It’s a rare delight when you come across fixtures in DC who seem to have just been here forever.Â They are so woven within the fabric of the community that they earn the affectionate unofficial title of “Mayor”.Â People are just attracted to them and they bring out the best qualities of those surrounding them.Â They are a beacon, but at the same time, real. Genuine.Â Their aura is special and there is a mutual respect between them and others.Â But, at the same time, you know where you stand with them. That’s the gist of what I got when I first met Tom Meyer, the President of Clyde’s Restaurant Group last year at a charity fundraiser at L2 Lounge in Georgetown.Â “Do you know who that is?” whispered my friend as he nodded toward the tall handsome gray haired gent standing nonchalantly against the bar.Â “Um, no, is he an actor or something?” L2 was infamous for “quietly” drawing in visiting celebrities at the time. Think Mark Cuban. “No, it’s Tom Meyer. Like he is the head of all of Clyde’s. He’s legendary.” Impressive for sure. We were introduced by what turns out to be a mutual friend and then I didn’t see him again until the other day when we met to talk about his story.Â Who is Tom Meyer?Â You don’t get to be President of a huge multi-million dollar hospitality group which has done nothing but grow since being founded (booming or down economy, makes no difference) and which also owns the 5th busiest restaurant in the country, that being the iconic Old Ebbitt Grill.
It’s Thursday, lunchtime.Â We meet in the bar of another bustling property, their latest opening, The Hamilton on 14th. He asks if I remember meeting him.Â I do, and I also know we are Facebook friends, as he had written on my wall reminding me of our meeting.Â With Tom, right away, there is no intimidation upon handshake.Â His energy is steady, businesslike, but accommodating.Â He asks me where we should do the interview. The restaurant’s several dining rooms are too loud and the bars are as well, not the most ideal for our conversation (which means good business) and it’s lunchtime, so it will be like this for awhile. He takes me through the kitchen to take the employee elevator down to their popular concert venue, The Hamilton Live.Â As we walk, his staff says, “Hi Tom!” like he’s not the head of the 2,000 employee company, but like he’s an uncle, a neighbor, a friend. He responds with a smile, a wave, says THEIR NAME, and sometimes even asks a question about a dish.Â It’s not a canned exchange. It’s not fake. It’s real. Genuine.
Down in the dimly lit dining/music space, he grabs us water and plops his iPad down the table.Â We talk of his background. A born and bred Long Islander, whose father died when he was 12, he is one of six kids, and he found his love of the food industry at an early age.Â “I started working in a bagel bakery”, he tells me. For seven years, he got up at 4am and worked until 8am then went straight to school.Â “Frankly,” he continued, “I thought high school was a waste of time. I really loved working though.Â Working…made me really happy.Â There’s dignity in work.”Â Tom developed not only a taste for a strong work ethic but for the food business as well.Â He describes being able to meet individuals from all over the world in the kitchen.Â There, there are no prejudices, people are speaking different languages, come from various socio-economic backgrounds and cultures, but they are there for a purpose and you learn from each other. I ask him if he was made more compassionate because of this exposure at an early age.Â He nods. We agree. People are people.
After high school, he began a 2-year hotel restaurant management program at SUNY, loving the behind the scenes, the cooking.Â Then he went onto the Culinary Institute. “That was in the late ’70′s.”Â Does he have any favorite dishes he likes to cook?Â Pasta, paella, seafood.Â We talk of how food allergies are so much more prevalent in today’s world versus back then, when cooking was just cooking. “Used to be you’d hear of a food allergy two time a year, now it’s fifty-two times a day.”
The native New Yorker stayed in Manhattan, finding the perfect combination of working as a chef during the winter in the city, a property blocks from contemporary Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles (“I didn’t have to read ‘Kitchen Confidential’, I lived it”, he laughs) and in the summer, he traveled to Nantucket and held the position of head chef at DeMarco, a popular Italian restaurant.Â He still goes back up to the island, his fondness for the getaway never ceasing.Â One day, John Latham, the founder of Clyde’s reached out to Tom in his New York apartment. John was a fan of DeMarco and wanted its head chef to come down and teach some of his staff how to make some dishes.Â So, he did.Â The stars seemed to align.Â This would be the beginning of the next chapter of Tom’s life. He and John had amazing chemistry and before Tom could ask for a job, John offered him one. He had a position for him. Tom told me as a veteran in the restaurant business, John ran things differently. “Very progressive. They had health insurance, employees worked five days a week, not seven! And there was hand soap to the sinks! Unheard of.”
Little did Tom know that this next chapter’s first position would be one of the most challenging of his life.Â Old Ebbitt Grill was to open and they needed, well, the guy to open it. Not just the chef, the manager. It was his to hire, fire, train, schedule, and run: the entire show.Â That was 1982.Â “Pamela,” he says looking at me straight in the eyes. “I was 22. And I’d only been a chef before.”Â Was it flattering that John thought he could do the job? “Yes, but it was the hardest thing I’d ever have to do. I was this close to quitting so many times. As soon as it opened, I thought, I’ll leave. But then it was up and running … and doing well. I couldn’t leave. I’d worked so hard.Â I’d struggled, but it was rewarding.”
For anyone who has been in any of the properties, including 1789 or The Tombs, or even Willow Creek Farm, you know there’s consistency.Â Tom explains that they work really hard on the culture. Every employee goes through a five day training at a center and it is imperative to treat every customer, even those celebrities, the same as even those non-celebrities. They treat their employees with respect and dignity.Â There is a flow of information. “We want to show customers ‘value’, sure it’s a loaded word, but it’s true. Good food, service and ambiance. And no one from Mishawaka, Indiana travels to DC and says, ‘show me the oldest restaurant in town!’, no they want the hot, new, hip one. So we have to continue to make our older properties, like Old Ebbitt, fresh. And we can do that with even the front staff who makes everyone who walks in feel special.”
Some of Tom’s haunts (he’s an avid acoustic guitar player, collects guitars, and loves live music “I go to almost every show at The Hamilton Live”) include 9:30 Club and the Birchmere.Â He also makes it to Jazz Fest in New Orleans every year.Â For art, he enjoys the Sackler Gallery.Â “For the pottery, I actually make pottery.”Â No longer does he have a studio, but he does love to go to Jill Hinckley, admitting with a smile that she’s his guru. This well rounded dad of two and a bulldog may be the National’s number one fan and he pulls out his iPad to show me photos of his first pitch from last week.Â “DC has enough culture, music, art, museums for me.Â But it’s still got a small town feel. Coming from New York, you never feel overwhelmed.”
We chat about the restaurant scene in DC. “The quality has only gotten better. The landscape has changed over the past five years, but it’s interesting to see how a little singly owned restaurant or bar can change a neighborhood,” referring to H Street, U/14th Streets.Â It makes these otherwise less desirable neighborhoods more liveable.Â Businesses start to open, residents start to flock. There you go, a thriving neighborhood.
I tell him I have a reservation at 1:15 upstairs, but I wanted to know which chef he’d want to sit down with and talk. Jose Andres, Tom answers.Â He references the good work the celebrity chef does in the city, nationally, globally, but he’s always, always, friendly and down to earth.Â We walk upstairs, but not before the #1 sound guy for five years waves at us. Tom gives me a quick tour of the dining room with the bird paintings. “I found this artist in New York. We commissioned him.” We say our goodbyes, he makes sure I’m set up in a nice booth.Â This time, we don’t shake hands.Â We hug.
Pamela Lynne Sorensen is the founder of Pamela’s Punch, a leading source of information for the “who, what, when, and where” of Washington, DC’s elite social, professional, and philanthropic scene, which she founded in November of 2006. In 2012 she launched Pacific Punch, based in Los Angeles. Pamela comes from an extensive background in sales and business development from a variety of industries, has been involved with charities and fundraising for a number of years and holds several Board and leadership positions. She currently resides in Arlington, Virginia and when she’s not out on the town, she’s reading or writing while sipping fine wine, or traveling the country and the world ISO adventures, beauty, fun, food, style, libations, music, and the good life. Follow her on Twitter at @pamelaspunch.