The order of presidential succession and official protocol list notwithstanding, the Washington Post once figured, only half-facetiously, that the “second most powerful” man in town is a Marseilles-born former British Embassy dishwasher. Paul Delisle is his name, and he is now maître d’ at the chic Sans Souci restaurant and, thus, arbiter of who occupies the 32 tables at the public place to be seen at lunch (for those still wanting to be) in subdued post-Watergate Washington.
A father does not, as columnist Art Buchwald suggested, actually have to register a son for a banquette at birth the way a family assures admission to certain schools. But, except for a chosen few Very Important Patrons with permanent places, like Buchwald himself, reservations must be made up to a week in advance. Nobody outranks Delisle’s rules of the house. Bianca and Mick Jagger were barred when they came unexpectedly, and he was tieless. Ethel Kennedy has been trying for five years to get Paul to stock hot-fudge sauce (“It will be the guillotine unless you have it next time,” she keeps saying), but he keeps forgetting and she keeps coming back anyway. So do Senators George McGovern and Russell Long; pundits James Reston and Stewart Alsop; the journalistic hotspurs like Jack Anderson and Sally Quinn; and, whenever they are in town, Frank Sinatra, Shirley Temple Black and China envoy David Bruce. Since the Sans Souci is a cherrystone’s throw from the White House, other customers include the Nixon daughters and Ron Ziegler.
Henry Kissinger was another favorite, one of the very few Sans Souci patrons who ever got delivery service and who used to take business calls in the privacy of the kitchen. “He has only been in two or three times since he became Secretary of State,” Paul laments. “Now he has his own dining room.” Delisle also feels sentimental about a few habitués no longer regulars since Watergate. When Jeb Magruder phoned to see if he were still grata, Paul responded, “Of course, Mr. Magruder. You still belong to Sans Souci.”
The restaurant name translates “care free,” but it is in fact Delisle’s punctilious care of his clientele that has established the Sans Souci in its ten-year history. Most critical is the table chart, which he starts drafting on a yellow legal pad the night before and often revises 15 times before the lunch is over so as “not to seat people next to the wrong people. I never know who is coming with whom so I have to move people around.” (Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News has said newsmen bring impressionable junior bureaucrats because “When you take them there, hell, they think they have to bring a secret document.”) Though tables are well spaced, it would never do to juxtapose CBS’s Dan Rather with, say, the White House’s Pat Buchanan. Similarly, in the last days of his vice-presidency, Agnew people were kept well distant from Nixon aides. To keep au courant with any flash feuds, Delisle meticulously reads both Washington papers, the newsmagazines, the monthly Washingtonian, and listens to the radio news while commuting back and forth from Arlington, Va.
When the last cordial is served around 3 p.m., he goes home for his own lunch, cooked by his wife who is also French, then walks his poodles and naps briefly before returning to host dinner. “We live very plainly,” he observes in his still heavy accent, “not very sophisticated. We are ordinary people from small families in France.” Paul, 48, came to the States in 1954 and is now an American citizen. His real name is Jean Baptiste Delisle, but when he got his first job, the head-waiter said, “There are already too many Jeans. Your name will be Paul.”
For all his vaunted power, Paul is not the intimidating sort of Continental maître d’ contemptuous of unknowns. Even tourists are treated as equals if their reservations are in order, if they look like they can afford the tab (lunch entrees begin at $3.50, dinner at $7.50) and if they check their cameras and refrain from table-hopping for autographs. The outlanders Delisle has no patience with are a few lobbyists and New Yorkers who think they can bribe their way into his bistro. “I don’t sell my tables,” he says. “I tell them, ‘In Washington, we are very provincial. We don’t work for money. We work for pleasure.’ ”