Over the past 44 years, Tommy Jacomo has made it his business to know the names, relationships, orders, and favorite tables of the patrons at The Palm. But last Friday, his final day at the restaurant before retirement, all the attention was flipped on him. Even at 3 pm, the dining room was bustling with longtime regulars and friends wanting to send-off and thank one of DC’s great maitre d’s. Hardly a minute went by that someone didn’t interrupt with a handshake or a kiss on the cheek. Jacomo sat down with Washingtonian to reflect on the many bold-faced names he’s encountered, talk about changes over the years, and share a good Donald Trump joke.
It’s your last day! How does it feel?
Overwhelming right now. I didn’t expect such a big turnout. One guy flew in from Florida just for the day, he’s flying back right now. Another lady I worked with, she’s in Chicago, she flew in for the day.
How old were you when you started?
Twenty-seven, I believe. I actually came down for just a couple weeks to help my brother open the place up. I never left.
You never intended to stay?
I figured two, three weeks, I’ll help him out, get the place started, and I’ll go back to Vermont and teach skiing.
And now you’ve been here more than four decades, which is such a rare thing. What is it about this place that’s kept you here?
The owners treat you like family. They give you almost ownership of the place… For the first 15, 20 years, my brother went to Miami, ran the Miami Palm, and I took over in charge of here.
I’m sure people have tried to poach you over the years, no?
Oh yes, lots of people. Not even close. Never even entered my mind. The head hunters call promising you this, promising you that. This is my home. This is my life. I would never leave it. I’m having a hard time leaving now after 44 years.
I understand you’re leaving because of health issues?
It kind of blind-sided me, but it happens.
You’d planned to stay even longer?
Oh yeah, three of four years at least. I love what I do. I love this business. I’ve been doing this my whole life, starting in 1963 in the New York Hilton hotel.
That was your first job?
Yes, I was a bar-back.
What was your initial job here?
I bartended the first week, and then my brother put me on the floor.
What’s been the biggest change in the years that you’ve been here?
The three-martini lunch is long, long gone. People are more conscious of what they eat now. They watch these cooking shows two nights in a row, all of a sudden they’re gourmets. They know everything. It drives you crazy.
What about the clientele?
There’s been a change with every administration. We had [Gerald] Ford, we had [Jimmy] Carter, people they come, they go, they’re out of work, they’re back in work. I’m sure with Trump coming, there’s going to be really a big difference here.
What have been the difference with the crowds of each administrations that you’ve seen over the years?
I think the republicans drink harder than the Democrats. They’ll drink darker liquor. Democrats probably drink more wine.
What do you think it will be like in the Trump years?
I think there’s going to be a big difference, because he’s not a real politician, so it’s going to be really interesting to see. I wish I could predict the future.
I got a great story for you, I heard it just the other day, I think you’re going to love this: Trump and the Pope were on his yacht. And the Pope’s hat blows off and lands in the ocean. Secret Service is trying to get it. The Pope’s people are trying to get it. Trump goes, ‘Hang on,’ walks on the water, bends over, picks up the hat, walks back on the water onto the yacht, puts the hat on top of the pope’s head. People are astounded at what happened, they can’t believe it. You know what the headline in the paper the next day was? “Trump Can’t Swim.”
That’s a good one! You’ve seen everyone come through here. Any particularly memorable names?
My biggest thing was sparring with Muhammad Ali. [Pointing to a photo on the wall showing as much.] This was staged. He came in 1987 I believe, and he staged all these pictures of me strangling him and punching him. This is the best shot there. Then he came in 10 years later, he was sick by then, so he was a little shaky. I [said], ‘You see that picture up there. You staged that picture.’ He looked at me, he goes, ‘Let’s do it again.’ So I got the same photo 10 years later in color.
Jack Kent Cooke [former owner of the Washington Redskins] was a very good friend of mine. Loved him. Jack Kent Cooke was bigger than life. We had that thing that went on for years and years about his wife Marlena’s picture [on the wall]. When they had a fight, he’d say, ‘Take it down. She’s a bad, bad girl.’ I’d take it down, he’d call me, ‘Tommy, put it back up.’ Back and forth. So finally, he said, ‘Take it down,’ I took it down. They show up a couple days later. Marlena goes, ‘Tommy, where’s my picture?’ Jack goes, ‘Yeah, where is it?,’ not admitting that he told me to take it down. So I go, ‘Water damage.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.’ She does, ‘You are both full of shit.’
So many people who’ve come through here are part of American history. Are there any moment of behind-the-scenes history you’ve witnessed here?[Lawyer] Edward Bennett Williams signed John Riggins, the football player, to a contract in the back booth here. The people that lobbied to get the Concord to land in Dulles, they worked on that for like two to three years. I’m sure there were all kinds of deals done on napkins that I don’t even know about here.
Wasn’t All the President’s Men written here?
Oh, that’s right. That’s probably the best story. [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein would sit in the far booth all the way in the back. I had no idea who they were. Carl would tie his goddamn bicycle up under the awning, which would drive my brother crazy. And they’d sit there writing, writing, writing. When they did the movie came out, Robert Redford was in town. He’d sit in the same booth at 10:30 at night and have a late dinner. I would sit with him. He said, ‘Yeah, people think I’m going to fail with this movie. I’m going to fall on my face with it.’ When the movie came out, he invited us to the Kennedy Center for the opening crowd.
What’s the most important skill of your job?
Recognizing my customers, recognizing their needs, anticipating before it happens. A lot of restaurants went out of business. Sam & Harry’s across the street went out of business. Smith & Wollensky went out of business. STK around the corner went out of the business. We’re still standing, and the reason for that is because we have very loyal clientele. We have to best meat you can buy, the best product you can buy. And the consistency.
What are you going to do in retirement?
This happened very fast, so we haven’t had time to plan anything. I’ll sit home with my wife and decide what our direction is going to be. But I’ll be in town for a while. I have no intention of going down to Florida. That’s not going to happen.
How are they sending you off? Are you actually working tonight?
I’m doing exactly what I did for lunch today, just greeting people. I’ve got a whole new shift coming in tonight. I looked at the reservation book. All of the old customers want to come in and say goodbye. I think I’ll last until 8:30, and then I’m going to get the hell out of here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.