In Washington and Georgetown, when you think of Clyde’s, the mother ship of an array of eateries that have starred in the D.C.-area restaurant firmament for some 55 years, you think of a lot of things.
You might think of the star power of a Washington restaurant scene that included the late Stuart Davidson, who looked at the original site on M Street, then occupied by a biker bar, saw something on the order of New York class and glitz and called it Clyde’s. The rest is a lot of history.
You might think of the early days of Clyde’s, its back bar and omelet room and fabled bartenders. It quickly became a Georgetown and Washington institution, expanded its base with the acquisition of 1789, the Tombs and F. Scott’s — acquired from a man of similar Gatsby-like tastes, Richard McCooey — and, still locally, added the downtown Old Ebbitt Grill. Clyde’s restaurants popped up all over the region, in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia.
Davidson did something else critically important. He hired John Laytham, an aspiring foreign service student at Georgetown University and a restaurant buff, as a busboy, then made him a bartender during Clyde’s brunch hours.
When you’re thinking about Clyde’s these days, that’s who you should be thinking about: John Laytham, who rose to become chief executive officer and co-owner of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group.
Laytham passed away at Washington Hospital Center on Jan. 3 at the age of 74. He had been ailing for some time with a long-standing heart condition.
“John was a giant of a man and a lion in the industry. His fingerprints will forever be visible throughout the restaurant scene, and on the countless lives he’s impacted,” said Tom Meyer, president of Clyde’s Restaurant Group. “I count myself among the many lucky enough to call him a boss, a friend, mentor and father-figure.”
Laytham didn’t just have good luck on his side. He met his wife, Ginger, in 1976 (where else but Clyde’s?) and she became a key figure and a leader in the enterprise. He also had vision, curiosity and a head full of ideas and concepts.
Davidson saw that and made him a partner in 1968. The rise of Clyde’s as a regional force could be traced to that period.
There were probably more charismatic restaurant leaders around — more flamboyant souls like Davidson and McCooey, as well as Howard Joynt of Nathans and Michael O’Harro of Tramps and Champions, to name some Georgetown notables — but in the arena of vision, ideas and concept, few could match Laytham. He saw in every Clyde’s blueprint a fresh place, a unique place, non-replicated anywhere else, each reflecting its particular surroundings.
Laytham was soft-spoken and cerebral, as well as affable and accessible, but he was more of a builder, not in physical terms but as a man who drew up plans that were originals in and of themselves.
You always knew where you were when you were in a particular Clyde’s. The Old Ebbitt Grill reflected the business and energy of the nation, the political dealmaking, and wouldn’t fit in the space occupied by the original Clyde’s in Georgetown. The Chevy Chase Clyde’s — made unique by designer McCooey, with an art deco taste shared by Laytham himself — is part of the gateway to Chevy Chase.
Then there’s the Hamilton, a top-drawer restaurant in downtown D.C. near the White House, which also features a variety of emerging and nationally recognized musical acts in a brightly polished setting.
Laytham’s success is reflected in the type of employees he attracted — knowledgeable, efficient, filled with creativity, curiosity and inventiveness. Such a list includes Meyer, COO John McDonnell and, of course, Ginger Laytham, a leading presence and a link to the communities which the Clyde’s group serves. Sally Davidson, widow of the founder, is chairman of the board.
His accomplishments were also recognized in the restaurant community. Laytham received the Duke Zeibert Lifetime Achievement Award from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and was named Restaurateur of Year by the Restaurant Association of Maryland and by Washingtonian magazine. In addition, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgetown Business Association, of which he was a co-founder and a former vice president.
He believed as a principle that “business is uniquely qualified to supply a support system for the next generation, for those young people who stand at the gap between ambition and achievement.”
When you go to a Clyde’s restaurant, you think of a lot of things. Next time you go, drink your favorite drink, eat your favorite food, then raise a glass and think of John Laytham.