Historical Perspective: Hoyas-Terps Hoops Rivalry

Great game at Maryland last night and the less experienced Hoyas battled well in front of a Terps crowd described by announcers as the tops in Big Ten and best 2 or 3 in country. Let me give Don Dakich and Mike Tirico and Scott Van Pelt(unfortunately a Terp) some history lessons.

Yes, they had a loud full house for last night’s game, but don’t forget they have a  preseason #3 ranking and although the Hoyas have some talent it is concentrated in first and second year players . These are exactly the type of players who should be intimidated in this setting, yet started the game on a 9-0 run to quiet this crowd. Maybe the fans should have started at Bentley’s earlier in the day. Maybe they were still busy on their phones trying to cancel their bets, laying 8 points. The fans did sound louder late in the game when the Terps finally made a small lead, but I think people need a little history lesson.

The atmosphere was quite different when carnival barker and coach wannabe Lefty Driesell came to town in 1969 from Davidson. He immediately began promoting like a televangelist – proclaiming Maryland as the next UCLA of the East. This is all great if you can back it up – but you look foolish backing up a dump truck for a Kleenex tissue. He could sell Maryland to recruits and he assembled great talent, which mostly underachieved in the end. In 1969 Georgetown had a solid team and very strong in the backcourt. They made in to the NIT and suffered a heartbreaking one point loss to LSU and Pistol Pete Maravich, who was held to his lowest college point total by guards Mike Laska and Don Weber. Along the way they had only one loss in their McDonough Gym home – early in the year to St. Johns. We made a losing visit to Maryland’s Cole Field House that year and endured the phony spectacle of a red carpet rollout for Lefty to parade on with his trademark hands up “V” signs. The stands were barely half full as Lefty strode in his gaudy plaid blazer, which looked like it came from a SEC secondhand store – probably after the inebriated original owner sobered up and his wife saw it. All that aside Maryland played well and beat us without too much difficulty – I don’t remember much other than the contrived atmosphere for a legitimate athletic contest.

Next year is when this gets interesting. Lefty’s team is improved but still middling in the ACC. The Hoyas lose most of the magic of the previous year and are below middling in a lower rung of competition. But we get them at McDonough early in the year when the Hoyas have some hope – still the Terps would have been solid favorites, probably 8-10 points. Hoya fans are pretty pumped up for the game and the gym is rocking. The no name Hoyas, led by guard Tim Mercier in his best career game, kept the Terps off balance and pulled away late 96-79. The fans were a real factor – I think Lefty had some nightmares after listening to me question his intelligence and sexual identity in very vulgar terms for 90 minutes straight. In today’s climate, most of my friends and I would have been escorted from the game during warm-ups.

I know that fans today think they have an impact and maybe they do on occasions, but they can’t claim to be the cause of the end of a rivalry. Lefty was NOT coming back to McDonough Gym and by the time that Georgetown had relocated to the new Capital Center in Lefty’s backyard, there was no real impetus for either school to restart the competition – only more bad feelings in addition to the long simmering ones.

I know everyone thinks that Terps fans helped their team last night as they expect Hoya fans to do the same for their team next year at Verizon Center, but a real home court advantage is one which makes the other team unwilling to play there – ever. If you don’t believe me look it up – I was there and Maryland never came back. The closest thing to the UCLA of the East to play at McDonough was when the real UCLA team practiced there for a NCAA Tourney game. I watched that also. Contrary to Lefty’s laughable proclamation there was only ONE UCLA then and John Wooden was the coach.

I hope you enjoyed today’s history snapshot.

Chef Soper – Go Hoyas






Pope Sandwich Update

It was a little idea that caught fire and I’m happy to report that Rumors Restaurant was able to send Catholic Charities $900 for their meals programs. Unbelievable response to our sandwich from the public and great job by staff at Rumors with the follow through. All reports indicated the Pope was extremely pleased by the response to his visit in DC and I know many here were happy to “walk with Francis.”

Thanks, Chef Soper

Saratoga 2015, Part I

I apologize for being very late with updates from the annual Pony Players Party Express to the Spa this past Labor Day weekend. The Pope Sandwich Media Tour and a trip to Hilton Head with old friends/troublemakers affected my writing schedule. The Saratoga wagering action was huge as usual, but the social scene and many sightings of old friends made it a truly memorable time.

Because of the continued demise of Siro’s -which I will explore in detail in a future post- our trip officially began with Bloody Mary’s at the bar of The Horseshoe Friday morning. Our bartender was Michele Patsos, wife of Sienna B-Ball coach Jimmy and an excellent cook who has attempted(by all reports successfully) more recipes from my book than anyone else. The Pony Players were all in attendance, including Bill Valis, Baretta, Boomer, Tom Markey, Marie and myself. New Florida émigré Danny Scalurati was recovering from the previous evening’s open containers of vodka but met us later in the track. While the breakfast that day was solely liquid, Boomer, Marie and I enjoyed the solid variety Sunday morning on their patio. Michele was kind enough to get one of my books for the chef – thus keeping the bar/kitchen relationship positive and friendly. I hope to hear some of their stories next year – I think the chef definitely has good ones – and after years off my radar the Horseshoe Bar is back in the mix.

On to the track – and a sighting of Mike Burke and his wife Martha. We saw them briefly at the Jim Dandy bar on the first floor but the next day they ventured upstairs to our dining room in the second floor of the Clubhouse. They were seated at a table for four: Mike, Martha, and two large buckets of beers. Mike was happy with this setup but unhappy he just lost a close race. But in a “good karma and welcome to Saratoga” moment the stewards changed the results to make Mike a winner. Although, as horseplayers we seem to lose three quarters of all the 50-50 decisions, sometimes we don’t and this was one of those rare times for Mr. Burke.

He hadn’t always been lucky in his previous New York racing experiences. I saw him a year earlier in DC and he expressed disappointment with a visit to Finger Lakes Racetrack. I’m from Rochester, NY and familiar with FL, so while not surprised with Mike’s assessment I couldn’t figure how he ended up there. Evidently his travel plans had kept him away from Saratoga so he wrongly figured that a detour to the more geographically desirable Rochester track with the scenic name would be okay. At that point it was too late to correct his faulty decision so I just listened to his tale of woe. Burke loves to drink at the track and the new faux-Vegas racino style Finger Lakes clubhouse would lead you in that direction anyway. Unfortunately his first bartender was a dour female needing dental work and her bar was located in the noisier section near the casino. Horseplayers crave action but need an atmosphere to analyze the races – even Burke. So he moved upstairs to a quieter bar only to discover that after two beers the track policy was to have the guest pay the check and then the bartender would start another if you were deemed sober enough to continue. This system may have worked for most horseplayers – many are like myself and rarely drink while wagering. However, for Burke this meant having to pay five checks in an hour, assuming the bartender could keep pace with Mike. It didn’t matter – after a little more than an hour of this drink and dance act Mike was asked to leave the track. That’s a good business plan: throw out your best customer – I’ve seen the clientele at this dump of a track and Burke towers over the lot in style, wit, charisma, teeth and hair – enough said. So it ends well a year later with Burke finally where he should have been all along and being on the good end of a steward’s decision.

Soon after we saw Burke at Saratoga my old friend Dave DeCerbo showed up unannounced at out table. Dave and his late father had introduced me to their beloved Saratoga some 45 years earlier and he is an expert at finding friends at the track. We hadn’t seen him for several years but he heard about my book and had already purchased a few copies. We were able to catch up on things and joined him and his terrific wife Linda for wine, dinner and fun conversation later. He had created a host of new racing fans in his office by hitting a Derby superfecta for the group two years earlier, which only confirms my thought that he should be commissioner of horse racing. He also still has the bridle worn by Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes and plans to give it to the Racing Hall of Fame in 2023 – the 50 year anniversary of that Triple Crown victory.

But he really floored me with a story I hadn’t heard. For various reasons hockey players seem to follow horse racing. Former NHL great Ed Olczyk currently does TV broadcasts for both sports. When the coach of the current Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, Joel Quinvelle, was a player years ago he regularly sat in reserved seats next to Dave’s dad in the Saratoga stands .Mr. DeCerbo was not a big bettor but always had informed opinions and I’m sure Joel loved interacting with knowledgeable fans such as him. One day there was a big Pick-6 carryover and Joel put together a pretty big ticket. Apparently Mr. DeCerbo had a strong opinion in the last race, which Joel respected. As it turned out the NHL’er was alive to the last race on his ticket but only had one horse chosen – the one favored by Dave’s dad. If you know him then you know that his nickname – Mr. Longshot – was no fake. Dave’s dad did not favor favorites; he knew, and helped me understand over time, that the public’s choice in a race was rarely worth the investment. The vagaries of Saratoga made it imperative to search out the less likely horses and find one who could win despite the long odds. So I’m sure the horse recommended to Mr. Quinvelle was not a favorite and thus more likely to produce a big payoff in the wager. Needless to say the chosen horse won gate to wire and the hockey great probably enjoyed as big a day you could have – short of a Stanley Cup.

Back to work on Part II with appearances by Tony Walsh, Bernie Poirier, Davis Mead and others.

Chef Soper




The Big Apple and The Pope Sandwich

We made a trip Monday to NYC for a Fox News Live show about papal themed foods. Rumors in DC is currently featuring my creation – The Pope Sandwich – as a special to honor the visit from Pope Francis. Owner Dick Tolbert is donating some proceeds to Catholic Charities meal programs. Father Ken Gill and his friends at St. Matthews are supporting the promotion as well. We started it last Wednesday and by Thursday afternoon I was speaking with a Fox producer about plans to make the sandwich in NYC Monday , two days ago.

So after an agonizing delay in transit, my Amtrak train arrived at 11:00 AM and we needed a quick cab ride to arrive at the Fox Studios by 11:15. Everyone there was friendly and helpful, especially since I couldn’t figure how to use the elevator to reach the 14th floor. I felt like Gomer Pyle attempting to work a particle accelerator – they have no buttons inside, just a keyboard in the lobby to punch in your floor number; the elevator letter is then displayed and you enter that elevator and it automatically takes you to your selected floor – cool but confusing in the frenzy to get there on time.

We immediately encounter DC connections – on site producer Sky McCarthy is a daughter of local newswoman Lark McCarthy and host Ali Rosen’s husband is a G-Town grad. The segment went very well and all the crew enjoyed the sandwiches I prepared for the show. anyone can access the video on FoxNews.com under the Lifestyle heading and scrolling for the papal themed food video, which runs about five minutes. It will be highlighted throughout the weekend on the website.

I should describe the sandwich: Chimichurri Marinated Grilled Chicken Breast with Melted Provolone and Arugula on a Ciabatta Roll with Holy Land Relish served with Potato Chips – the flavors reflect the Pope’s makeup with a mix of South America, Italy and the Holy Land.

Now it was time to relax in Manhattan and Marie and I headed straight to the restored Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station for a lunch of oysters, clams, scallops and beer – great food and memories of many trips there for me in the 1970’s and 1980’s. With more time to kill before returning to DC we decided to try Bobby Vans on E. 54th and see how it compares to our DC branch and top bartenders Cochise and Mike. Bartender Connor is a solid pro and kept our glasses full while providing interesting conversation and local color. He has been there three years and seemed to have a firm grip on the situation – as well as attracting an interesting group of regulars. He also informed me that my standard drink – Tito’s, Soda and splash of OJ – is called a “Sully” there. Most bartenders in DC don’t need a name to make my preferred drink – they just make it and ask questions later. However, I may use Sully’s name on occasion and discuss it with him when we meet someday.

I know DC is considered a big city but New York is still amazing and truly the Big Apple. I’m trying to run interference on the sidewalk for Marie to walk behind me – it was lunchtime in midtown. Of course Connor is lamenting how dead the streets are because of the Jewish holiday and Marie and I are barely able to negotiate the crowded sidewalk. But he’s been there seven years now after moving from Wisconsin and has become a real New Yorker – he lives across the river in Sunnyside and makes it to work quicker than the trip from Old Town to downtown DC in rush hour. So Washington has that dubious quality over Manhattan, while their Bobby Vans locations outnumber ours by 3-1.

So, to summarize we left DC at 6:20 AM and returned at 11:00 PM – in between we did a TV show, had lunch, drank some happy hour cocktails while wagering online on Kentucky Downs races and took a few cabs around town. Pretty good road trip.

I’m supposed to do some additional Pope Sandwich promos this week – maybe the local news channels – but will try to write a post next week about our Saratoga trip over Labor Day. I will be signing and selling my book at the Celtic Festival in Shirlington Saturday afternoon and the following weekend at the Baltimore Book Festival in the Inner Harbor.

Stop by Rumors for a Pope Sandwich and Walk With Francis.

Chef Soper


Road Trip

I tried to put a lot into the last post since we are going to Saratoga for five days with the Pony Players Party Express – Vinny Baretta, Boomer, Bill Valis, and  Tom Markey make up the main group for the Labor Day weekend. We may see guest appearances by Danny Scalurati, Tony Kotler, Ron Beal,  Mike Burke and wife Martha. Too much going on to craft a coherent post – hope to have some new material from the events this weekend.

Chef Soper

The Bartender – Customer Dance Routine: The Drink Ordering Process

Sorry I’m a little behind on the post but the Saratoga races are keeping me busy – many betting opportunities which require proper study. I’d like to examine some of the facets of ordering a drink, whether it is a customer, employee, owner or even the seemingly simple act of making a drink for oneself. Georgetown veteran Vince O’Donnell expressed it best: “Keep them light and keep them coming.” Often bartenders poured a larger drink for preferred customers as a perk, but like many of us Vince enjoyed the interaction with the ‘tender and the larger drink caused longer consumption times, which delayed that follow-up conversation. Most regulars drank with a repeated pattern, but certain customers had a random flight plan for their cocktail trip, a path which prevented the bartender from replacing finished drinks in a robotic manner.

A waiter from the Kennedy Center named Tony was a great bar customer at Marshall’s but confounded analysis of his beverage dance card. He could jump from cocktails such as martinis or manhattans to J. Walker scotch to wine with a meal. After his dinner he could move to Irish Coffee, cognac or another liqueur. He often had the stamina to continue full circle and back to the pre – dinner scotch, but with the occasional rough end. One such night he attempted to leave by the back but needed to stop in the walk-in for a break. Unfortunately Danny and Tuffy lost track of him and locked up for the night, which included the walk-in where Tony had camped. The day kitchen staff were treated to a different sight the next morning when they opened – at least Tony was cool and rested for the day. It was interesting to watch Dan make Tony’s drink assortment, since he had more variety in his orders than Tony ever considered – even when Danny and Tuffy et.al. decided to take a break and climb “on the wagon.” They took a few liberties with the concept – shooters and cream drinks didn’t count as alcohol. This regimen soon led to the creation of a new cocktail, “The Gorilla Tonic,” which consisted of the white liquors, Kahlua and cream shaken on ice. At best this seemed to be an evil combination of a Long Island Iced Tea and a White Russian and at worst a Class 3 felony in certain jurisdictions.

Ordering drinks was usually easy but stopping the process could be a problem – if your customers were the Black Watch. This infamous Scottish fife and drum infantry group was appearing at the Kennedy Center and therefore were drinking at Marshall’s after the event. They were doing a good job reducing the bar inventory and then closing time tried to interfere with the fun. Two thirty in the morning was to this group of professional and passionate drinkers like noon to a bunch of lifeguards – they were just hitting their stride. Bartender and owner both decided that they were not arguing with these Highlanders, whose motto was: “No one provokes me with impunity.” So the bar stayed open and relative peace ensued. When they finally departed much later that morning the bar at Marshall’s resembled one of the historic regiment’s many battlefields –  except the dead soldiers here were empty bottles.

Bartenders deal with a diverse clientele and although the customer is always right, the bartender decides who is considered a customer. During a busy fall Saturday, legendary Georgetown vagrant Sky King hit on a winning plan to become a pseudo-customer. Although he was often high on drugs and alcohol, that day Sky possessed enough lucidity to attempt the purchase of a drink at the bars of Clyde’s and Nathan’s –  he had succeeded at this endeavor in the past when the bar was empty and the staff in a generous mood.. He had managed to clean up enough to gain entrance even though he was well known to the busy bartenders – Wingo and Dickie Webber. They realized that any time they wasted this day while trying to escort him away from their bars would cause a loss in service to their many customers and tips would suffer accordingly. The simple solution was to give Sky King a ten dollar bill and tell him to go get a drink elsewhere. The homeless entrepreneur was able to accomplish this ten dollar misdemeanor blackmail several times before the distracted bartenders finally phoned each other and realized they were the victims. By then Sky King had taken his tips for not being a customer and made a volume purchase at Dixie Liquor for a liquid picnic under Key Bridge on a beautiful afternoon.

Sometimes it can be an effort to get a drink, even if you work there. There has always been a battle for the waiter to get the bartender’s attention away from his customers and make drinks for the tables. Luckily at Nathans, the day bartender Jumps was always near his bar phone – in case of calls from the customers of his other business. When in great need the waiters could call the bar phone and place the drink order for their tables. Joe Bolivia told me of a waiter years ago who went to greater lengths for his tables. At that prehistoric time, many bars operated on a strict cash and carry system and the waiter was required to comply as well. He would take the order and place it with the service bartender and pay the amount in cash before serving the drinks to the table; this meant he had to get the cash from the customer first. It was a complicated process which kept the cash register correct and the owner happy. This particular waiter got smart and would leave the bar, go across the street to the Legion Post and buy beers at a cheaper rate. Then he would charge the customer the bar ‘s price and pocket the difference – as long as the bar area was very busy and no one noticed his delivery system.

Even when the bartender made his own drink it was not always a smooth preparation. Class Reunion bartender Dennis Reilly had a unique requirement for his simple scotch on the rocks; he wanted fresh ice, which meant the busboy had to take Dennis’ glass and hold it in the ice machine until a new batch of cubes was pressed. He loved fresh ice for the scotch but needed the busboy to wait for the glass to catch the machine’s newest product. Fortunately his customers were happy with the ice already resting behind the bar. The Third Edition featured a short lived, crazy bar tandem of Carlos Meyer and Tony Walsh on Sunday nights. When unsuspecting customers ordered certain drinks, Carlos would make shots for the two bartenders to down before proceeding to the customer’s order. Things would proceed smoothly for a while then someone would make another request on Carlos’ secret list and Tony would have to have another shot with his partner. My strategy was to arrive near the beginning of their shift, grab a good spot to observe and watch the festivities until collateral damage from their cocktails finished my evening.

You would think that the owner would have a clear path to placing and receiving the order. In the 1970’s, Saturday lunch at Chadwick’s in Georgetown was pretty slow in the summer. Owner Mike Kirby would bring his young son occasionally – they could eat at the bar without the usual madness there and his son considered it a big treat. One beautiful Saturday I was working the bar with a waiter, busboy and cook. We had served fewer than 10 customers during lunch and no one for over an hour. We were very bored and the night staff was not due for at least another hour. So what to do but assemble at a nice table set with cold beers and a deck of cards – then put champagne buckets on our heads while we dealt hands of Indian Head Poker. This is a game which can only be tolerated if the players are drinking, preferably heavily. Each player puts a card to his forehead so the others can see it – everyone sees all cards except their own and we bet who has the highest card on their head. After a few hands and a lot of laughter Mike Kirby and his son enter the bar and see no one working until they look back in the dining room and see the insanity at table number five. He just shook his head and they left quietly. We never heard a word from Mike directly, but manager Dennis Brown did have a pep talk with each of us in the next week. The next lunch order at the bar for Mike and family was very orderly.

Finally a story on the difference between a bartender and a mixologist in today’s bar world. Top DC bartender Jim Ross has worked from the early days in Georgetown at Clyde’s to his long tenure at the elegant K St. steakhouse, The Prime Rib. A regular posed that question to him and he responded with the details of a recent night at a trendy restaurant bar in town. He was early for a dinner with friends and sat at the empty bar. The heavily tattooed, young bartender patiently ignored him several minutes, then gave up and approached Jim for his drink order. Jim asked for a Vodka Negroni on the rocks – sounds fancy but just Vodka, Campari and Sweet Vermouth over ice. This young mixologist then went through an overwrought process: tonging oversized ice cube into shaker; pouring all 3 liquors into jiggers before adding; shaking the mix instead of the proper stirring technique; straining into a inappropriate glass with another large cube. So Jim says: Mixologist – 10 minute prep time, improper technique and $20 cost; Bartender – 3 minute prep time, proper technique and $12 cost. We’re getting old here – just make the drink and given the choice I’d like a Bartender to make mine.

Thanks, Chef Soper


Greatest Horseman of Our Time – With a Story From Tony Walsh

Just a brief racing interjection – RIP John Nerud of Tartan Farm – 102 years young

Trainer of Dr. Fager, Tawee, Gallant Man

Owner – Breeder of Cozzene, Fappiano

If you disagree – prove me wrong.

Chef Soper, chefsoper@starpower.net

I want to add a postscript/personal remembrance from Tony Walsh, who agreed with my assessment of John Nerud.

In the early 1970’s Tony was recently out of the Army and home in Albany awaiting the start of a fall construction job. He was able to get an August job at the track as a Pinkerton Security guard and  was stuck with the late shift from 11:00 PM – 7:00 AM. Overnight, the guards were mostly deployed on the backstretch and watched the barns, especially since Secretariat was stabled there that summer. When the Oklahoma Training Track opened early in the morning, the guards would help direct traffic at the track entrance, making sure the horses made it safely from their stables.

One morning Tony was on duty at the track entrance when Mr. Nerud was bringing in his small string of ponies on the back of his lead horse. Tony was pretty young and full of himself at that point in life –  well before he picked up all his social skills from the bar business. But he had a chance to interact with many of the early morning workers, from trainers to jockeys and their agents. He had settled in to the routine and totally loved the track atmosphere. He had befriended a large, hands-on horseman from South Carolina, who worked several jumpers for races at Saratoga. He had a giant station wagon which the guards used for an occasional late night nap – it was probably the only type of car that could hold the trainer’s immense frame. The jumpers were the primary workers on the training track although a few flat runners also used it.

As I said, Mr. Nerud was leading a small group of flat runners for a work – it was quiet and Tony was stationed at the entrance. The trainer shouted down to him to move away from the entrance. Tony had been in this spot for several weeks and felt confident in his ability to keep this area safe. He waved the trainer to go through, but Mr. Nerud  again yelled at him to move away. Tony said “Don’t worry, I’m Ok.” Mr. Nerud sternly replied “I’m not worried about you – just my horses.” At this point, before Tony started to ask this horseman who he thought he was, he felt the meat hook of a hand belonging to the South Carolina trainer, Archie Kingsley, attached to his shoulder. Archie told him to shut up and move away – “We like you Tony, but don’t mess with Mr. Nerud – you’re lucky he hasn’t had you removed from the grounds already this morning.”

It was a good learning experience for Tony early in his working career – you have to know who is really in charge. John Nerud was all about the horses and was able to maintain that philosophy and focus for decades. He learned early in his career from the great Calumet Farms trainer, Ben Jones:”Keep ’em happy, keep ’em fat, feed ’em good, and work ’em a half mile and they’ll win in spite of you.” He may have even been a better breeder and you can trace Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to his sire Fappiano, who’s dam Killaloe was a daughter of his immortal Dr. Fager.

Read Jay Hovdey’s articles from the DRF archives on Mr. Nerud – you will not argue with my opinion of Mr. Nerud – just as Tony learned not to argue with him.


Tipping Stories

Bob Bastedo was nice enough to send some celebrity tip stories via Pete Bergen. I’ll quote his comments exactly as received:

Waiting tables at Tony&Joe’s I served Bob Hope. He was an asshole and left a shitty tip.

Jay-Z and Beyoncé would frequent a place I worked here in New York. They would start at the bar, move to a table when their party arrived, transfer their tab and Jay-Z would palm me a $100.

Courtney Love stiffed me but flashed me her tits.

Raquel Welch gave me $100 on a $50 tab plus a hug and a kiss. I was useless after that.

Tiki Barber, 10%, and a regular.

Shaquille O’Neal was a regular at Uncle Jack’s. Never sat at the bar but always made it a point to come by and shake hands and say hello .Shaking hands with Shaq is like holding hands with my dad when I was 3. He never knew my name but always called me “big Man”, which is ironic.

Howard Stern, very quiet, very polite and a generous tipper.

Yoko Ono. Wanted desperately to dislike her, but I couldn’t. Sweet as can be. VERY generous  and a hug.

Leonardo Di Caprio. With three other people. Bill was $500 and change. He dropped 10 C-notes on the bar, said “Fair enough?” I said “Absolutely.” Plus this was years ago, he was still dating Gisele Bundchen. Up close and in person she is every bit as stunning as you would imagine.

Pawnshop Rosslyn, circa 1989, Marion Barry, five Remy XO’s and a meal. Tip – zip, zero, zilch.


Thanks to Bob for those memories. We all have had many similar ones locally and I will try to put some together soon. It’s never only the money that makes it memorable – it’s how the perception often differs from reality and our own personal biases. Each of us had customers who didn’t fall into neat categories: nice guy but bad tipper; annoying person but great tipper; interesting public persona outside but totally boring and lame at the bar; mundane job and career but life of the party, probably helped by a d few drinks. That was always a big chunk of the job’s appeal – you saw people at their best and worst without much warning either way.

Chef Soper





Out in Saratoga with Trainers and Jockeys – and Stewards?

Part of the appeal of Saratoga for the horseplayer is the proximity to the sport’s great trainers and jockeys. Not only do you see trainers in the clubhouse boxes but the jockeys parade before each race from their quarters through the outside public area on the way to the saddling enclosure. However, that’s just part of the story –  the entire dynamic continues nightly in the town’s many dining rooms, such as Sperry’s, Siro’s and the venerable Wishing Well just north of downtown. It’s more likely than not that you will be seated next to a trainer, jockey or owner. I was reminded of one of our favorite nights after watching the track honor some of the great older jockeys between races today.

We were having dinner in the bar at Pennell’s Restaurant with DC friend and bartender T-Bird. It was a lively Saturday evening after a big race day featuring several stakes races. This was in the 1990’s and there were about two working taxis in town, as opposed to the many available today. The manager had called a cab for us but we had been waiting 45 minutes without any appearance. We went back in to the bar to try calling again when the manager mentioned that a  gentleman from a group just leaving would be happy to drop us at our hotel.

This group had been celebrating the great fortune of one family member – the jockey Jorge Chavez. He was a solid jockey at the time but was especially pleased to record his first victory in a Grade One Stakes at Saratoga that day. This win validated his up and coming stature in the jockey community and he stayed a top rider in New York for years, earning the nickname “Chop Chop” for his perceived aggressive style. In actuality, his arms were pretty short for even a jockey and it looked like he moved them more excitedly than he actually did. His brother, who mirrored Jorge’s frame, was the wheelman and the four of us greeted each other. On the way to their car we congratulated Jorge on the day’s success and they could not have been more friendly. Of course they are driving a giant Cadillac and as we got into the back seat, they both basically disappeared from sight in the front. On the dark unlit streets. I feared someone who was over served that night would notice our large sedan cruising with two people in the back and no visible occupant driving the vehicle. It was a great Saratoga experience and should remind all that jockeys are regular people who may be small in size but have big hearts.

The next story involves a trainer, a jockey’s ex-wife and a very overrated restaurant. The restaurant was Sergio’s – an Italian hot spot favored for a few years by many gamblers and racetrackers. It may have been located near The Wishing Well restaurant, but was far removed from that Saratoga favorite in professionalism. Five of us waited patiently one evening – and only one evening – for our reserved table to be ready amid a fairly chaotic throng on the patio. Finally we were seated and although we ordered some wine to help calm down, no glasses were available to go with the carafes of house red and white. It took at least 15 minutes for the glasses to appear and then after ordering food we discovered the plates and silverware must have been hiding with the clean glassware.

All the service mishaps continued and we couldn’t order wine quick enough to ease the pain. But it gets worse – a woman who seemed to be some sort of useless representative of the business kept squeezing through too tight spaces between the tables. She concentrated on a table next to ours, which caused her overabundant posterior to spill over our table. We later learned she was Angel Cordero’s ex-wife, which made him better off than us at that point. The man at her table of interest turned out to be trainer Peter Walder, who was beginning his rise to the top of his profession then. Luckily he turned out to be a very nice man, since the former Mrs. Cordero had decided to clear his table by dropping his used plates onto our table. Soon she became distracted and moved to the next victim of her attention. Mr. Walder apologized for her conduct before personally removing his dirty dishes now in our possession. Our companions at the table had evidently been drinking enough earlier to cloud their vision so they basically missed all this action – Danny was only worried about getting the last piece of cheesecake in the house and after that worked in his favor, he decided it had been a perfectly lovely dining experience. But once again a racetrack professional was shown to be a truly classy individual.

The last story took place at the patio bar of Hatties’ after dinner hours. Our DC friend Bernie was working the bar at that time and had a good crowd drinking and having fun. As it grew later and the crowd thinned, I noticed two guys at the bar that had obviously been there much longer than us and were engaged in deep conversation with Bernie. Unfortunately the language they spoke was a mystery to myself and anybody that hadn’t been boozing for hours. They would not have been drunker if Trader Vic had been working with Bernie on “Free Drink Night.” They slowly stumbled their way out of Bernie’s bar and I had to ask him who they were. The racetrack employs three stewards to handle various problems which arise during race days – these guys were two of the three. I guess one of them has to stay sober each night and these customers were the two stewed stewards. God knows what they were discussing with Bernie, but I doubt anyone remembered any details the next day. I hope their vision was clear enough the following afternoon to analyze the fine details of any roughly run races.

Great racing so far this year in Saratoga – good luck.

Chef Soper – Chefsoper@starpower.net





Serving Food “At The Bar”

This is a brief update to the Acknowledgement page in my book. I wanted to list many of the bartenders who did a great job selling food at their bars. Most on the list were from earlier times – when I was a more frequent customer in town. I recently witnessed an effort which merits a mention. I was at Chad’s in Friendship Heights during a busy happy hour at the bar when Pete Bergen caught a request which would have ruined many a bartender’s good mood. I worked with Pete briefly in Old Town but don’t get to Chad’s often in the evening.

A regular asked Pete for 2 egg white omelets with wheat toast. Pete now had to analyze the whole situation quickly: customer’s status, kitchen staffing and ability to execute this mistimed order and the current level of business. He then checked with the chef and gets the okay to proceed. About 10 minutes later the two breakfast plates arrive amidst the wings and beers already populating the bar top. Although the order annoyed me while I sat nearby, the staff and Pete in particular pulled it off without any apparent collateral damage.

To me that’s a professional bartender handing a tricky situation in a cool manner.

Chef Soper