The Insider: Mel Krupin

By: Garrett M. Graff

After 40 years in Washington, Mel Krupin is one of the city’s famous restaurateurs—dating back to his first job as manager at the legendary Duke Zeibert’s, then at his own Mel Krupin’s on Connecticut Avenue. Today, after retiring from the DC deli that bore his name, Krupin—who turns 79 in October—is the daytime maître d’ at McCormick & Schmick’s on K Street.

• I’m a Brooklyn-born American. In 1966 I had a friend who told me someone was looking for a manager for a restaurant in DC. I told him I wasn’t leaving my friends and family to go to Washington. Then he caught me again in 1968, soI decided to fly down in August—flying cost $15 then—and I met with Duke, and he told me to be here after Labor Day.

My wife asked me after I got here, “How do you like Washington?” I said, “The city’s great—it’s so clean. I don’t know what they do with the garbage.” In New York there’s garbage everywhere on the street; it was only later that I discovered that here all the garbage is hidden in alleys.

• At that time there weren’t many restaurants in downtown DC—and there weren’t any in Virginia and Maryland, so the in crowds came down from Potomac, Silver Spring, Arlington, McLean. They had to come to the District to eat.

Duke was a known quantity when he opened, since he came from a top restaurant, Fran & Bill’s.

People from Capitol Hill, people from Hollywood—it was the in place to be seen, the Toots Shor’s of Washington.

I spent dinner with Vince Lombardi his first night in Washington. He came in alone, and we sat and had dinner. He was from Brooklyn, and his father was in the meat business, so we talked about that—I’d been in the meat business. Then I spent his last New Year’s with him and his wife at Duke’s before he passed away.

When he was coach he’d come every Monday and Tuesday with the team, put the offense at one table, the defense at another.

Duke’s was a very interesting job. On Saturday night you thought you were at a wedding—people came all dressed up, mink stoles, shirts and ties. I met Jimmy Hoffa, Joe DiMaggio, George Meany, lots of folks.

• Duke didn’t take reservations. During lunch he made you queue up, and then he’d go around and pick out who he wanted: “Oh, there’s Arthur Goldberg; push him in.”

• When Duke’s closed, a customer offered to help me set up a new restaurant. I opened up in October 1980, and we had Mel Krupin’s Restaurant. The most thrilling time was when they first put the sign on the canopy. I was having dinner at the Mayflower with my wife, Gloria, and I looked out the window, and there is my restaurant across the street.

We got a good thing going. Then about three years in, there started to be rumors that Duke’s was going to reopen. Izzy Cohen of Giant Food made me a button that I put on the inside of my lapel so when people said, “Did you know Duke’s is reopening?” I just flashed the button: i heard already.

Duke took 28 of my employees when he reopened—even a hatcheck girl. It was a conflict. We had the matzo-ball war, the pickle war. It went on from there.

• Back then, working in a restaurant was a career. We had a lot of guys who were horse gamblers, so after the lunch rush, they’d head out to Laurel. Today it’s a passing job, something you do as you try to do something else—acting, going to school.

At Duke’s and Mel Krupin’s, we had customers who came every day, sat at the same table; I knew what they wanted. Now people come by every couple of weeks.

• After Mel Krupin’s closed in 1988, I went to the Washington Court Hotel, and then we opened a deli. I’m still the only deli ever to make the list of The Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants. When I retired, I told my wife after a few months that this wasn’t for me. I opened the Sunday paper to see the want ads, and I’ve been at McCormick & Schmick’s six years now.

I interviewed here with Connie Collins, the district manager; she looked at my application and said, “Oh, Mel Krupin, your father was a famous Washington restaurateur.” I laughed. I loved her.

This article first appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here

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