La Colline French for 'the Hill'

For a Capitol Hill restaurateur confronted with a host of competitors, sharply increased produce costs triggered by the Florida hurricanes, a slow election season and a lengthy labor dispute that keeps most Democrats away, La Colline’s Paul Zucconi seems remarkably upbeat.

“Congress is coming back for the lame-duck session, we’ll have a busy December and we’ll do great during the inaugural in January,” Zucconi said last week. “This will be our sixth inaugural. It’s a four-day festivity that makes up for the slowness of election week, and people are already calling for reservations.”
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With a largely Republican clientele, Paul Zucconi said he is glad the election came out the way it did.

Indeed, La Colline has become a fixture on Capitol Hill since the Italian-born Zucconi, 54, and his original chef and co-owner, Paris native Robert Greault, opened the French brasserie with its splendid view of the Capitol in January 1982.

Taking a late-afternoon break over a glass of Alsatian pinot blanc bottled under the La Colline label (“We go through 35 to 40 cases a month”), Zucconi discussed the genesis of his restaurant and how it has managed to survive and prosper ever since Ronald Reagan took office.

“I had no idea where Capitol Hill was,” Zucconi confessed, when he and Greault talked about opening a new restaurant after the building housing their popular restaurant on K Street, Le Bagatelle, was torn down. “People never say, ‘I work on Capitol Hill.’ They say, ‘I work on the Hill,’ so I said, ‘How do you say the Hill in French?’ and Greault said, ‘La colline.’ It’s easy to say and easy to remember.”

In a town where remembering names is essential, Zucconi, who came to this country at the age of 7 with his family, has made it almost an art form.

“I have a knack for seeing a face and remembering a name,” he said. “Every two years, I’ve got to introduce myself to a new batch of customers. I have customers come in that I haven’t seen in 10 years and for some reason their name comes to mind and you can see they appreciate it by the look on their face.

“Recognition of your customers is very important, especially if their first name is ‘Senator’ or ‘Congressman.’ When they come through the front door, you better know their names, their likes and dislikes, what table they like and whether they want to be seen or not seen.”

It’s not that hard to remember the names of his other customers. At La Colline, located in the same building that houses C-SPAN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, hardly a day goes by that a famous face doesn’t show up. Fox stars Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes are regulars, as are C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

Zucconi treasures the glowing reviews that Phyllis Richmond, who was then The Washington Post’s influential restaurant critic, gave his restaurant. She wrote: “La Colline illustrates why, after other cuisines and trends have tempted us to stray, we return with a sign of relief to these established French restaurants. They’re so professional. They’re so steady and respectful of tradition. They remain, year after year, so fundamentally good.”

Although Greault, whom Zucconi describes as a “guru” to many of Washington’s top chefs, turned over his toque to Roger Wiles three years ago, he’s still a part owner and “looks in on the place on a weekly basis,” Zucconi said.

His biggest challenge, in addition to competing with new restaurants such as Charlie Palmer Steak and a plethora of others at Union Station, is “coming up with new menu items that are still within the range of moderate prices” while bringing back classic French dishes served over the years, such as coq au vin and bouillabaisse.

Nothing on his menu exceeds $24.50 except for Dover sole, which is $30.95, when available.

Rising costs of fruits and vegetables, caused by hurricane crop damage in Florida, are troubling. “We’re taking a beating on the cost of produce,” Zucconi said. “But we haven’t increased our prices. We’re going to ride the tide for the moment.”

Competition from glossy new restaurants such as Charlie Palmer Steak and such established restaurants as the Capital Grille, Bistro Bis and others along Pennsylvania Avenue and in Penn Quarter make Zucconi nostalgic about La Colline’s early years, when “the only other restaurant of note on the Hill was the Monocle.”

One sour note at La Colline is the eight-year-old labor dispute that began after employees signed a petition stating that they no longer wanted to be represented by a local union after their contract expired in January 1996.

But Zucconi, whose father was a union member and whose landlord is the Marine Engineers union, insists that the picketers who show up outside La Colline for about 45 minutes every morning don’t represent a strike but “an informational picket line.”

Many of his longtime employees don’t support the effort to unionize the restaurant, he said. But the picketing “has helped to keep diners, especially Democratic lawmakers, out of the restaurant.” Most of La Colline’s fundraising functions “almost exclusively come from the Republican side of the aisle.”

Maybe that’s why Zucconi didn’t sleep much on election night. “When I left Tuesday night, I was sick to my stomach,” he said. “I woke up every hour on the hour to check Fox and CNN. I’m glad it came out the way it did, but I don’t think it would have made much difference, even if John Kerry had won.”