Renowned restaurateur Richard J. McCooey — founder of the 1789 Restaurant, the Tombs and F. Scott’s — died Aug. 6 at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut. He was 83 years old and suffered from cancer.
McCooey and his wife Karen lived in Washington, D.C.
McCooey graduated from Georgetown University in 1952 and had the idea of a formal restaurant and student rathskeller for the school, while he was a college student. In 1962, that dream was realized when 1789 and the Tombs opened. “I always wanted to open a restaurant near Georgetown University since my freshman year there,” McCooey told the Georgetowner a few years ago.
At the corner of 36th and Prospect Streets, the iconic Georgetown restaurants are also next to F. Scott’s, which McCooey opened in 1976, after operating the 89 Market briefly in that space. F. Scott’s remains open for private parties only. McCooey sold his restaurants to Clyde’s Restaurant Group in 1985.
McCooey collected art since college and worked with Clyde’s John Laytham in art and collectibles for many of Clyde’s restaurants. Opening Persona Studios after selling 1789, Inc., McCooey and his wife Karen helped to design restaurants — including several Clyde’s around the area as well as Union Street Cafe in Alexandria, Va., the Polo Club at the Marriott Grand Aurora Hotel in Moscow, Russia, and others.
Born Oct. 14, 1930, in New York City, McCooey was the third of four brothers, the fourth being his twin. After his father died and his mother later remarried, the family moved from Brooklyn to Bronxville, N.Y. McCooey attended Brooklyn Prep and then Iona Prep. After Georgetown University, he was a lieutenant in the Air Force. After his service, McCooey worked in the advertising world. It was then that he decided to sink almost all his money into creating and maintaining 1789 and the Tombs, when he received support from the university which owns the land. In 1990, he married Karen Magnier McCooey at Holy Trinity Church, which stands one block from 1789 on 36th Street.
By the way, if anyone asks, why the name “1789”? That was the year the federal government was established, Georgetown University founded and Georgetown, Md., incorporated. And “The Tombs”? Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” In it, “Bustopher Jones, The Cat About Town” likes to lunch at the tomb. (It is a reference to McCooey’s nickname in the Air Force: “Bustopher Cat.”) As for the now private club, F. Scott’s, it is named after author F. Scott Fitzgerald, a distant cousin of Francis Scott Key, a Georgetowner who authored the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Before McCooey made his archetypes of a student pub and faculty club a reality, he had to convince Georgetown residents that his plan made sense for the community as well. At first, there was opposition to his proposals. When the Georgetowner’s founder and publisher Ami Stewart stood up at a citizen’s meeting to back McCooey, the tide turned. Two restaurants that epitomize Georgetown were born — one portrayed in film and the other visited by President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in June 2011. McCooey never forgot Stewart’s support and towards the end of her life would regularly send waiters to her home with meals from his restaurant.
A funeral mass for Richard McCooey will be held in September at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown.