R's, D's drink from different troughs

Young Dems were packed elbow to elbow Tuesday night at Stetson’s on U Street, where two pull-down screens had been set up to air CNN’s election coverage and the beer-pong tables were papered over by electoral maps.
file photo
GOP bastion Capital Grille

On the screens, the pundits blared away, their comments unheard by the loud audience, which was more focused on the chunky graphics. A brief clip of the Bush family at the White House inspired rounds of booing, while early polling numbers in Pennsylvania caused a ripple of cautious cheers.

Meanwhile, downtown at the Capital Grille, hordes of cigar-puffing professionals exulted with glee as results favorable to Republicans came in. “Yeah, alright Coburn,” shouted one partisan as the talking heads called the Oklahoma Senate race for the former congressman. A round of drinks rose in the air in response.

Such is life in the Washington of 2004, where even the watering holes are partisan — a distinction that begins with the bars on Capitol Hill itself. Lobbyists and congressional aides contacted for this story — most of whom wanted to remain nameless — seemed to agree that on the Hill, Red River Grill on the Senate side appears to attract more Democrats, while bar-goers say the new Lounge 201 caters to GOPers.

The “tried and true” House-side hangouts are Capitol Lounge and Bullfeathers for Republicans and the Pour House and Hawk and Dove for Democrats, said one Republican lobbyist who frequents Hill bars.

Paul Meagher, the manager of the Hawk and Dove, agrees. “In 1980, when Bullfeathers opened, that was a Republican bar,” he said. “They just got lucky when Reagan got elected. We sort of remained a Democratic bar, and it’s been pretty much that way ever since.”

When asked why, he said a lot of his employees work for Democrats during the day
and moonlight there at night. At lunch, the librarians and career civil servants who come in are Democrats. Plus, he joked, “we have a whole lot of fun here,” and his customers tend to be “more educated. Maybe that’s why we’re Democratic.”

Another reason he put forward was the generalization that Democrats prefer urban neighborhoods while Republicans live in the suburbs. Hence all the “ReDefeat Bush” signs in front of homes on Capitol Hill — and the liberal locals who come to his bar.

The same holds true in the other main bastion of Democratic bars in town, the Adams Morgan/U Street area. Local 16 on U Street is named after a labor union, and the mix of urban-hip and bohemian guests it draws seems to be nearly monolithically on the left of the political spectrum. The restaurant has held all manner of fundraisers, benefits and gatherings this year for left-leaning and Democratic groups of all shapes and sizes.

Only a few doors down from Local 16 is the venerable Stetson’s, which picked up its patrons’ sales tax on election night. The origins of this modest dive bar as an unlikely hangout for power players is a bit convoluted. According to manager Frank Feige, in the late 1980s, a brother of a roommate of one of the bar’s original managers landed a job at the Democratic National Committee and would often bring his co-workers for happy hour. “When Clinton won,” Feige said, “some of them moved to the White House.”

In the years since, he said, Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) has been in and Clinton and Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart is only the most noteworthy of the many Democratic operatives who have become regulars.

Like Stetson’s, an establishment’s reputation — and even its clientele — is often stamped by its early history. Nowhere is this truer than on the “power alley” of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Fortuitously or not, the opening of the unapologetically masculine Capital Grille in late 1994 happened to coincide almost perfectly with the Republican takeover of Congress. With new Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority Leader Dick Armey among its first few regulars, it developed a Republican reputation.

“Heads on the wall, dark wood. It just reeks of money — and Republicans,” one Democratic House aide said.

Farther up the road, Signatures developed a similar status when it opened in 2002, thanks in part to its owner, Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “It’s not as clubby, but you still see more Republicans there,” a longtime GOP lobbyist said.

Of course, all restaurant and bar owners and managers contacted for this story vociferously denied that their establishments are anything less than welcoming to both parties.

Bryan Voltaggio, executive chef at last year’s big addition to the power alley, Charlie Palmer Steak, said that, unlike the “boys’ club” atmosphere of some other restaurants, “what we have here appeals to both parties. There’s more open space, lighter wood. It appeals to women also.”

He said that even though a construction union is in the building, CP Steak’s clientele is “pretty close to 50-50.” Lobbyists and congressional staffers largely agreed, saying that it has avoided developing a partisan reputation.

Of course, even in this city, there are some establishments that transcend party ID.

Bobby Van’s, the steakhouse on 15th Street, used to be known as a bastion of Republican lobbyists, “but Democrats seem to be brave enough there” now, in the words of one GOP lobbyist. Maybe that’s because John Kerry moved his campaign headquarters across the street earlier this year.

But co-owner Joe Hickey said it has always been more of a hangout for New York pols, whatever their political stripe, from Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) to Rep. Peter King (R). The original Bobby Van’s is in Manhattan.

“There is no such thing as Republican or Democrat in New York,” said Hickey. “It’s a business town; it doesn’t matter who you are,” as long as you can close a deal.

Kari Lundgren contributed to this report.