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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Old Duke's

From Washington Lawyer, October 2004

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator Eating establishments near a courthouse are generally bad. This is the way it was for years around our local courts. There was Barney’s, a deli near 6th and Pennsylvania Avenue, and a few blocks west there was the Kansas City Beef House where Judge Luther Youngdahl occasionally dropped in for lunch. Off and on there was a quick-service place at 5th and D. That was about it.

A lawyer in trial who must be back in court at 1:30 is often too nervous to do much eating. The jurors are not under that disability. They are entitled to the calming effect of good food. Who can calculate the effect on a juror of the bad food that is brought in from the local one-arm establishments that supply the victuals for the deliberating twelvers?

In Russell v. State, 53 Miss. 367 (1876), it is reported that the jurors were made sick by ingesting tainted beef. Whiskey was administered to the stricken. The reviewing court did not find this course of events sufficient for a new trial. Nevertheless, the case illustrates the entry of the digestive system into the litigation process.

When the courthouse dining was bad and sometimes dangerous and the court recessed for the day at 12:30, the lawyers liked to take a cab up to Duke Zeibert’s to consider the state of the evidence. The client was not invited. The presence of the client inhibits the lawyers from confessing all the malpractice that could have been avoided with better preparation.

As best I recall, Duke Zeibert first appeared in the late 1940s as the headwaiter at Fan N’ Bill’s, a New York–style full-service restaurant located on Connecticut Avenue. He came here from Miami Beach, Fan N’ Bill’s original location.

Duke developed a following. He wanted his own place. He obtained sponsors who put up the money to open Duke’s at Connecticut and L. He copied the style of two New York restaurants, Dinty Moore’s and Toots Shor’s. They were the first to capitalize on a belligerent attitude toward their customers. “If you don’t like it, get the hell out of here” was the way it worked. The New York public fought to get in. Damon Runyon reported that “anytime you tell a New Yorker to get out, he wants in.”

Duke made no effort to control his impatience with people who wanted what was called a good table, a table near the front. Duke held the good tables for the sporting crowd and people Duke thought were somebody. If someone Duke did not know looked like he was somebody, Duke would say, “Are you somebody?” Always a tough question to answer.

A prominent bankruptcy lawyer insisted on a table way in the back. He said that businessmen did not want to be seen with him. It would frighten the creditors.

Duke’s became a tourist attraction, a place to get a look at politicians, sports celebrities, and those who had done something that put them in the news.

A few stories about the food. Duke’s served creamed spinach, heavy on the salt. One winter evening when ice had collected on the front sidewalk, a waiter warned Duke that someone was going to slip on the way in. The waiter was told to put the leftover spinach on the ice. “Don’t you know? Salt melts ice!”

Here is the way Duke handled complaints. A customer took a seat and ordered boiled beef, a Duke’s specialty. The waiter delivered the order. The customer called the waiter over and said that the noodles did not taste right. The waiter removed the dish and brought it back for the customer’s inspection. The customer then said that the noodles were all right but the carrots were bad. When that was taken care of, the complaint was about the boiled beef. The waiter called Duke over and in the presence of the customer repeated the complaints. Duke said to the waiter, “Don’t you get it? He came in here to fight, not eat. Get him out of here.”

The Saturday lunch people often included Justice Lewis Powell and his law clerks. Duke did not know who Justice Powell was until he was told, and then he made a point of complimenting the justice on the good work he does for the Court.

One Saturday Justice Goldberg, after he had retired, was eating alone. Duke came over to the table with a married couple who wanted to be introduced. The man said to Justice Goldberg that he was enjoying his retirement because Justice Goldberg, when he was general counsel for the steelworkers’ union, had helped with the pension negotiations. In a desire to flatter, he said the Supreme Court really was not doing well since the justice had left. Justice Goldberg gave him comfort: “You should not worry about the Supreme Court. You will be all right. As far as I know, the Supreme Court has never declared war, nor has it raised taxes.”

When the owner of Duke’s building decided to put up a new office building it meant Duke had to go. My best recollection is that this was around 1985. He gave a big party for the regulars. Prominent people made speeches. There were tears. It was all over.

Among the stories that were told was the one about Duke’s public service. Duke liked to play cards at a club in Rockville, Maryland. The club was raided. Duke was asked by the police if he had drugs on him. He said he had drugs for heart trouble, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, bad business depression, and certain things he would rather not discuss among friends. The case went to trial and ended in a hung jury. Thereafter a plea was worked out. Duke agreed to perform 10 hours of public service. But what public service could he do? He discussed it with a sportswriter, Morrie Siegel. “Morrie, what kind of community service can I do at my age? What should I do?” Morrie had the answer. “Duke, as a starter, close the kitchen for two weeks.”

Duke, after a short retirement, reopened in the new office building, but it did not work.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].