Author and columnist Robert Ruark once wrote that sometimes the only way he knew what was going on politically in Washington, D.C. was by how the photos were arranged in the Occidental Restaurant. For one hundred years the Occidental has been a gathering place for the nation’s political power brokers, sports figures and celebrities. The photos of these notables have long lined the walls of the restaurant, serving as a barometer for the city and a reminder of the honorable, scandalous and just plain fun adventures that have taken place within its walls.
The Beginning: 1906
The Occidental was built by Henry Willard (of Willard Hotel fame) in 1906. In the beginning, it was operated by Mr. Gustav Buchholz, a German immigrant who had previously worked as a head waiter at the Willard. Buchholz became the restaurant’s owner in 1912. Under Buchholz, the Occidental became a success. He lined the walls with the autographed photographs of his most notable patrons – Franklin D. Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Robert Frost and Calvin Coolidge. The photos of presidents, cabinet members, senators, sports heroes, literary greats and celebrities peered down from the walls of the Occidental. Within just a few years, the Occidental became known as the place “Where Statesmen Dine.”
Early Growth: World War I and the 1920s
For a time at the beginning of World War I, Buchholz remained sympathetic to the country of his birth. He hosted the crew of the German submarine Deutschland and the passenger liner Prinz Eitel Friedrich at the Occidental, but after America’s entry in to the war, Buchholz changed his attitude and declared the ties that bound him to America were stronger than any other. He worked tirelessly for the war effort. The Occidental was the first restaurant in Washington to address the food shortage. Menus read, “Mr. Hoover says: ‘To win the war we must conserve our food.’ During these war times we ask the cooperation of our patrons in the avoidance of all waste in the food supply.” He donated the profits from the Occidental’s cloakroom to the American Red Cross, and he purchased more than $40,000 worth of war bonds.
By the time the war ended, the Occidental was firmly rooted as one of the city’s premiere eateries. In 1924 when the city’s baseball team, the Washington Senators, beat the New York Giants in a 12-inning final game to win their first (and only) World Series, the victory banquet for the team was held at the Occidental.
In 1925, Gus Buchholz died at the age of 50. His son Frederick took over the restaurant and it continued to thrive under his management for over 20 years.
In the News: 1950s
In 1952 Fred Buchholz sold the Occidental to the Price family – a New York family with extensive restaurant experience. The new owners kept most of the original furnishings that made the restaurant the showplace Buchholz created. In the lower dining room was a monstrous black stove, the first electric stove in Washington.
A few years later, the restaurant made news when the night porter, John Francis, was discovered blindfolded, gagged and bound to a bench in the employees’ locker room. He said that as he descended into the basement someone stuck a hard object in his back, pushed him down a long hallway to the locker room and left him tied up. Police said the liquor locker, cigar counter and cashier’s office were broken into and about $1,000 of goods was stolen.
Part of History: 1960s
In the early Sixties the Occidental played a supporting role in the Cuban missile crisis. During the crisis, ABC News correspondent John Scali had lunch at the restaurant with the counselor of the Soviet embassy, Alexander Fomin. At the lunch, Fomin passed papers to Scali indicating the Soviet Union’s willingness to make a deal regarding the crisis. The papers led to the removal of the missile sites in Cuba and ended the crisis. Today, the table where this historic event took place is marked by a brass plaque which reads, “At this table during the tense moments of the Cuban missile crisis a Russian offer to withdraw missiles from Cuba was passed by the mysterious Russian ‘Mr. X’ to ABC-TV correspondent John Scali. On the basis of this meeting the threat of a possible nuclear war was avoided.”
Decline and Rebirth: The 1970s through the 1990s
By the end of the Sixties, the Occidental was losing its luster. The once hopping area along Pennsylvania Avenue had been in a slow decline. As A. Robert Smith and Eric Sevareid wrote in their 1965 book Washington: Magnificent Capital, “the old promenade was dying and no one seemed to care.”
In June 1971 the restaurant was forced to close down. And the original buildings that housed the Occidental Hotel and the Occidental Restaurant were demolished shortly after.
In the Eighties development in downtown D.C. began to boom again. In 1986, the elegance of former decades was restored to Pennsylvania Avenue with the reopening of both the Willard Hotel and the Occidental Restaurant.
The new Occidental, located just yards away from the original, featured dining areas on two floors with the extensive photo library in the downstairs grill and lobby. The Oliver Carr Company purchased the famed faces collection and the old photographs were returned to the restaurant. They included pictures of General Douglas MacArthur, John D. Rockefeller, John Philip Sousa and Gus and Fred Buchholz. Downstairs was opened as a less formal grille while upstairs featured a more formal dining area with red, plush upholstered booths and 19th-century, French-style seating and oil paintings of past presidents.
The Occidental Today
After a $2 million top-to-bottom renovation, the Occidental re-opened in January 2007 to celebrate its 100-year anniversary. A new menu by Executive Chef Rodney Scruggs features a fresh take on classic American cuisine such as White Asparagus with a Poached Egg and Black Truffle Hollandaise; and Roasted Loin of Venison with a wild blueberry grappa sauce. It’s not just the menu that’s new. To reinstate Gus Buchholz’s tradition of featuring famous faces along the walls, the Occidental unveiled a present-day series of D.C.’s most notable Fresh Faces at a Centennial Celebration in April 2007.
Today, the Occidental continues its historical tradition, providing Washington, D.C. with the best in food and hospitality. It remains a place where notables set out to eat “Where Statesmen Dine.”