Entrepreneur, Active Citizen, Neighbor, Hoya: Jeffrey Gildenhorn Reflects on his Experience
in DC and Chevy Chase

Jeffrey Gildenhorn: Oral History

 

8 March 2015

American City Diner, Chevy Chase, District of Columbia

Interviewer: Carl Lankowski

 

Q: Let’s start with your family.

 

JG: That’s a good start. Where the Starbucks is today, at the corner of Livingston and Connecticut, started out as the Circle Liquors in 1939, owned and operated by my grandfather. When he passed away in 1942, my father took over the store. I was a senior at Georgetown University in 1965, the year my father passed away. After I graduated, I took over the family business. Following the move in 1965, two banks in succession occupied the old location and subsequently failed. Starbucks came in after that.

 

In 1973, I moved the store across the street into the new building there. I modernized the business at that point, introducing wines and cheeses. I was a retailing pioneer in serving the Chevy Chase community in that respect. In 1978 the National Institutes of Health did a study on foods that were good for the heart or not good for the heart. The primary discovery was that fish was excellent for the heart, but meat was not. Registering that, when a store two doors up from mine became vacant, I envisioned putting a fish market in that spot. It was the only one in the area aside from Cannon’s in Georgetown. It took off like crazy, responding to the very well educated community of Chevy Chase. The neighbors patronized the market and it was a roaring success.

 

At that time, there were only two restaurants in this area. The Piccadilly was located in the space now occupied by The Parthenon. And there was the Chevy Chase Lounge, two doors up from the corner. We were void of restaurants for the public.

 

Q: You owned the building where the fish market went in?

 

JG: I am a partner in the building. I had the idea of putting the market in and The Fishery was the result, opening in 1979. It has been very successful, attracting people not only from Chevy Chase, but also from all over the city, in business from 1979 to 1992.

 

Also during that period, we opened up an Italian restaurant in that block, Rossini’s, which was also successful. Over the years, I sold off each of these entities, in order to concentrate on the present entity, the American City Diner. It was the revival of a genre, the first diner constructed since 1952.

 

Q: So, the fish store now operated by the Korean family is the descendent of the store you established?

 

JG: That’s right. I sold them that entity. Then there was the seafood restaurant I set up right next to the market—it was a natural fit, with the fresh fish next door.

 

Q: Before we get to the American City Diner, let’s return to your family.

 

JG: Actually, I just wrote a book, not yet published, City Ties: A Washington DC Story, that covers some of this ground, from 1950 to the present. It talks about my family, about the ventures I have been in, my relationship with Marion Barry, my relationship with the governor, my role on the boxing commission and in bringing baseball back to Washington.

 

My dad came to this country when he was six years old from Poland. My mom came to this country when she was 14 years old from Winnipeg, Canada. Once here, my father attended McKinley Tech and went on to George Washington University. My mom attended Western High School, nowadays the Duke Ellington High School of Fine Arts.

 

My dad went to work at the Bituminous Coal Commission [established under the Bituminous Coal Conservation Act of 1935], but then took over the family business when my grandfather died. We were brought up in Washington DC’s Shepherd Park neighborhood. The Gildenhorns are a small family, but well known in the city. My cousin, Joseph B. Gildenhorn, was the former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland (1989-1993). Another cousin, Stanton Gildenhorn, was well known in Democratic Party circles. My brother, Harry S. Gildenhorn, is a successful dentist in Rockville, Maryland.

 

Q: When did your dad arrive in the United States?

 

JG: I think it must have been in 1921; he was only six years old then.

 

My 50-year business career has been confined mostly to Chevy Chase DC, though I have been involved in some ventures elsewhere in the city. I have had six different businesses over the years in this one-block swath of Chevy Chase.

 

Q: Why Chevy Chase? It all grew out of Circle Liquors?

 

JG: Well, necessity is the mother of invention. As an entrepreneurial and creative type of guy, I was able to attract a lot of media attention in realizing my ideas here. My business ventures led eventually, in 1990, to involvement in local politics. They mayor saw how creative I was and appointed me to the DC Development Corporation, an association for small business owners. Five years after that, the mayor appointed me to the Boxing and Wrestling Commission. After serving for two years as assistant commissioner, I was appointed chairman. My duties were to bring boxing and wrestling to the city in all its forms. I was a great success in that position, bring to Washington the first major prize fight since heavyweight champion Joe Louis faced Buddy Baer in 1941.  After that, I was involved in baseball, in talks for a $65 million deal with Ted Turner to bring the Atlanta Braves to Washington. The talks did not succeed, but they opened the door to eventually bringing a major league team, the Nationals, to DC.

 

Q: I couldn’t help but take note of the fact that, like me, you attended Georgetown University. What made you choose that institution?

 

JG: What made me go there is that I was a poor student, ironically. When I graduated from high school…

 

Q: Where did you attend high school?

 

JG: Coolidge High School. My grades were very average. To tone up my grades, I needed to take a prep course before being accepted to college.  I took that course at Bullis School, a very tough, private school then. There was a night program designed to help young men get into the top colleges. I did very well at Bullis and applied to colleges after that—to Georgetown and the University of Miami. I was all set to go to the University of Miami, but then my father told me I was going to Georgetown. But I had been accepted at Georgetown on a conditional basis. If I enrolled in summer school courses and did well, I would be accepted in the fall. I did that, did well, and was accepted.

 

Q: You started in 1961?

 

JG: I think it was 1962, after a year at Bullis.

 

Q: Reflect for us on your experience at Georgetown.

 

JG: They set the standard for what higher education is all about. All the young men were required to wear coats and ties to school. There were very few women at that time. I am of the Hebrew faith and was very well accepted, making lots of friends there. It was a great environment. We had the 1789 restaurant and the Tombs underneath it. There was Charlie Wisemiller’s Grocery & Deli and a club called Tehan’s next door. My experience at Georgetown: it was a no-nonsense school providing a good education, great people. Many years later after graduating I developed a fond friendship with Georgetown President Reverend Father Healey. As an alumnus and friend, he invited me to Georgetown’s Villa le Balze in Fiesola, overlooking Florence, Italy.

 

Q: when was that?

 

JG: It was in the 1980s. Later, Georgetown honored me with an invitation to hear former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, speak at the Madison Hotel downtown at a formal luncheon, on the topic of the U.S.-Soviet arms race. There were other invitations, too—for example to hear Georgetown faculty member and U.S. Representative to the United Nations, Jean Kirkpatrick. When Professor Jan Karski was honored in the late 1980s for his role in alerting the world through President Roosevelt to the Holocaust as it was unfolding, I was invited to the award ceremony at the Israeli Embassy. Karski was my teacher at Georgetown. Georgetown is not just a school. Georgetown has been part of my life far beyond my undergraduate years there.

 

Q: We have more in common than Georgetown in general—I was also a student of Jan Karski.   He did not at all trumpet his Holocaust witnessing and reporting role.

 

JG: That was my experience with him, too. All the more surprised was I when the award was made at the Embassy of Israel. But Georgetown was a great experience. There were places for students to work part-time, like The Shadows, Pall Mall, and others. It was DC’s hotspot in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

Q: I remember the Crazy Horse…

 

JG: Right. The Crazy Horse, the Cellar Door. An amazing variety of restaurants and clubs. Then there were the Kennedys. Senator John and Mrs. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy also made Georgetown what it was when I was there.

 

Q: Did you ever bump into the Kennedys on the street then?

 

JG: No, but I was present in 1961 when President Kennedy threw out the first ball at the Washington Senators season opener. I have to tell you that he was such a handsome man, self-assured and connected to the crowd. I felt fortunate that we had him as president and had the experience of seeing him in person.

 

Q: How was it to be Jewish at Georgetown back then?

 

JG: If you’re Catholic, you are brought up in a Catholic community; if you are Jewish, you are brought up in a Jewish community. There really isn’t that much interaction until you mesh at a certain point in life. We came together at Georgetown, products of Catholicism and of Judaism. The Catholic and Jewish boys got along well. It was fine, great. I was accepted like everybody else. It was a good bunch of guys there.

 

Q: Where you still living in Shepherd Park at that point?

 

JG: No. After my dad passed away in 1965, my mom moved to the Colonnade Apartments in Glover Park. I lived in an apartment in Silver Spring and commuted to school from there and later to go to work. Eventually, I bought a town house closer to Chevy Chase. Now I live on Ellicott Street.

 

Q: Was the family religious?

 

JG: Yes. We belonged to a conservative congregation.

 

Q: What Synagogue did you attend?

 

JG: It was B’ai Israel near the corner of 16th and Crittenden Streets.

 

Q: What sort of influence did your religious background have on your life?

 

JG: It’s pretty comprehensive: in Judaism, like the Christian faith, you are encouraged to love one another, respect one another, work with one another.

 

Q: The demographic trajectory of Washington is interesting. In the 1950s when you were growing up in Shepherd Park was it mainly a community of white families?

 

JG: What I remember is that in our neighborhood we were predominantly Jewish families. Starting in the late 1950s when integration took hold, families began selling their homes to Negroes and you had blacks and whites living side-by-side. To this day it is an integrated community. There are some beautiful homes there, as nice as it has ever been. It is part of what was known as the Gold Coast.

 

Q: The welcome by Chevy Chase DC accorded to Jews and blacks has been, like many DC neighborhoods, uneven over time. What are your impressions?

 

JG: I saw no problem when I was a kid. As for Chevy Chase, it was broadly unproblematic. As a matter of fact, before I ever went into the liquor business, there were three other stores on the block in the 1950s. There was Spund’s market, High’s store, and another liquor store, Sullivan’s. Sullivan’s was owned by Irish Catholics. Our Jewish-owned store had a large Catholic trade and they stayed loyal to my store.

 

Q: Let’s turn to the story of American City Diner.

 

JG: There had been a business on this spot, but it vacated the premises.  A friend of mine, a very successful builder in Bethesda named Nathan Landau asked me to accompany him to Dallas, Texas. We went to look into opening a franchise of Blockbuster Video here for three locations. On the basis of what we worked out, we signed a lease with the landlord controlling this land, expecting to make similar arrangements in nearby Virginia and Maryland. Blockbuster then limited their offer to only one store, a deal breaker for us.

 

Meanwhile, I had already signed the lease for the land. I then had to develop the property in an unexpected way. A vision came to me out of the blue—to bring a 1950s diner down here to Washington, D.C., an authentic diner. I did some research, locating the Kullman Manufacturing Company and Coleman Industries. I contacted them; they said they hadn’t made a diner since 1952. The new concept was bricks and mortar and stones, but I insisted on the old style. The response was to check with older staff to see if there were anyone still on the payroll who could remember how to build a 1940s diner. So I had it built in 1988. They did a terrific job. When you build any building in the District, it has to be inspected by the government. The inspectors traveled to New Jersey to consult with the builders. Upon their return we were told that as long as the structure was as good as the one in New Jersey, they wouldn’t need to inspect ours. That’s how strong and solid it was.

 

There was some controversy associated with the project. Some Chevy Chase residents spoke out against it.

 

Q: Why did they object?

 

JG: It was hard to fathom. In their mind they didn’t want to see a diner. Why? They preferred barren ground, I guess. One expressed the opinion that a diner would be inappropriate for Connecticut Avenue. The bottom line was that the diner was zoned properly and built properly. When American City Diner opened it won accolades from major media outlets like CNN. 

 

A related controversy developed about the billboard signage. The same citizens who objected to the diner’s existence objected to the signage. We went to court over the mural and I won. It was on the building plan—a mural with the message “there’s no way like the American way.” We have been here ever since, attracting people from all over the city.

 

Chevy Chase has changed considerably since the 1950s and 1960s. Many young families moved in—from an older, gentrified neighborhood to a young, affluent neighborhood with parents happy to raise their children in this environment.

 

Q: I have known of American City Diner for many years and have enjoyed the customer experience. Tell us what some of the highlights are in the development of your concept for American City Diner and your interaction with the community, once it was a going concern.

 

JG: We did more business in this diner than anyplace in the city. That’s attributable to its warm, inviting flavor. People are happy when they come here. They like the people who work at the diner. There is rock ‘n roll music from the ‘50s. We have always been portrayed as a warm place to go for good home cooking. People admire the unpretentious ambiance. I have been here happily for 28 years.

 

Q: I can’t remember when you put in the movies.

 

JG: We did that when the Avalon Theater closed temporarily in 2003, so we were void of any movies in the neighborhood. It was the entrepreneurial spirit that led me to meet a need. We only show old movies, in keeping with the diner’s identity, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. This feature has gone very well over a decade after it was started.

 

Q: So, what are some of your movie favorites you like to show in the movie room?

 

JG: I like To Kill a Mockingbird. Another favorite is In the Heat of the Night. I like the Sinatra films as well. But everyone has different tastes, so we show a wide variety of titles.

 

Q: I think you showed Casablanca a few times…

 

JG: That’s right. That’s a good one.

 

Q: Say something about your staff.

 

JG: Some of my staff has been with me since the day I opened. The cooks have been with me a very long time. They are the foundation. The staff is very conscientious, very loyal, very dedicated. Like most restaurants, there is turnover among the waiters and waitresses. Some are in school, in college. The job works for them at a certain stage of life. Others have been with us much longer.

 

Q: How would you characterize your clientele? Who are they?

 

JG: It’s a variety. Demographically, customers come from all parts of the city. Many are out-of-towners. There are always new faces. Diverse backgrounds: many media people, students, the working population, public servants, business people, many families with kids, multi-millionaires, it’s a mix. And we have a set of regular customers as well.

 

Q: No one is around forever. What happens to the American City Diner next?

 

JG: We will keep it in the family. I’m not married and have no kids, but I have nephews and nieces.

 

Q: Anyone would be lucky to have it. The Diner has become an institution in Chevy Chase.

 

JG: It has become an institution.

 

Q: Just so, but what sort of institution? A meeting place for people from across the city? You became politically active. Would you describe ACD at least partly in those terms? Any vignettes to share?

 

JG: Eydie Gormé has come by, as have Sammy Cahn, who wrote lyrics for Frank Sinatra, and Brooke Shields. Local media personalities are among our patrons as well. It’s better to leave the vignettes to them, really.

 

Q: Marion Barry. You have a connection to the “mayor for life”. Tell us a little about that.

 

JG: I knew him from the years he worked for PRIDE, then on the school board, then on the City Council. He was very pro-business. He did a lot for the city economically. He had a liking for me; had a lot of confidence in me. He made me boxing commissioner; later I served as his campaign finance manager for his fourth run.

 

Q: What was the chemistry between you?

 

JG: I liked him; he liked me. We were friends at a certain point. Sometimes we went fishing together. He was the only mayor in the country who was able to pass a law through the city council guaranteeing that 37% of city contracts would go to minorities. That was a big step to raise up the black and Hispanic communities, both economically and morally. He did a lot for the city. 

 

Q: Where did you go fishing?

 

JG: In Chesapeake Bay off Annapolis.

 

Q: What else would you like to tell us about your experience in Chevy Chase? What kind of community do you think it is?

 

JG: Chevy Chase is a wonderful community. I couldn’t imagine a better environment in which to live and work.

 

Q: What makes it that way?

 

JG: The people are nice, warm, tolerant, open, and interesting.

 

Q: Every place also has problems and challenges. Where do you see Chevy Chase’s?

JG: No real problems. There are always differences of opinion. Like any business, we needed to apply for variances – for example for parking, for a sidewalk café. You need to go through the neighborhood commission (ANC). Not everyone favors a sidewalk café, others do. Some would rather we didn’t serve wine. But it’s all part of the democratic process of the city. That’s why we have neighborhood commissions. When I was across the street it was frustrating to try to arrange for customer parking. In the end, most of what we proposed has been approved.

 

Q: Is there anything you would like to add before we conclude?

JG: Let me again refer you to my forthcoming book about growing up in Washington, D.C., City Ties: A Washington DC Story. What makes this book noteworthy is that it offers contemporary insight into our city from the perspective of Washingtonians themselves and what they have contributed to the city.

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