OK, so your relatives and college classmates from Indiana, Iowa and Idaho are coming to town and you want to impress them by showing them something other than the usual tourist attractions. Besides, the cherry blossoms are gone, the Capitol Visitors Center isn’t open yet and anybody can see the White House, the Washington Monument and Arlington National Cemetery. So why not show them where Washington’s movers and shakers eat and drink?
There are hundreds of places to choose from in a town where the average annual household expenditure for food away from home was $2,912 in 2005, the latest year figures were available — well ahead of the national average of $2,634, according to the National Restaurant Association. The places range from the ubiquitous fast food joints to moderately priced ethnic restaurants to upscale white-tablecloth eateries to sleek expense-account steakhouses, showy seafood emporia and gastronomic shrines of celebrity chefs whose prices will explain why Congress had to pass strict new gift spending limits.
But you want something your visitors won’t find in Indianapolis, Ida Grove or Idaho Falls, so here are a baker’s dozen of my top choices for entertaining out-of-towners, based on more than 10 years of reviewing restaurants in the D.C. metropolitan area. Most are easily accessible via the Metro. (You can look up my reviews of these restaurants on The Hill’s website www.thehill.com under “Food & Drink.”)
I should point out that at least a quarter of the restaurants I’ve reviewed have succumbed to changing tastes, rising food and real estate prices and a highly competitive market, not to mention gift limits and anti-smoking laws. But the ones that have survived and prospered, along with some truly impressive newcomers, have made Washington one of America’s best dining-out towns, only a step or two behind New York, Chicago, pre-Katrina New Orleans and San Francisco.
Let’s start at an unlikely place, the U.S. Capitol, one of the nerve centers of Washington on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. There are decent cafeterias in most of the House and Senate office buildings, and a plethora of good restaurants within walking distance on either side of the Hill, but you can’t do better, in terms of impressing visiting firemen, than the Senate Dining Room in the Capitol.
You’ll rub shoulders with at least a half-dozen senators when Congress is in session, some of whom are running for president, as they dine with staffers, constituents or lobbyists, or all three. The trick is to have someone with Capitol credentials take you — and you don’t even need that after 1 p.m. Better yet, get Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyJeff Sessions will protect life Justice, FBI to be investigated over Clinton probes Pence meets with Kaine, Manchin amid Capitol Hill visit MORE (R-Iowa) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who are regulars, to invite you to lunch. Either way, the food is delicious — with specialties from different states on the menu each week. The subsidized prices are downright cheap and the power quotient is intoxicating.
(You can also impress lawyer friends by taking them to the headquarters of the other branch of government located on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Supreme Court, where you can eat at its cafeteria and snack bar. If you’re there for breakfast, you’ll probably spot a couple of justices, maybe even Chief Justice John Roberts.)
At the foot of Capitol Hill are two more can’t-fail-to-impress choices, which we’ll count as one: Charlie Palmer Steak at 101 Constitution Ave. N.W. and the Capital Grille at 601 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. Take your visitors, and lots of money, to either or both. There’s a good chance you’ll sit next to a senator or congressman, key staffer or influential lobbyist. Better yet, try to wrangle an invitation to one of the many receptions on the rooftop at 101 Constitution with the magnificent view of the Capitol. The Capital Grille, which opened when The Hill began publication in 1994, is one of my all-time favorites. Tell General Manager Bill Butler I sent you and maybe you’ll get a free drink.
From the Capital Grille, head toward the U.S. Navy Memorial at 701 Pennsylvania and the restaurant by the same name, one of five in Ashok Bajaj’s culinary empire. The India native also owns the Oval Room and the Bombay Club near the White House, and Bardeo in upper Northwest, and recently opened Rasika, an Indian restaurant around the corner at 601 D St. N.W. Count all five as one, as I like all of them, especially 701, Rasika, and the Bombay Club for its great Indian food and Raj-like elegant atmosphere.
(From 701, walk across the square to 801 Pennsylvania, and demonstrate your knowledge of Washington scandals by telling your visitors how it used to be Signatures, where disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff comp’d meals for now-deposed members of Congress like Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), and gave away $180,000 in food and drink during 2002 and 2003. It’s now a seafood restaurant called d’Aqua, and I’ve heard good things about it, but haven’t eaten there yet.)
A little farther down Pennsylvania, just beyond the hulking J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building with its brutal Mussolini Modern architectural style, is another sure-to-impress restaurant, Ten Penh at 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. Not satisfied with showcasing food from America’s three coastal regions at D.C. Coast at 14th and K Streets, and Caribbean cuisine at Ceiba at 701 14th St. N.W., Chef Jeff Tunks and co-owners Gus DiMillo and David Weizenberg extended their reach to the Pacific Basin with authentic Asian décor and wonderful pan-Asian cuisine.
Now, in alphabetical order, the rest of my deluxe D.C. baker’s dozen plus one:
This 15-year-old Euro-chic Italian import is Georgetown’s trendiest restaurant, usually packed, especially with the late-night crowd of celebrities and celebrity watchers. It’s definitely ‘la dolce vita,’ but it takes food seriously, and it’s hard to get a bad meal. Try any of the pastas or fabulous salads with a good Italian wine, and try not to stare at Michael Jordan or Chelsea Clinton and her parents.
For my money, or rather my newspaper’s money, this is the best restaurant in Washington, thanks largely to boyish Chef Eric Ziebold, who trained at Napa Valley’s legendary French Laundry. Located in the smart new Mandarin Oriental in the Portals area next the Maine Avenue waterfront, CityZen is beautiful and beguiling, and you can watch Chef Ziebold and his crew at work in the open kitchen. Don’t look at the prices; just enjoy the wonderful food, which is why I gave it my highest rating ever in 2005.
Lafayette Restaurant at the Hay-Adams
In the historic hotel with the choicest location in town, enjoy an inspiring view of the White House at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Executive Chef Peter Schaffrath serves up palate-pleasing specialties like the seafood Cobb salad in this beautifully restored dining room, part of an $18 million makeover on the hotel’s 75th anniversary in 2002. And there’s a good chance you’ll be dining with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney or U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue, but they won’t be sitting together.
Loeb’s Perfect New York Deli Restaurant
Founder Walter Loeb and his wife Sigrid are gone now, 47 years after they founded this McPherson Square institution. The Loebs’ three children, David, Marline and Steve, now run it, careful to keep up to their late parents’ high standards. You won’t find better corned beef or pastrami sandwiches, or any other Jewish specialties, in D.C. — or New York, for that matter. Just ask the New York Times’s Bill Safire, who eats there most every Tuesday.
It looks like an Art Deco 1930s ocean liner and is a “piscatorial paradise,” as I wrote in May 2005. Oceanaire is based in landlocked Minnesota but can hold its own and then some with the best seafood that Washington, Baltimore or the Eastern Shore have to offer with 25 varieties of “fresh today” seafood flown in daily. The crispy fried, whole Arctic char is probably the best fish I’ve ever tasted. Save room for the decadent, gargantuan desserts.
It’s located in a nondescript shopping center in Falls Church, Va., and its décor is straight out of a Fu Manchu movie, but this family-run restaurant serves up some of the best Chinese food in town. Don’t take my word for it; take that of former President Bush and his son and their families, regulars patrons for years who invariably order the five-course “Bush menu” of Peking Duck, Szechuan Beef Proper, Four Season String Beans, Juo-Yen Shrimp and Lamb Chop Peking Style.
As tempting as its name, Restaurant Eve is named after the daughter of chef-owner Cathal Armstrong and his hostess wife Meshelle. Located in the heart of Old Town Alexandria, this Michelin-class restaurant features two different dining experiences, an a la carte bistro menu and a chef’s tasting menu that allows the Irish-born Armstrong to show off his dazzling culinary skills. I gave it four-and-a-half domes 10 months after it opened in April 2005. Stop for dinner on the way back from Mount Vernon, and if you want to splurge, order a bottle of the Araujo Estates Eisele Vineyard Cabernet from a vineyard founded by a distant relative. It’ll set you back only about $300.
The Armstrongs have since opened two other restaurants in Old Town: Eamons, a fish-and-chips place, and The Majestic (formerly the Majestic Cafe) for classic comfort food.
This macho New York-style restaurant will celebrate its 35th anniversary in November. It’s noisy, expensive and showing its age, but still a favorite of the Washington political, journalistic and expense-account set, many of whom are portrayed in cartoons on the walls. Big steaks, bigger lobsters and great food with an attitude, and you can place a bet on the Kentucky Derby, the World Series, the Super Bowl or any other sporting event with your waiter. General Manager Tommy Jacomo, D.C.’s premier maitre d’, runs the joint with a firm but gentle hand.
The view is spectacular from this glass-walled restaurant with the hard-to-remember name overlooking a lake in the Virginia ’burbs just off the Capital Beltway, and so is Chef Jonathan Krinn’s sensational French-American cuisine. The impressive menu featuring many products of local farmers’ markets is bookended by breads baked fresh twice daily by Krinn’s father. Try the white truffle risotto and peppered grilled bison tenderloin and enjoy the view.
I took former KGB spymaster Oleg Kalugin and retired CIA operative Ray McGovern here to help me review this dazzling 175-seat restaurant in the International Spy Museum five years ago, and they agreed that it was a perfect place to recreate the Cold War atmosphere of intrigue and deception. But none of us had any complaints about the food, which would please James Bond and your mom.
SPECIAL SECTION: Celebration of Food and Drink
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