story quoted Ray as saying.
“She would go to the football games with us, and Duke was very proud of the fact that she was with him,” Krupin recalls. “She would come into the restaurant with her girlfriend, and she would wear a tight blouse, and I would put her in the front room with her girlfriend.”
House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III, and Sen. Jacob Javits of New York were regulars, as was Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.
“Javits would come in every night at 10:30,” says Krupin, who wore a pin-striped suit and smoked a big cigar. “He sat in a little corner seat in the back. He ordered his chopped liver appetizer and his martini and his steak.”
“I had the great George Allen,” Krupin says, referring to the football coach. “He would come in and sit with his sons. One became a senator, and the other one became general manager of the Redskins.”
In 1980, Zeibert decided to close the restaurant when the building was to be razed to be replaced with a new structure. Krupin opened Mel Krupin’s up the street on Connecticut Avenue across from the Mayflower Hotel.
He hired Duke’s chefs, and he had the same signature bowl of pickles on the table as at Duke’s. The menu had the same matzo ball soup, herring in sour cream, crab cakes, stuffed cabbage, and chicken in a pot.
Three years later, Duke reopened in the Washington Square Building on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street. Customers chose sides, touching off what Krupin calls the “matzo ball wars.”
On the advice of a public relations man, Mel ran an ad in the Washington Post welcoming Duke back. He sent him a plant as a present. “So Duke got on television and said this gesture is as good as a $3 bill,” Krupin says. “He couldn’t take it.”
“I want you to know that I’m playing it down the middle,” Cooke told a reporter while at Duke’s. “I parked my car at Mel Krupin’s tonight.”
“So the next morning, I sent him a bill for $15 for parking, and he paid it,” Krupin says.
Mel Krupin’s closed in 1987, while Duke’s closed in 1994. Zeibert died three years later.
“Duke never gave me a compliment, and then when he passed away, his ex-wife’s husband came to me and he said, ‘You know, Duke really liked you, but he didn’t want to give you a compliment,’” Krupin says. “He thought you would ask for more money.”
Eventually Mel opened Krupin’s Deli on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington’s Tenleytown section. It baked its own bread and black and white cookies.
Mel’s brother Morty wound up managing the restaurant. When new owners bought it, the restaurant became the New York Style Deli, which closed in November, ending an era.
Besides him, Krupin says the only manager who is as good a front man is Tommy Jacomo, who opened the Palm in Washington in 1972.
“He learns the backgrounds of customers and becomes involved with them,” Krupin says. “He goes around, and if he likes you, he kisses you and hugs you.”
Now executive director, Jacomo decides whose caricatures — including, for reasons unknown, mine — go up on the wall.
Krupin says he won’t follow his brother Morty to Florida, which he says is “for old people.” He works part time as the maitre d’ at McCormick and Schmick on K Street Northwest. At home in Chevy Chase, his wife Gloria usually does the cooking.
After we finish our smoked fish platters at Hunter’s Inn, Krupin, ever the great restaurateur, picks up the check.
Besides not going to Florida, his prescription for staying sharp and happy is to keep working.
“Sometimes, I look at somebody and don’t remember his name, and I’ll think A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and all of a sudden, I remember,” Krupin says. “As long as I’m alive and breathing, I’ll work,” he adds.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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