Imagine being one of the nearly 1,000 diners who ate at Duke’s for lunch each day. By all accounts, everyone went to Duke’s and anyone might be there.
While Zeibert’s cordial cheer and the New-York Jewish-style offerings were attractions, the restaurant was renowned for its celebrity patronage—from sports to politics, law to journalism, entertainment to business. You never knew who you’d see there: Larry King, Milton Kronheim, Redskins owners Edward Bennett Williams and Milton King, or maybe even President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Every president from Harry Truman to Gerald Ford (except Jimmy Carter) ate at Duke’s.
Perhaps The Washington Post described Duke Zeibert’s restaurant best:
“For almost a half-century, Zeibert presided over hundreds of thousands of lunch and dinner meetings in which politicians, power brokers, sports figures, business executives, media stars and entertainment celebrities came together to break bread, sip wine, schmooze, see and be seen.”
Born in 1910 in upstate New York, David “Duke” Zeibert started his career in the restaurant industry in the resorts of the Catskills, where he worked his way up from being a dishwasher to waiter. Restaurant work eventually brought him to Washington, DC, and in 1950, he opened his own place a few blocks from the White House.
Zeibert was known as the consummate host—shaking hands, telling corny jokes and placing his guests around the room quite thoughtfully. White-jacketed waiters served up silver bowls of perfectly ripe pickles. The restaurant became the place to shake hands on a deal, enjoy “chicken in a pot” and admire the display case of Redskins trophies.
After more than 30 years at 17th and L Streets NW, Zeibert and his famous watering hole were forced into retirement to make way for the new real-estate development, Washington Square. Longtime Duke’s manager Mel Krupin opened his own restaurant, complete with the pickles, around the corner the next year.
Not much time passed before Zeibert found he missed his customers and the business, so in 1983, he re-established himself in the new building located where his old restaurant had been.
In 1994, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington announced it was honoring Zeibert with its first Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual Restaurant Awards gala (the RAMMYs). The award is given to dedicated leaders in the community who have contributed significantly to the local restaurant industry. Other honorees so far include Paul Cohn, Phyllis Richman and Abe Pollin.
Not even a month following news of the award, The Washington Post announced that Duke’s was losing its lease, but that Zeibert would be looking for a new location.
The restaurant served its last lunch on June 30, 1994. Jack Kent Cooke, a Duke’s regular for decades, told the Post, “It’s not Duke’s last lunch. It’s the last lunch before the beginning of the next lunch.”
As predicted, Zeibert and his son Randy opened Duke’s Deli in the Montgomery Mall a year and a half later. The menu was similar, but the atmosphere could not compare.
Zeibert died in 1997 and within a few years, the Restaurant Association renamed that annual lifetime achievement award the Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award.
And years later, some of those thousands of diners still long for lunch at Duke’s.
Top photo: Postcard featuring Duke’s at 1722 L Street NW, from the 1950s. Collection of John DeFerrari.