There was the chief of staff who left a minuscule tip on the White House credit card and the power broker who was “so high he didn’t know if he was sitting upstairs or downstairs.”
As a longtime server at the Occidental restaurant, just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, Lindly Haunani has seen it all.
Haunani has been a waitress here since the 100-year-old power spot reopened on November 15, 1986. (The restaurant was shuttered for several years when part of Pennsylvania Avenue fell into disrepair after the 1968 riots.) On opening day, Jeffrey Buben—now owner of Vidalia and Bistro Bis—was at the helm. Current chef Rodney Scruggs was a line cook, and the ginger-haired Haunani—who’s a little bit sweet, a little bit salty—was working a dining room she’d soon come to command.
While things change from administration to administration—people drank more back in the 1980s, Haunani says—one thing has remained constant: The Occidental offers a ringside seat to history.
“I had a pretty good guess that Desert Storm was going to happen because I served 35 gin martinis for lunch that day, and I saw a K-9 unit in front of the White House, which was unheard of at the time,” Haunani recalls. “I said to my roommate, ‘The war will start tonight,’ and it did.”
Lunchtime martinis aren’t the norm any longer. Gone are the days when politicians like Tip O’Neill and Dan Rostenkowski passed gin-soaked afternoons in the back room. Still, Haunani says, “There are times you feel the tension is rising. You can feel it in the tempo of the restaurant, watching the amount of security, barricades, dogs.”
When Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney stopped in, a three-day preparation was required. Employees had to empty their lockers, and VIP escape routes were surveyed. “There are a lot of entrances and exits,” Haunani explains.
Haunani says it’s easy to sense a high-profile arrival: “Sometimes you’re tipped off because there’s a whole lot of security involved. Sometimes you’re tipped off because you see private bodyguards. That’s when I’m walking on edge. They have machine guns on ’em.” She’s hard to flummox, but she did once drop a wineglass while Colin Powell was having a top-secret tête-à-tête.
“At the beginning of the Clinton administration, there was anticipation that things were going to change,” she says. “There’s less excitement now.” But, perhaps, more haute couture. “At W’s inauguration, we had to get extra racks for all the fur coats—even for some children.”
She’s unruffled by most celebrities—maybe because she doesn’t watch TV or read newspapers—but a few big names have managed to melt her.
“Tony Curtis was a wonderful tipper. Real old Hollywood glamour. And Bob Hope! I was tickled! He was getting on in years, but he was dressed to the nines, except for a pair of tennis shoes.” Another of Haunani’s favorites is Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has popped in for a bite and French wine after performances, usually with ballerinas by his side. “He was always very nice, very genuine,” she says.
Haunani admits that she sometimes doesn’t recognize whom she’s waiting on. “One time everyone was all excited that Jane Pauley was here, and I said, ‘Where is she?’ And they said, ‘Well, you’ve been waiting on her for an hour and a half!’ ”
Sam Donaldson once took a turn as Emily Post, stopping conversation at his table to reprimand a guest. “It was a large party,” she remembers. “He said, ‘You do not treat service staff like that!’ ”
No one, she says, was sassier than former Texas governor Ann Richards: “Oh, God, she was great; she told it like it was. I waited on her a number of times in the late ’80s. She was having lunch with telecom lobbyists. They thought they were doing well, and she turned to them and said, ‘Don’t bullshit me!’ ”
In general, people are more secretive than in years past. “I used to be surprised about the things people would talk about within earshot of other people,” Haunani says. “Relations with foreign governments, arms sales, negotiations with military policy. Of course, the whole character of that has changed.”
Haunani has made a point to be discreet since September 11: “You can’t really recognize anyone. I pretend like I’ve never seen them before, unless they do recognize me or want to be recognized.”
That’s good news for the notable businessman who used the Occidental as a romantic hideaway: “I knew his marriage was over when he brought his wife to lunch and his mistress to dinner, and they both got little packages from the same jewelry store.”
For the most part, guests are on their best behavior. “Katharine Graham was a very gracious guest. Well mannered and precise and articulate. She had a real charisma,” Haunani says. As did Rosalynn Carter: “She was always very kind to her Secret Service people; she would treat them to lunch or dinner.” Another favorite is Katie Couric, who’s “a ton of fun.”
George McGovern was also a class act. Shortly after the death of his daughter Terry, he brought his family to the Occidental. Despite his grief, he signed autographs.
Haunani’s eyes crinkle at the memory, but then it’s back to business: It’s almost dinnertime.