It must have been shocking to learn she had been secretly photographed and tape-recorded, but Ms. Lewinsky might have been more shocked if she'd stayed for dinner. With appetizers averaging $14 and entrees as high as $39, The Grill is no place for low-paid government interns, even ones with special access to the Oval Office. Still, the food, service and ambiance are superb, and there's little background noise to interfere with conversations - tape-recorded or not.
Through no fault of its own, the 345-room luxury hotel has won a place on the Washington scandal tour, along with the Watergate complex, Dick Morris' Jefferson Hotel, and the Vista Hotel, where D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was videotaped smoking crack. Located midway between the Pentagon, where Tripp and Lewinsky worked and confided in each other, and the airport that Republicans want to name after President Reagan, the Ritz-Carlton has been prominently featured in news coverage of the latest White House sex scandal.
That's a touchy issue with hotel employees. When I asked the bartender in the Lobby Lounge last Friday night where Tripp and Lewinsky sat for their now-notorious tete-a-tete, he replied in a voice as icy as the martini he was mixing, "I'm sorry, sir, we have an obligation to protect the privacy of our guests."
Having fulfilled my obligation to ask questions, I proceeded to The Grill with my wife and another couple for dinner. It was early in the evening, and there were few people in the lavishly appointed dining room with its dark wood paneling and tables laden with silver and crystal. But even when the 104-seat restaurant became full, the noise level remained pleasantly low, even with a pianist playing sotto voce.
Our waiter brought us expertly prepared cocktails while we studied the menu. I was pleased to learn that one of our dinner partners, a patent lawyer, had just been deposed in a copyright suit, which seemed to set the right tone for discussing the president's legal problems.
The menu is changed twice a year, in the spring and fall, according to Executive Chef Uffe Mikkelsen, a 32-year-old native of Denmark who was preparing to take a few days off to spend with his wife and new baby daughter. Mikkelsen learned his trade in Copenhagen before coming to the Ritz-Carlton in Boston in 1986. He was executive chef at Ritz-Carlton Hotels in Washington and Tyson's Corner, Va., before coming to Pentagon City in 1995.
Mikkelsen combines continental cuisine with American regional cooking. It's when you get to the entrees that you realize this is a restaurant and a chef that take themselves seriously. The prices are as high as any this side of The Inn at Little Washington, Va.
For example, my lawyer friend had what Chef Mikkelsen considers his signature dish, the polenta lump crab cakes with sun-dried tomato, yellow corn and black beans ($34). It's a creative approach to crab cakes, but the polenta seemed to get in the way of the lump crab meat. Perhaps the lesson is that simplicity is the key to crab cakes.