The Capital Grille: Nine years and counting


It might as well be part of the Capitol complex, like the Russell Senate Office Building or the Rayburn House Office Building, since you’re likely to run into almost as many members of Congress and staffers at The Capital Grille as you do on Capitol Hill. You might also run into Mick Jagger, Michael Jordan and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who have eaten here recently.

This expense-account steakhouse has become one of the great success stories on the local restaurant scene since opening its doors in November 1994. It’s established itself as Washington’s premier political watering hole and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best restaurants in town, even if you don’t like steak, or don’t eat it too often for health reasons, like me.

THOMAS BUTLER
General Manager Bill Butler in The Capital Grille’s well-stocked wine room.


Rating: 5 Domes

Food: 9 Ambiance: 9
Service: 10 Price/Value: 8

Ratings: Based on one-to-10 scale for food, service, ambiance and price/value; up to five domes based on reviewer’s judgment.

 

Part of its popularity can be explained by the old real estate saw about the importance of “location, location, location.” Situated at the foot of Capitol Hill halfway between the Capitol and downtown, near the Canadian Embassy and across from the National Gallery of Art and the Federal Trade Commission, it’s the first restaurant you pass while making your way to and from the Hill. The nighttime panoramic view of the Capitol at its front door is enough to make you want to salute, even if there wasn’t a war going on.

The other reasons are the food, service and ambiance, all of which are exceptional. The spectacular curved bar and lounge — presided over by veteran bartenders Don Barnes, Phil Jones and Tom Howard — has two TV sets and an electronic headline display, and is crowded most weeknights with well-groomed lawyers, lobbyists, staffers and assorted power-junkies.

The Capital Grille
601Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
(202) 737-6200
www.thecapitalgrille.com

HOURS: Lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.- 3 p.m.; Dinner, Mon.-Wed. and Sun., 5-10, Thurs.-Sat. 5-11. Valet parking.
Prices: Expensive: Luncheon prices average $35-45 per person; dinner $70-$80 for three courses with glass of wine, 10% D.C. tax and 15% tip.


The main dining room is furnished in dark wood paneling with soft lighting. A glassed-in wine closet displays many of the more than 300 different wines on the core list — one of the best in town — with another 200 hard-to-find wines on the Captain’s list, including the fabulous — and fabulously expensive — Araujo Eisele Vineyard cabernet from a Napa Valley vineyard once owned by a distant relative. There’s also a partially enclosed Wine Room for private parties that brings total seating to about 160.

But it’s red meat that reigns in this big, bold and beefy restaurant. The poster-sized menu is built around the haunches of prime beef hanging in a glassed-in cooler as they’re dry-aged. After 14 days in the cooler, the kitchen carves them into various cuts, like the 18-ounce Kansas City bone-in-strip that my colleague Geoff Earle ordered at lunch recently, or the 10-ounce sirloin that another colleague, Hans Nichols, tried at a separate lunch.

But the signature steak is the 26-ounce porterhouse. Nine years ago this month, I reviewed the restaurant after learning it was a favorite of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). I asked his waiter, Bill Kribben, to bring me the same thing and wrote an “Eating like Newt at The Capital Grille” review.

I invited Gingrich to join me at dinner recently, but he blew me off, so I called my friend Arthur Wu, a staff member of the House Veterans Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee, who knows his food and wine, and readily accepted.


 
thomas butler
The Capital Grille bar: A popular political watering hole for members, staffers, lobbyists and other V.I.Ps.

I felt obligated to try the porterhouse, even though inflation has raised its price to $32.95 — seven dollars more than in 1995. It was medium rare as I ordered it, and was every bit as good as I remembered it. The truth is, I find steak rather boring after a half dozen bites, but this was steak fit for a king, even if I could only finish half of it. Art had the lamb chops, three bloody rare rib chops that he pronounced superb.

Kribben is one of several waiters who have been here since day one, including Silva Lin, Cliff Horsfall and Wayne Anderson — who waited on me at lunch recently. “It’s one of things I’m most proud of, the tenure of the staff,” said Managing Partner Bill Butler, whose predecessor, Steve Fedorchak, is now Atlantic regional vice president for the parent company, Atlanta-based RARE Hospitality. There are now 15 Capital Grilles, including one at Tysons Corner, Va., with two more to open soon in Phoenix and Denver, but this one is the second busiest, doing over $8 million in volume last year.

Last week, Tom Graves, executive director of the Mid-West Electric Consumers Association, based in Denver, invited me to join him and several colleagues at dinner. Gary Williamson of Minot, N.D., and Lars Nygren of Bismarck, who know their steaks, both ordered the porterhouse and raved about it.

Executive Chef Bryan Thomas prepares most of his steaks simply, cooking them at 1,200 to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit in a drawer broiler with the heating element on top, and using Lawry’s seasoning salt. His favorite is the Delmonico, a 22-ounce bone-in cut, that he says is the most flavorful on the menu, but he describes the Kansas City steak as “awesome.”

He prepares it two ways. One is with a spicy Montreal seasoning, a mixture of salt, pepper, coriander, crushed red pepper, thyme and oregano, and topped with saut