Tommy Jacomo came to the Palm DC during the Nixon era in 1972 to help his brother Ray open the nation's second outpost of the venerable steakhouse. He figured he'd stay for a couple of weeks and then head back to Vermont to work at a ski lodge. But 43 years and seven presidents later, the executive director is still at the downtown D.C. restaurant and plans to remain for at least another two years — unless he wins the lottery.
He's had more than his share of run-ins with celebrities and bigwigs — from Vladimir Putin to Muhammad Ali. Jacomo is highlighting these encounters and other tales in a book he is writing. He doesn't have a publisher yet, but he has a working title: "Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen." Readers will have to wait for the book to learn more. But in the meantime, Jacomo has shared some of his adventures with Eater DC.
What was the atmosphere like when The Palm Restaurant first opened?
It was exciting. There were a lot of celebrities, Henry Kissinger and a few other dignitaries, [D.C.] Mayor [Walter] Washington. We had a big grand opening with 400 people. Little by little the restaurant started taking off and 43 years later we're still going strong. Woodward and Bernstein would sit every day in the back booth for lunch while writing "All the President's Men." We attracted big shots from the go — [Frank] Sinatra, George Hamilton, others.
What was your first restaurant job?
My first bar job was at the New York Hilton back in 1963. My father was a bartender for 30 years at the Waldorf Astoria.
What was the high point of your career?
Sparring with Muhammad Ali. That was the biggest thrill of my life. Ever since I was a little kid I've been a big boxing fan. That was a great night. I have some pictures of that.
What year was this?
1975? 1976 maybe.
I hear you have a funny story about Vladimir Putin.
His people called to say he's coming in and pre-ordered 20 lobsters. I told my kitchen to start cooking lobsters. Putin sat down with his entourage and everyone ordered steak, steak, steak. We had lobster salad as the lunch special for the week.
So is everyone a lifer at The Palm?
I'm serving four generations — parents, grandparents, great-grandchildren. The kids grow up right before your eyes. We have dishwashers who have been here more than 35 years and wait staff for over 30 years.
What is the competition like today compared with when you first opened?
It's grown 30-fold now. Last year, three or four new steak houses opened up on the East Side. Thank God for my local clientele, the competition hasn't hurt me that much. Penn Quarter — used to be nothing down there. Capitol Hill, there were two restaurants. 13th Street nothing — now there's a restaurant on every corner.
How do you stay relevant with so much more competition?
It's the consistency of our product — we serve the best we can get — and the loyalty of our clients. They're like family, a lot of my clientele. After one of our regulars [lobbyist] Tommy Boggs [Thomas H. Boggs Jr.] died, we draped a black tablecloth at his favorite table and didn't let anyone sit there for a week out of respect for him.
How have customers' tastes changed and how have you adapted to them?
There are no more three-martini lunches anymore. Those days are long gone. People are drinking more wine now. Years ago a reviewer wrote of the original Palm in New York that the wine list had the "charm and imagination of the Swiss flag." Now the wine list is very extensive with more than 150 bottles of wine.
Everybody's a food critic. We didn't have that 30 years ago, people thinking they're star chefs. You have to be more on your game. You can't fool people. They're too educated.
What's the best seat in the house?
Some people like to sit up front by the window. A lot of people like to sit in the back booths. There's no Siberia in The Palm.