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Loyalty Has Its Rewards at District’s Top Restaurants

In Washington dining circles, as in politics, there are various means of acknowledging insider status.

One is a caricature at the popular steakhouse The Palm. Another is a personalized on-site wine locker, stocked with the patron’s favorite vintages and prominently marked with his or her name, or for the more discreet, a deliciously provocative pseudonym, say “F. Sinatra” or “Mr. Hospitality.”

“You don’t find many lobbyists taking out 30 second ads on CNN to promote their firm so you have to look for other creative ideas or methods to promote you or your firm,” said Jarvis Stewart, a former chief of staff to Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) who runs Stewart Partners LLC and has had a box at the Capital Grille (601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW) for the past three years.

“There’s a panache to it,” said Democratic lobbyist Kate Moss, who pointed out that her image is among those on The Palm’s walls and that Capital Grille management approached her about a box shortly after the restaurant opened in late 1994. “I was sought out for that,” she said.

“We were standing there and I said, ‘That’s really cool.’ And they said, ‘Well, would you like one?’ And I said, ‘How much?’” Moss recalled, adding that she still gets a kick out of watching the surprised reactions of tourists, who often mistake her box for belonging to the supermodel of the same name.

In Washington, at least, a hush-hush aura surrounds the lockers. Nearly all restaurant managers or owners contacted for the story declined to give out the names of boxholders, though the lockers are publicly displayed with nameplates in the entryway or lounge.

Even so, the cachet of having a locker works both ways, as the restaurants also benefit from emblazoning the appellation of a who’s who of the Washington establishment on their locker doors.

“I think it’s just a promotional gimmick,” said former Solicitor General Ted Olson, who has two wine boxes, one at the Morton’s on Connecticut Avenue (at 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW, in the building where he works) and another at the restaurant’s Tysons Corner location (near his Northern Virginia home).

Still, there are concrete reasons to have one, Olson said.

“If my guest wants to pay for the bill they don’t see a bill for the wine,” he said.

Other benefits typically include waived corkage fees, discounted wine purchases, the assurance that one’s preferred selection will always be on hand and the option of storing favorite vintages from home on the premises.

“So many people collect in their homes and they are frustrated when they go out,” said Kathleen Kain, general manager of Signatures (801 Pennsylvania Ave. NW). The lockers are “a nice way for someone who maintains a collection to do so in a location they entertain in.”

Which is exactly why Kevin Houlihan, a partner at Elias, Matz, Tiernan and Herrick, and his brother, Rex, jumped at the chance to snag a locker when one became available at the Capital Grille a few years back. Together, the Houlihan brothers had amassed a sizable cache of bottles in their Annapolis wine cellar — and wanted to be able to store the vintages at their favorite watering hole. “It’s all my own stuff,” Houlihan said of his locker’s contents, which at the moment are heavy on cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux.

At the Capital Grille, plum invites to the restaurant’s occasional private, multicourse wine dinners — with talks by vintners — are another perk, said manager Bill Butler.

Meanwhile, Morton’s boxholder Michael A. Brown, a managing partner at Alcalde and Fay, said convenience was the primary attraction of the locker.

“If you are hosting a dinner they bring out your own private wine menu” of what is in your box, said Brown, who is planning a run for D.C. mayor. Moreover, he added, “if you are hosting a guest and you are not with them, they can order from [the menu] even if I’m not there.”

But a private box isn’t cheap. Not only is there the implied “friend of the restaurant” prerequisite, code for regular patronage and generous spending — Stewart, for instance, reported visiting the Capital Grille up to six times in a given week — but some restaurants also charge annual fees for use of the box. For instance, the privilege will set you back $450 a year at the Capital Grille and a whopping $2,500 per year at Sam and Harry’s (1200 19th St. NW).

And don’t expect to walk in and start picking out nameplates. Though the lockers aren’t advertised, the handful of restaurants that offer the boxes usually have long waiting lists — both the Capital Grille and Morton’s on Connecticut Avenue reported going up to two years without any turnover.

“I keep a file, I collect their business cards,” said Butler of frequent Capital Grille diners who express interest.

At Morton’s on Connecticut Avenue, the boxes, which are distributed free of charge to regular diners, have proved so popular that only death or relocation typically result in their relinquishment. Six months ago, in response to the high demand, General Manager Dan Festa added 24 mahogany and brass lockers to the restaurant’s foyer, bringing the grand total to 65 — and there’s still a queue to get one.

“It’s a way of recognition. ‘Wow, this guy must be important, he’s got his own locker,’” said Festa, explaining the appeal. In addition to Olson and Brown, other boldfacers to have had the honor bestowed on them there is CNN talk show host Larry King and American Enterprise Institute Scholar Michael Ledeen.

But not everyone who had a box reported high usage.

“I thought I would use it more than I have,” said Lee Culpepper, chief lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association, of his locker at Sam and Harry’s. “I don’t really keep it stocked.”

Todd Boulanger, a senior vice president at Cassidy and Associates, whose name appeared on an empty box at Signatures, said he never used his, preferring to keep his wine collection at home.

“I used to work for Jack,” explained Boulanger, referring to Signatures’ principal owner, ber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose dealings with American Indian tribes are currently the target of Senate and federal investigations. “He gave me a wine locker when he first opened up.

“I haven’t been in Signatures in ages,” Boulanger quickly added. Calls to several other lobbyists whose names appeared on boxes at Signatures were not returned.

“We don’t really turn them over, so when people inquire we tell them they’re all occupied at this point,” said Signatures’ Kain, adding that although there is no fee for the lockers they are reserved “for our most honored clientele” of “primarily lobbyists.”

“If someone releases a box I would know who had inquired, who was interested and at that point approach them,” Kain said.

But on a recent visit to the restaurant, nearly half of the boxes appeared to be empty, two of which were both unmarked and empty.

A publicist for the restaurant later explained that the lounge location of the boxes was not conducive to storing wine and that the lockers were in the process of being phased out as they were emptied.

“As they start filtering out, we are not going to fill them back up,” the publicist said.

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