Tommy Jacomo opens with a joke:
Trump's got the pope on his yacht. The pope's hat flies off. It's in the water. The Secret Service is trying to get it. All the pope's people are trying to get it. Trump goes, "Hang on, hang on." He walks across the water, bends over, picks up the hat, walks back across the water, puts in on the pope's head—the pope's baffled. Next day's newspaper headline reads, "TRUMP CAN'T SWIM."
He tells it with his signature rasp and laughs hard. I laugh too—it's hard not to because of his infectious, back-slapping personality. Tommy Jacomo (pronounced JOCK-omo) is the 72-year-old general manager of the Palm steakhouse. He's been here for 44 years, and I've been granted his final interview before he heads off into retirement.
Speaking of Trump, I had to ask if the portraits of the incoming president and first lady, not to mention the Pences, would be joining the ranks of current and past commanders in chief along the wall. No controversy here, though: "They come from corporate," he explains matter-of-factly, and will probably arrive shortly after inauguration. "We'll tell them we'd like them to come in, they're really nice, stuff like that." First daughter Ivanka has already been to the Palm. "She came in for lunch, just walked right in—knock out, stunning." (Whether or not Trump will pay his respects is uncertain. After all, he does have his own steakhouse inside the Trump International Hotel.)
It's just before noon on a Friday, and we're sitting in a booth in the back room. Michael Melore, who succeeds Tommy as general manager, is giving the wait staff a pep talk before the doors open. When those doors do open, many of the guests will be coming to pay tribute to Jacomo. (In fact, midway through our conversation, Palm regular and super-lawyer Marty Mendelsohn jokingly bowed and kissed Jacomo's ring. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe stopped in the day before.)
"I just want to get it over with," Jacomo says, though he planned on staying until 9 in the evening. It's understandably a bit overwhelming, and also a bit unexpected: "I really wasn't planning on retiring this soon. I thought it was going to last another two or three years. But this happened." By "this" he means colon cancer (the surgery to remove it was a success). He also uses a portable oxygen concentrator after suffering from collapsed lungs.
This is not to say Jacomo is any less of a force or less intimidating. When I started frequenting the Palm several years ago, I purposefully did not speak to him unless spoken to. I heard about how he'd banned people from the restaurant. "Periodically," he responds with a grin. He once banned Tucker Carlson after reading a profile the journalist did for the New York Times ("Power Host to Power Brokers In the Power Capital") that rubbed him the wrong way. "I buried the hatchet—right between the shoulder blades!" he laughs, before insisting "he’s a good friend of mine now." (It reportedly took months of intercession from other Palm regulars before Jacomo relented.) GQ once ranked him 38th on its list of "Most Powerful People in D.C.," just ahead of the Heritage Foundation's Ed Feulner.
Nor is this to say Jacomo has no fear. Once he called Palm patron Charles Krauthammer "Charlie." "Charlie?" replied Krauthammer. "Nobody has ever in this town called me Charlie." Says Jacomo, "I never called him Charlie again. Scared the shit out of me."
According to John Stauch, whose 30 years of service make him the second-longest-working waiter at the Palm, Jacomo "expects us to know what we're doing, and we expect him to know what he's doing. We let him do his thing. He lets us do our thing." And if you don't know what you're doing, don't expect him to yell at you. "We know through his body language what's going on."
Jacomo concurs: He doesn't even have to raise his voice. "I just give them the stare."
Perhaps it's something he learned while growing up in New York City in the 1940s and '50s. I asked him if he related to that line by Henry Hill in Goodfellas: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Jacomo did, but soon realized that life wasn't for him. "I used to hang out with these guys in Queens. And I would see they would kill somebody or shoot somebody and then sit down and eat a big plate of linguini. And so I thought I'm not as tough as these guys." (But he did run numbers as a kid and still loves to bet on the horses.)
Hospitality was in his blood. Jacomo's father was head bartender at the Waldorf-Astoria for years, and Tommy tended bar at the New York Hilton. He'd been doing a brief stint at a ski lodge in Vermont ("Bend zee knees, watch out for the trees, $50 please") when his older brother Ray told him of an opportunity to open a Washington branch of New York's Palm steakhouse. One of the first things he needed to do was install plywood booths using a handsaw.
The D.C. restaurant scene in 1972 was grim. Forget about Minibar and Pineapple and Pearls. As Jacomo reminds me, our nation's capital didn't even have many steakhouses. "Not a lot in town then," he recalls. "Blackie's House of Beef, which was more of a family place. And the place called the Embers across the street." But there was a go-to place for Washington's VIPs: Duke Zeibert's on Connecticut Avenue.
So how does a restaurant go from a mere steakhouse to a power lunch spot for politicians and celebrities? "The key is, we first moved here in 1972. Arnold & Porter [the law firm] owned this building. And Paul Porter, God rest his soul, he loved the restaurant. ‘Give me that hash, give me that hash.' He always had the roast beef hash, two eggs. And he had all his people, all his lawyers up there, made sure they had lunch here. Of course the lawyers brought the lobbyists, the lobbyists brought the congressmen, the congressmen brought the senators, and boom, we took off."
Aside from Porter, whom Jacomo calls "one of the biggest influences of the restaurant," there was also George H.W. Bush. Then an ambassador, Bush told his friend Wally Ganzi (co-owner of the Palm) that he ought to open a steakhouse in D.C. The future president would make numerous trips to the restaurant over the years. For waiter John Stauch, it was the highlight of his career when, in 1989, he served President Bush and James Baker, among others. (Stauch remembers the president's order: shrimp cocktail, New York strip, creamed spinach, and cheesecake. Bush also gave Stauch his tie clip, which the veteran waiter still has.)
But plenty of D.C. hotspots have lost their sheen over the years: think Georgia Brown's and the now-defunct D.C. Coast. How did the Palm endure?
"The secret is the consistency of the product that we have," Jacomo replies. "You buy the best ingredients, you buy the best steak, you buy the best everything we can get our hands on."
The question Jacomo gets all the time is "How do I get on the wall." Aside from the steaks and martinis, the Palm is known for the caricatures of celebrities and regulars that adorn the walls and, over the years, even the ceiling. Corporate recently instituted a formal way to achieve this: If you accrue 15,000 Palm points (that would be $15,000), you get a portrait and a party. Otherwise, "it was always my choice," says Jacomo. "Good customers, celebrities, they come, and we can put them on the wall. But there's really no rhyme or reason. Just my mood of the day."
The advice he imparted to his successor, Michael Melore, was to be honest. "Honesty is very important in this business. You can't bullshit people. They'll see right through you. … Look people in the eye. Just be sincere. Keep a sense of humor." Adds Stauch, "Believe it or not, he taught me some patience—with my fellow workers and with customers, and he's taught me that everybody comes in here to have a good time and take advantage of it. Be a positive, the fun."
Alas, some of that positive and fun has headed off into the sunset.