Col­or­ful owner of Amer­i­can City Diner

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

Jeffrey Gilden­horn, the owner of a pop­u­lar diner in Wash­ing­ton’s Chevy Chase neigh­bor­hood, who also served as the city’s box­ing com­mis­sioner and had an un­suc­cess­ful cam­paign for mayor, promis­ing to le­gal­ize pros­ti­tu­tion, died June 28. He was 74.

Mr. Gilden­horn, who had dif­fi­culty swal­low­ing be­cause of Parkin­son’s dis­ease, had a chok­ing episode at a down­town res­tau­rant, said his brother, Harry S. Gilden­horn. He was taken to Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal, where he was pro­nounced dead.

Mr. Gilden­horn was a life­long Wash­ing­to­nian who, over a 50year pe­riod, op­er­ated no fewer than six busi­nesses along a sin­gle block of Con­necti­cut Av­enue NW, just south of Chevy Chase Cir­cle.

In 1965, he took over Cir­cle Liquors, which had been founded by his grand­fa­ther in 1939. He later opened the Fish­ery res­tau­rant and mar­ket and Rossini’s, an Ital­ian res­tau­rant with an at­tached gourmet store. In 1988, he launched Amer­i­can City Diner.

“A vi­sion came to me out of the blue — to bring a 1950s diner down here to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., an au­then­tic diner,” Mr. Gilden­horn said in a 2015 oral his­tory in­ter­view with the group His­toric Chevy Chase DC.

He found a diner man­u­fac­turer in New Jersey and com­mis­sioned the com­pany’s first new stain­less steel con­struc­tion since 1952. Mr. Gilden­horn’s throw­back res­tau­rant, with its all-day break­fast menu, milk­shakes and meat­loaf, along with a juke­box play­ing hits from the ’50s, be­came a neigh­bor­hood in­sti­tu­tion.

It also be­came a gath­er­ing place for mem­bers of the Dis­trict’s po­lit­i­cal and jour­nal­is­tic elite. En­ter­tain­ers, may­ors and at least one sec­re­tary of state vis­ited the res­tau­rant, where Mr. Gilden­horn of­ten held court.

Among the many signs at the diner was one that read, “If you don’t like the way I do things, buy me out!”

Mr. Gilden­horn made Amer­i­can City Diner the head­quar­ters of his for­ays into lo­cal pol­i­tics and sports. In 1989, he led an ef­fort to buy the At­lanta Braves baseball team and re­lo­cate it to Wash­ing­ton. With the back­ing of a deep-pock­eted silent part­ner (never for­mally iden­ti­fied), Mr. Gilden­horn of­fered Braves owner Ted Turner up to $80 mil­lion for the team.

“I want to make this the chal­lenge of my life,” Mr. Gilden­horn told The Wash­ing­ton Post at the time. “I’m a na­tive Wash­ing­to­nian, and in the old days of Grif­fith Sta­dium my fa­ther had sea­son tick­ets that were so close we could touch the um­pires and talk to the ballplay­ers. I in­tend to pur­sue this thing all the way.” The of­fer was turned down. Mr. Gilden­horn, a long­time Demo­cratic ac­tivist, was also a friend of the late Marion Barry, who was elected D.C. mayor for the first time in 1978. In the 1980s, the mayor ap­pointed Mr. Gilden­horn to the D.C. Box­ing and Wrestling Com­mis­sion, which he later chaired.

In 1993, Mr. Gilden­horn was in­stru­men­tal in bring­ing two world cham­pi­onship fights to Robert F. Kennedy Sta­dium — the first world ti­tle bouts to be con­tested in Wash­ing­ton in decades.

When Barry ran for a fourth term in 1990, Mr. Gilden­horn was one of the mayor’s top cam­paign of­fi­cials, but the re­elec­tion ef­fort ran aground af­ter the mayor was ar­rested while smok­ing crack co­caine in a Wash­ing­ton ho­tel room.

By the time Barry won re­elec­tion in 1994, he and Mr. Gilden­horn had parted ways. Declar­ing that the Dis­trict needed a busi­ness­man to lead the gov­ern­ment, Mr. Gilden­horn in­vested $200,000 of his own money in a quixotic race for mayor in 1998.

One of his chief cam­paign pledges was to le­gal­ize pros­ti­tu­tion, on the grounds that polic­ing it was a waste of time. He rec­om­mended the es­tab­lish­ment of le­gal broth­els as new sources of tax rev­enue.

“I’m tak­ing a log­i­cal, re­al­is­tic ap­proach to solv­ing a ma­jor prob­lem that other can­di­dates shy away from,” he said at the time. “I haven’t got­ten one neg­a­tive. I haven’t had one per­son come and say, ‘How dare you?’ ”

Mr. Gilden­horn lost in the Demo­cratic pri­mary, but he also made news as the only may­oral can­di­date who pub­licly con­trib­uted to the cam­paign of one of his op­po­nents — a $500 do­na­tion to the even­tual win­ner, An­thony A. Wil­liams.

Jeffrey Nel­son Gilden­horn was born Jan. 27, 1943, in Wash­ing­ton. His fa­ther was born in Poland and came to Wash­ing­ton with his fam­ily in the 1920s.

The younger Mr. Gilden­horn was a grad­u­ate of Coolidge High School and, af­ter a prepara­tory year at the pri­vate Bullis School, en­tered Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. Af­ter his fa­ther died in 1965, Mr. Gilden­horn left col­lege to take over man­age­ment of the liquor store.

He had a flair for the dra­matic and, in the 1980s, wrote a cou­ple of screen­plays that were never pro­duced. One of them, called “Jeffrey’s Block,” was a farce about the owner of sev­eral restau­rants who was con­stantly sneak­ing through kitchens and back al­leys while en­ter­tain­ing a dif­fer­ent woman at each es­tab­lish­ment.

Mr. Gilden­horn was never mar­ried. Sur­vivors in­clude his brother, of Rockville, Md.

Mr. Gilden­horn was a mem­ber of B’nai Is­rael con­gre­ga­tion in Wash­ing­ton and many civic groups.

In 2003, af­ter a nearby movie the­ater closed, Mr. Gilden­horn be­gan screen­ing clas­sic movies free at his diner. One sign he posted read, “Not just a res­tau­rant but a way of life.”

Through­out the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Mr. Gilden­horn used an out­door sign at his diner as a chang­ing bill­board to lam­baste the Repub­li­can can­di­date, with such slo­gans as “Humpty Trumpty will have a good fall.”

Other signs Mr. Gilden­horn posted in­cluded one re­fer­ring to his short-lived po­lit­i­cal ca­reer: “I may not have been elected mayor, but I’m still serv­ing the peo­ple.”

JOHN C. GAROFALO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Mr. Gilden­horn ran for D.C. mayor in 1998 pledg­ing to le­gal­ize pros­ti­tu­tion as a mat­ter of prag­ma­tism. By then, his res­tau­rant near Chevy Chase Cir­cle had been open 10 years.

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