This DC Bartender Has Protected the Most Political Secrets on Capitol Hill
"The Republicans were on one side of the bar and all the Democrats were on the other side and they were yelling at each other."
Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
Bartender Jim Hewes has been the man behind the stick at the Willard InterContinental's Round Robin Bar in Washington, DC since it reopened three decades ago. It's the oldest bar in the city operated at its original location, and just one block away from the White House.
Enter this bar on any given day, and you'll clink glasses with congressmen, White House staffers, and heads of state. Hewes has seen it all in his 30 years of holding court here. He's carded Johnny Depp and Harry Connick Jr., watched a bar full of drunk Republicans and Democrats yell at each other, and has even kicked back with Gerald Ford. I recently swung by the establishment to find out how he's managed to deal with impossible politicians and keep their secrets after last call.
MUNCHIES:You've been working at this very historical bar for 30 years. Howwould you describe your role as a bartender here? Jim Hewes: Anybody can put the ice in a glass, but there are so many little things that can make a difference. My Old Fashioned is basically the same Old Fashioned as it was made more than 100 years ago in Louisville, Kentucky. My Mint Julep is the same recipe that Henry Clay would have used to for somebody back in the early 1800s. There's no secret ingredient that's been flown in from the hills of eastern Turkistan. People don't care. The key to a correct cocktail is the final taste.
You must get a lot of political regulars that come in. The hotel gets a vast cross section of people from around the world. Whether it's heads of state, senators, Congressman; the captains of industry. People work all day and so you want to find out what everybody has been up to. What's going to be on the front page of the paper tomorrow? What's been happening with that HR 462 that was in front of the house? You got business people in town who are interested in that who are on both sides of the aisle politically. There are all kinds of things that come together here that are affected by a decision that's made either at 1600 Pennsylvania, Capitol Hill, or at the Supreme Court.
The fascinating thing is that people tend to think of history of the past, and not what's happening right now. But in a town like Washington, you take things are happening every minute of every day that are going to impact history in the future for granted. We're at ground zero here. We're a block from the White House. You walk out front and you look to the left and see the Capitol. It's a mile walk to the Capitol. And on a daily basis, the political, economic, and social fabric of the Nation are coming together in some way at this hotel. Not to mention at this bar.
How does that manifest among your patrons? I've had situations where I've had two or three lawyers yakking away about their case that they're arguing the next day in front of the Supreme Court and they don't realize that there are three guys on the other side of the bar that they're going to see the next day.
The Republicans [were] on one side of the room and all the Democrats on the other side, and they were yelling at each other.
When [Bill] Clinton was in the White House, he would have a big dinner on Super Bowl Sunday for all the governors in town for the governor's convention. Then the dinner would be over and you've got governors on both sides of the aisle staying at the Willard who would come into the bar. And then you'd have all the Republicans on one side of the room and all the Democrats on the other side. They'd start yelling at each other. You don't want the wrong people sitting in the hotel lobby at the same time.
Which Presidents have you served? I've never served a sitting President in office. Everybody I've ever waited on has either been prior to them going into office or after. And a lot of that has to do with image and security.
Like who? My favorite guy is Gerald Ford. He was very down to earth and funny. A guy's guy. Now, he wasn't drinking after he left office with the whole thing with his wife Betty Ford and all of that, but back in the day, he was a Scotch or a Budweiser long neck guy. He was a Navy guy.
So I take it you're still waiting for your chance at Obama? I keep trying to get the word out. C'mon over and sit and we'll talk about what's going on in China or whatever. He's been in the hotel on many occasions, as has his wife, but he's never walked into the bar and said, "Hey Jim, how ya doing?"
Do you even know when some of the big politicians are around? I've had an ex secretary of state sitting in the corner by himself. A guy who could pick up the phone and request anything and has one of the best Rolodexes in the world, and yet nobody is paying any attention to him. He'd just sit by himself.
It must be important for you to maintain that level of comfort and discretion. One of the things that people cherish here is that there is that level of relative anonymity. Somebody spends five minutes up the street doing something and it's all over the newspaper. I'll have somebody sitting in the corner for six or seven hours holding court and nobody knows about it. I've had situations where I've walked out in the lobby and I've got a couple of joint chiefs of staff, a couple of cabinet members, the Vice President, and they're here for meetings but the press isn't covering it. People know what they need to know. For the kick off of Bush Junior's reelection, the state chairmen for his reelection campaign were all flown in here for a meeting with him and nobody knew about it.
What kind of drinks are these politicians ordering? If I had a nickel for every soda water with lime that I've served an elected official... It's not like the old days, where you'd have a congressman going out with his staff, and the stories you'd know about Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd… when they were unattached and getting wild. The days of—you know—the congressman of southern California being brought into a bar on a surfboard, those kinds of things.
There still must still be some bad behavior that takes place around here? One time, we had an open bar for a fundraiser, and there was a powerful congressman from Illinois. Every time I'd see him, he'd have a bottle of Heineken in each coat pocket. You'd think he thought they were going to run out or something.
Is there anyone else that you've had to deal with beyond the political sphere? I don't watch television and I don't know who people are. I've carded Harry Connick Jr. I carded Johnny Depp, who looked like he was about ten years old. This was back when he was doing 21 Jump Street. I didn't know who he was. He was sitting with a friend of his and I looked at him and said, "Can I see some ID please?" He looked at me like I was from outer space.
At an open bar, a powerful congressman put a bottle of Heineken in each pocket. You'd think he thought they were going to run out or something.
What have you learned about people being a bartender all these years? I try not to take anything for granted. You try to put yourself in someone else's shoes. I try not to make any assumptions or judge anybody, because you just don't know what's just under the surface.
Is there anything you would do differently with your career? I'm a better bartender today than I was yesterday or ten years ago. I might not know the hottest new drink in San Francisco with all the bells and whistles and all of that, but I'm much better at what I do today than what I was. That's the way I look at it. People come in and go oh do you do tricks and stuff like Tom Cruise in that movie, and my line is "Dogs do tricks, I make drinks."
What do you wish a younger version of you had known what you now know? Sometimes in order to change, you have to say the same. Be true to yourself and get better at what you're doing. Wherever you go, there you are. Nobody cares about where you're going tomorrow or where you were last week. And take that into your interaction with somebody who's sitting right in front of you. And then you will get better, hopefully.