Occidental

Occidental has been a staple on Pennsylvania Avenue for over a century, yet both its image and menu have yet to get old.

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Opened in 1906, Occidental has been the location of many political celebrity sightings, as well as many important meetings. In the early 1960s the restaurant played host to John Scali, an ABC reporter, and the counselor of the Soviet embassy, Alexander Fomin.

The basis of this meeting, an exchange of papers regarding Russia’s willingness to make a deal in regard to the Cuban Missile Crisis, is regarded as the reason “the threat of nuclear war was avoided.”

There are many stories similar to this one. To remember these important events the walls of the restaurant are lined with the photographs of the most important guests, including several former presidents and legislators. As to be expected there are now too many to hang and some must remain in storage.

Considering its long history, it is no surprise that tourists and businessmen alike find themselves still drawn to the restaurant.

However, it is not only the story that makes Occidental so great, but the food as well.

After an extensive renovation in 2007 in honor of their centennial, Executive Chef Rodney Scruggs decided that the restaurant needed to go in a slightly different direction. He believed that people thought the restaurant was too formal.

Due to this they renamed the restaurant Occidental Grill and Seafood, highlighting the diversity of the menu and making it sound more approachable.

However, not all was changed after the renovation. They kept the favorites such as the Cobb and Caesar salads but added twists.

The new menu also placed more emphasis on the sandwiches and the grill items.

Scruggs said that he kept about 30 percent of the old items, and the other 70 percent were chosen with the history of the space in mind.

The menu has grown about 30 percent since the reopening. While this was hard for the kitchen staff to adjust to, Scruggs said that “now it’s working really well, because we really have something for everyone.”

Tradition in no way hinders the menu, as the environment tends to speak for itself, leaving a little breathing room when it comes to the food. Understandably so, though, Scruggs doesn’t stray too far from tradition.

“We try to keep the menu simple and understandable,” he said. “It’s not so old that people cannot understand it, but it’s so new where it’s hip and trendy. I kind of fall right in the middle.”

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Scruggs describes the menu as “old school meets new school.”

 It would seem that all of the new, trendy spaces opening in the area would be considered serious competition for such an old establishment that places a large focus on tradition, but he disagrees.

“There’s no such thing as bad competition and I think competition is what makes you better, but it’s not competition, because one of the things I feel is that we have our own niche,” he said. “When people come down to this corner, and [stay] at one of these three hotels they come to us or go to them and get very different meals.”

The only concern with all of the new restaurants is business, but the more restaurants open, busier Occidental gets because of all of its options.

“People are coming here again and saying, ‘Oh wow, I forgot about that, that was so good,’” Scruggs said.

It doesn’t hurt that they’re only a block or so away from the White House either, therefore always drawing in a diverse crowd.

“We’re the A through Z crowd. We see everyone here,” he said. “From lawyers to the college football jersey, everyone has a great experience from when they enter to the time they leave.”

Scruggs said that the Occidental is not the neighborhood restaurant where you see similar faces on a daily basis. “You’re always seeing different people, but the people that have always been here, the lunch people, are still here,” Scruggs said, proving that tradition can be  maintained, even after change.