Last summer, Paul Zucconi, the co-owner of La Colline, initiated a $20, three-course lunch at his Capitol Hill restaurant, a popular haunt for GOP Senators. It was the dog days of August, and Zucconi was looking for a way to drum up business during the Congressional recess.
Now, as a scandal-plagued Congress rushes to limit the value of gifts Members and staff are allowed to accept from lobbyists and others, Zucconi’s price seems remarkably prescient. It would just meet the Republicans’ proposed limit of $20, though not the Democrats’ proposed outright ban. (Tax and tip are excluded from gift rules.)
“I was ahead of my time,” jokes Zucconi, who said he has no intention of doing away with the prix fixe menu, which includes main courses such as beef bourguignon and steamed mussels mariniere.
Elsewhere around Capitol Hill and downtown Washington, D.C., restaurant owners and managers are trying to gauge how much of an impact the flurry of proposed gift and entertainment limitations will have on their bottom line. Many restaurant officials interviewed this week said their calculations are hampered by too many unknowns to say for sure how big their hit will be.
Congress’ absence from Washington over most of the past month hasn’t helped this analysis. Many upper-scale Capitol Hill restaurants say that business has been slow — but they attribute that trend to the Congressional calendar, not skittishness about being seen going to lunch or dinner with a lobbyist.
“We are in a waiting period,” said Charlie Palmer Steak Executive Chef and General Manager Bryan Voltaggio. “We are waiting to see what legislation goes through.”
“All fine dining restaurants in town are well supported by this machine,” added Mark Walsh, general manager of the swanky Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant, 701. “I think it will have a negative impact.”
Still, Walsh, like others in the D.C. restaurant business, said that after an initial period of adjustment, the city’s upper-end dining establishments tend to bounce back.
After all, they’ve been in this situation before. And most have survived.
In 1996, Zucconi’s sales fell by $385,000, or about 18 percent. That year, the Senate implemented a $49.99 limit on individual gifts, with no more than $99.99 in gifts allowed from one source in a year. Meanwhile, the House implemented a zero gift rule that was later changed to the Senate level. (Both regulations had some exceptions.)
By the following year, however, Zucconi said business returned to normal. “They got accustomed to working with that,” he said.
Pressed about what he meant, Zucconi — who said he does not “finesse numbers” to meet gift limits for Members and staff — demurred.
“What they do is their business,” he said, though he did concede that the improvement may be attributed at least partly to the fact that “people stopped paying attention to” the rules.
Likewise, Walsh said the gift rules in the mid-to-late 1990s “knocked the bottom out of our very busy, busy lunch.”
The tougher restrictions of the 1990s likely contributed to lackluster midday sales of alcohol, which helped squeeze income from one of the restaurant industry’s profit centers.
“People basically stopped drinking at lunch,” said Jim McVeigh, the general manager of McCormick and Schmick’s near Farragut Square.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.