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Lynne Breaux - Restaurant Royalty - eat Washington

December 5, 2008

eat Washington (Tuesday, December 2 , 2008)
By: Julia Watson

Lynne Breaux’s office feels like a happy place to work. With funny food-reference stickers and ornaments, its waiting area gives the impression of the cosy welcome lobby of a slightly dilapidated bed-and-breakfast establishment run by a warm-hearted and enthusiastic owner. As she sails through it to her office at the end, she introduces the visitor to the tiny, and smiling, staff of RAMW. That’s the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington that represents over 500 restaurants and bars in Washington, DC, the City of Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Prince William County. From 1992 she’s been on its board, and its president since 2001.

The name may sound stuffy. But its mission, since it was formed in 1920, has been, in her words, to fight "for the right to eat, drink and be merry, hospitably, responsibly and profitably." She’s full of good – and often irreverent - sound bites like that. An extremely glamorous woman who was
once a model, she watches you closely through her fashionably letter-box shaped glasses when she lobs you one, eyes twinkling and ready to laugh with you if the sound bite was deliberately caustic.

Breaux knows intimately how to eat, drink and be merry and hospitable. For 13 years till the lease was up and she thought she’d “chill awhile”, she owned and ran Tunnicliff’s Tavern on Capitol Hill opposite the Eastern Market, serving up food and a party spirit with the flair and verve of New Orleans where she comes from. But it would be a foolish legislator who took her lightly. She’s been in the hospitality industry from her very first job out of Louisiana State University - duty manager at the New Orleans Hotel where she worked her way up to catering manager. She came to the capital in 1985 to join the old Jockey Club at the then Ritz Carlton on Mass Ave, followed by a job at the Madison Hotel. And she became a regular on the Hill, testifying on various legislative moves that affected the hospitality world. The first time was when there was an attempt to close Eastern Market, the result, she explains of, “Competition between the inside and outside.”

Some of the legal comings-and-goings she observes qualify for a Saturday Night Live skit. Her eyebrows shoot expressively above her spectacle rames as she describes how legislators and their staff can't accept a meal from a lobbyist unless they're seated or holding a fork. But new clarifications appear to suggest they can now mingle with advocates and lobbyists while standing - so long as there's food on a toothpick around.

Restaurants need to be filled. So she’s working hard to increase funding for the Metro and improve public transportation generally to bring more diners out to eat, and drink, and be able to get themselves home responsibly. DC's Metro system is  “phenomenal”, she says, and key to the
success of downtown restaurants. With restaurants, she points out, comes urban growth, like the development that’s occurred around U Street. “It was started by restaurants.”

Breaux got behind the RAMW to work in conjunction with partners like the city, Destination DC, and a coalition of businesses to launch Restaurant Week in the capital. The whole venture could have died. “The first Restaurant Week was three weeks after 9/11. But Mayor Williams went out to
dinner with the President,” and the publicity jump-started the project. The RAMW has taken the ball and run with it ever since. It's also boosted the Annual RAMMY awards, turning the Washington restaurant scene’s coveted equivalent of the Oscars, launched in 1982, into a dazzling Gala event where chefs, managers, barristas and waitstaff get their moment in the limelight. (Perhaps there should be a one-off RAMMY for director Michael Kahn for stimulating the development of 7th Street restaurants when he relocated the Shakespeare Theatre there.) Now she's working to get the enterprise zone reinstated and improve tax credits for small businesses. She wants to develop the RAMW as a platform for garnering respect for the industry. Having run her own restaurant for years, she knows it’s a tough goal. She cites impressionist Henri Matisse’s determination never to let anyone suspect the labor it cost to make his work have "the lightness and joyousness of a springtime", saying, “It’s very difficult to make things look easy.”

In at the birth of Washington’s restaurant development, she’s an astute analyst of capital trends in dining.  On a previous meeting she told me, “Fine dining isn’t necessarily formal now. We can’t use the term ‘white tablecloth’ any more because many of the restaurants aren’t. Upscale
Casual [a recently introduced category in the RAMMY awards] covers a change in approach both to food and attire. People want to dress more casually but to eat well.”

Given the field she works in, it’s astonishing she’s not the size of a house. She and her husband eat out five or six times a week. “I do a lot of drive bys,” she says of the drop-in visits she has to make to the regular food public relations events that occur in town. But she rides a stationary bike at the gym she visits almost daily to keep her weight in check.

Would she open another restaurant of her own? “Normally I answer No,” she says. “But one never really knows.”

Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. Read her blog Lynne's Lounge at the RAMW website.